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Bless Me, Ultima

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  • Pages: 8
  • Word count: 1987
  • Category: Mythology

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Thesis: The outer and inner conflicts of the novel triggering Antonio’s maturation are built on dualities: the Lunas vs. the Marez (subtopic 1), the Catholic Church vs. the curanderismo (subtopic 2), Western culture vs. Chicano culture (subtopic 3), mythic vs. historic reality (subtopic 4).

The questions: How do conflicts determine Antonio’s coming-of-age?

Body Paragraphs:

Subtopic 1: the Lunas vs. the Marez

What critics say

The conflict provides Antonio with new understating of his destiny

Subtopic 2: the Catholic Church vs. the curanderismo

What critics say

Antonio is a priest of new generation

Subtopic 3: Western culture vs. Chicano culture

What critics say

Antonio integrates the elements of two cultures

Subtopic 4: mythic vs. historic reality

What critics say

Antonio integrates two ways of cognition


Antonio fuses all the elements together acquiring a new understating of life


Duality of Conflicts in Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima”

Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima” is considered the classical Chicano novel, the first in Anaya’s trilogy of the trials and troubles of adolescence in New Mexico. Moving in an episodic, seasonal and cyclic fashion, the novel represents Antonio’s rite of passage from innocence to knowledge and self-awareness, which occurs through a serial of inner and outer crises. Starting with Ultima’s arrival and ending with her death, the novel follows the outer and inner tribulations and conflicts stimulating Antonio’s spiritual search. Antonio struggles through dialectical conflicts, certain that he has to choose only one side but divided by his loyalties and beliefs for each. His coming-of-age is connected with the realization that he can simply fuse dualistic elements by means of love to satisfy both his inner needs and the outside influences on his life. The outer and inner conflicts of the novel triggering Antonio’s maturation are built on dualities with which Antonio must come to terms: the Luna vs. the Marez families, the Catholic Church vs. curanderismo, Western culture vs. Chicano culture, and mythic vs. historic reality.

Antonio’s spiritual search is conditioned by the burden of his family’s heritage. His mother, coming from a Catholic family of farmers, wants him to become a priest, while his father, a vaquero from the llano, dreams of Antonio being a free shepherd as well. This conflict is represented in Antonio’s dream of his birth. In this dream, Antonio’s mother’s family brings him gifts of earth – “fresh green chile and corn, ripe apples and peaches, pumpkins and green beans” (Anaya, 5), while his father’s family smashes and replaces them with “a saddle, horse blankets, bottles of whiskey, a new rope, bridles, chapas, and an old guitar” (Anaya, 5). Both families worship the earth, yet their attitudes are quite opposite. While the Marezes want to “live free upon the earth and roam over it”, the Lunas “live tied to the earth and its cycles” (Lamadrid, 498). Antonio asks Ultima: “Now we have come to live near the river, and yet near the llano. I love them both, and yet I am of neither. I wonder which life I will choose?” (Anaya, 38).

As Black suggests, Antonio’s coming-of-age is actually a process of separation from his family, yet acquiring the fusion of the two clans’ features (Black, 155 – 157). First, Antonio must separate from his mother; this what his brothers do. Though they occupy little place in the narration, they play a significant role in Antonio’s life. Feeling the pressure of their mother but preferring to follow the free life dreamt of by their father, they perceive Antonio as a scapegoat who is to embody their mother’s dreams. To Andy and Gene, “all their lives they had lived with the dreams of their father and mother haunting them….” (Anaya, 62). Gene states, “We can’t be tied down to old dreams”: (Anaya, 62). They finally leave home just as Antonio is expected to do when he grows up. However, unlike his brothers Antonio will combine “both waters” into something new instead of rejecting his heritage or choosing only one side. Gabriel summarizes the spiritual search of his son: “every man is a part of his past. He cannot escape it, but he may reform the old materials, make something new” (Anaya, 236).

The second duality Antonio has to fuse into a unity is that of Catholic faith and the native Chicano traditions. Antonio’s spiritual search begins with the Catholic Church. His innocence is soon lost, when Lupito kills the town sheriff and Antonio witnesses Lupito’s death, taking his last confession. Antonio becomes preoccupied with problems of sin and punishment, for the first time having to deal with an adult dilemma. His mother’s Catholic beliefs are confronted by the actions of the men of llano, who, as Ultima assures him, would not kill without reason. For the first time Antonio is healed by the curandera, while the message of the Act of Contrition remains obscure.

The deaths of Narciso, Florence, Tenorio’s daughters, Tenorio and Ultima, and the inability of the El Puerto priest to cure Lucas, cause Antonio to question the teachings of the Catholic Church concerning God, and good and evil. The conflict between Ultima and Tenorio, the shamanic experience, Antonio’s awareness of his brothers’ sins, Father Byrnes’s unjust punishment of Florence, the disappointment at Communion, and the realization of the nature of confession all force Antonio to reconsider his perception of the world. He is initiated into the art of curanderismo by assisting Ultima in her healing practices and is introduced to the tradition of the golden carp. As he sees the golden carp he experiences a moment of revelation: “This is what I had expected God to do at my first holy communion! If God was witness to my beholding of the golden carp then I had sinned!” (Anaya, 105).

Disappointed with the Catholic religion, Antonio still remains a kind of a priest, yet one his people are not ready to follow. Antonio, in his dream, cries out to Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” (Anaya, 233). No separate view can provide him with answers and this is why Antonio combines different perspectives within his heart. Slowly, Antonio becomes “a man of learning” as Ultima predicted. He acquires adult knowledge and understanding, along with the loss of his innocence. Antonio realizes that life is not stable, but a flow of constant changes, all of which are natural. He comes to accept his parents’ imperfections, and his brothers’ sins. He learns that the world is full of prejudices, that not all the people are firm in their beliefs, and that he, too, is sinful.

The conflict of the Western and Chicano worlds is another duality to be integrated by Antonio. Black argues that Anaya represents three types of acculturation in the novel: assimilation, integration and rejection (Black, 146). She states that Antonio’s brothers “are assimilated into the Anglo world in ways that result in their desire to leave la familia and move into the dominant cultural sphere”; their rejection of their heritage results in the loss of their culture (Black, 149). Unlike his brothers, Antonio does not desert his past in total assimilation into the Anglo world, but retains his ethnic identity. Talking of the time spent with Ultima before school, Antonio shows that he has to adapt to the new conditions: “But the innocence which our isolation sheltered could not last forever, and the affairs of the town began to reach across our bridge and enter my life” (Anaya, 14).

Antonio’s assimilation begins in school. He speaks Spanish and feels different from other boys. His lunch, brought from home, is traditional Chicano food: “My mother had packed a small jar of hot beans and some good, green chile wrapped in tortillas. When the other children saw my lunch they laughed and pointed again…They showed me their sandwiches which were made out of bread. Again I did not feel well” (Anaya, 54). It is at school where Antonio learns of ethnic prejudices. However, Antonio soon finds friends of Latino origin, thus overcoming his loneliness and learning to live in both worlds. Attending school and learning English, Antonio separates from his family, who did neither. His Chicano education continues at home through the teachings of Ultima, who highlights the beauty of his land and the ancient wisdom of curanderas. Antonio also learns from his family such valuable lessons as that of finding personal integrity and other important lessons about the Chicano way of life.

Antonio lives in a dualistic reality combining myth and historic events. Lamadrid argues that myth has a relation to socio-cultural identity of Chicanos (Lamadrid, 497) and underlines the motif of ancient myths, such as la llorona (a wailing woman), defined as a “collective interpretation and mediation of the contradictions in the historical and ecological experience of a people” (Lamadrid, 496). The motif emerges in Antonio’s relationship with nature and his mother, representing evil as well as native power. La llorona lures Antonio to her, but he resists and leaves death behind him. Instead, he learns to accept the greater reality of life, understanding that “the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart” (Anaya, 237) and chooses to “take life’s experiences and build strength from them and not weakness” (Anaya, 248), as Ultima taught him.

Antonio’s increasing awareness is juxtaposed with that of the residents and their experience with the first atomic weapon developed for use in World War II, or an apocalyptic event. According to Lamadrid, “the awareness of the characters of the apocalyptic threat of the atomic bomb…demonstrates a real and historical dimension of apocalypse” (Lamadrid, 500). The women in the village wear black mourning clothes, declare the atomic bomb looked like “a ball of white heat beyond the imagination, beyond hell” and blame men for that: “Man was not made to know so much…they compete with God, they disturb the seasons, they seek to know more than God Himself. In the end, that knowledge they seek will destroy us all” (Anaya, 183).

Almost every woman in the village loses a son or husband during World War II, Antonio’s brothers return from service traumatized, and New Mexico becomes the site of the first atomic bomb test – all signs of an apocalypse and requiring “the need for a synthesis…in this new time of crisis” (Lamadrid, 500). Antonio manages to create this synthesis for himself by maintaining ties to the landscape and the Virgin of Guadalupe, la llorona and the brotherhood of the golden carp. His conflicts are resolved through Ultima’s belief that the sense of life is to do good. In her final blessing she proclaims “Always have the strength to live. Love life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evenings when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills” (Anaya, 247).

Antonio’s coming-of-age is the journey away from and back to his heritage. The conflicts of dualities make him question the values and beliefs imposed on him by his family and the surrounding world. Antonio does not refuse his heritage, but fuses different elements together, acquiring richness and strength of various manifestations of life. Together with his new understating comes a new future built on the lessons of the past and open to changes.

Works Cited

Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me Ultima. New York: Warner Books, 1999.

Black, Debra B. “Times of Conflict: Bless Me, Ultima as a Novel of Acculturation”. Bilingual Review, Vol.25 (2), 2000, pp.146-159.

Lamadrid, Enrique R. “Myth as the Cognitive Process of Popular Culture in Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima”: The Dialectics of Knowledge. Hispania, Vol.68, No.3 (Sep.1985), pp.496-501.

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