Rudolfo Anaya was born in New Mexico into a large family. The family moved towns several times. Like Antonio, the protagonist of Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo was influenced by strong pagan and Catholic beliefs. The real life swimming accident which left him temporarily paralyzed is reflected in the death of Florence, Antonio’s friend while swimming. Bless Me, Ultima was rejected by several publishing houses before it was accepted by a group of Chicano publishers. It met with instant approval and went on to win several prestigious awards.
Relevance of the Title
While outwardly the title refers to Antonio’s last request to bless him before he dies, it goes beyond that. Antonio’s is conscious of Ultima’s power to effect changes; he is also influenced by formal Catholic dogma. Even as a child Antonio had moral questions about pagan beliefs and the Catholic. He tries to reconcile between the conflicting dogmas and choose a middle path that will bring him strength.
From the start, Antonio struggles to reconcile the two value systems that dominate his life. From Ultima, he gets knowledge that is rooted in nature. From the Catholic Church through his mother, he learns about Communion and Christian dogma. But often, these two are in conflict. He believes for a long time that Communion will resolve the conflict in his mind regarding moral questions. But when Communion happens, there is no resolution. Ultima teaches him that only he can answer his questions to arrive at conclusions.
Bless Me, Ultima deals with the effect of conflicting cultural traditions on identity. Most adaptable people draw on various cultural identities and forge one that is uniquely individual. That is what Antonio does. He realizes that there is no single answer to his questions. Within his family, his parents cannot agree on what they wish him to be; his mother wants him to be a priest while his father wishes him to be a vaquero. Then there are other conflicts: Spanish and indigenous traditions, pagan and Catholic culture and to a lesser extent English and Spanish languages in Antonio’s school. Antonio has to chose from among these to be at peace with himself.
Though he is just six years old, Antonio is the thoughtful and brooding protagonist of Bless me, Ultima who is given to moral questioning. Conflicting influences shape his life; he is always looking for answers to questions concerning right and wrong. By the end of the story, he learns that only he can settle these questions. From his mother he hears of the power of Communion; though he finds the ritual meaningful, it does not give him the solace that he craved. To Antonio, Ultima’s sane counsel that advices temperance and tolerance means a lot more than liturgy.
Though Ultima is feared as a witch in the community, the learning that she imparts Antonio is that all traditions have good in them. It is for the person to decide what is right for them and follow it. She practices traditional healing methods that use things that she gets from the wild. Tenorio is her enemy. He believes that she has cursed his daughters; when one dies, this belief is strengthened. He plots her death; he achieves it by first killing her owl. As the owl was her guardian spirit, she too dies soon after.
Gabriel and María Márez
These are Antonio’s parents who come from widely differing backgrounds. He is a cowboy or vaquero while she belongs to a farming family steeped in Catholic dogma. Their diverging ambitions for their son create conflict in his young mind. But they both respect and love Ultima.
This is a novel in the traditional format of a bildungsroman or coming-of-age story. At the heart of the story is six year old Antonio who even at that age is aware of the contradictions in the influences that seek to shape his world view. He is of mixed parentage; his father, a Márez, is a vaquero whose life is to roam the vast llanos of Mexico. His mother is a Luna, the people of the moon who cultivated the land and created homesteads. Antonio’s parents had diverging ambitions for their son; the father wanted him to be a vaquero while his mother dreamed of the day her son would ordained a Catholic priest. However they both love and honor Ultima, the midwife who attended Antonio’s birth. Ultima is well known for her wisdom and healing powers.
As he grows up in Ultima’s company, Antonio witnesses violence and lawlessness. He wonders about why God does not stop it. His mother promises that his first Communion will be a spiritual experience that will clear all his doubts. Ultima practices a more pagan religion that is rooted in the land. Antonio’s friend tells him about the myth of the golden carp, a god in the pantheon of Native American religion. Antonio is drawn to the story but does not know how to reconcile it with the teachings of the Catholic Church.
The evil in the town is represented by Tenorio and his daughters. The daughters have placed Antonio’s uncle under a curse from which only Ultima is able to free him. When one of his daughters dies, Tenorio vows vengeance. This hatred makes him take the life of Narciso who, though always drunk, tended a beautiful garden. Narciso who supported Ultima was trying to shield her from the murderous anger of Tenorio.
Antonio prepares for his Communion which he hopes will provide him spiritual guidance. But all around him are dissenting opinions. When the eagerly awaited Communion is over, Antonio is disappointed that it has not provided any spiritual guidance. Ultima urges him towards finding his own path to justice and goodness. She is drawn into fresh conflicts with Tenorio. When his second daughter falls ill, he vows to get Ultima even if it is the last thing he does. He realizes that there is a close bond between Ultima and her owl. Antonio’s friend Florence dies in a swimming accident. Antonio is sent by Ultima to spend the summer with his uncles in the Luna homestead. It is an idyllic summer. While coming back to his house with his father, a murderous Tenorio attempts to kill them both. They escape but Ultima’s owl dies. Soon Ultima too will die as the owl was her guardian spirit. Before dying, she makes Antonio promise to bury the owl.
Antonio feels he is Ultima’s spiritual heir. He realizes that only he can choose his moral high ground. That was her teaching. He is free to forge his own religion drawing freely from all the influences around him.