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Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima

Rudolfo Anaya

INTRODUCTION
PRINCIPAL WORKS
GENERAL COMMENTARY
FURTHER READING

(Full name Rudolfo Alfonso Anaya) American novelist, short-story writer, poet, nonfiction writer, and author of folklore, juvenile poetry, juvenile short stories, young adult novels, and picture books.

The following entry presents commentary on Anaya's novel Bless Me, Ultima (1972) through 2004.

INTRODUCTION

A story of conflict in the life of a young Chicano boy in New Mexico, Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (1972) became a surprise best-seller upon its release and, given its themes of maturation and juvenile self-exploration, has since been appropriated by a young adult readership. Among the first Chicano best-sellers in American history, Bless Me, Ultima has frequently been compared to such works as Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street—both novels offer unique examinations of adolescent Hispanic-American life. Combining elements of Latino magic realism with the bildungsroman and kunstleroman traditions, Bless Me, Ultima received the Premio Quinto Sol Award for the best Chicano novel of 1972. Called the "first truly transcendent work of long prose fiction" by Enrique R. Lamadrid, Anaya's novel has generally been regarded as an important milestone in the growing Chicano literary tradition.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Anaya was born on October 30, 1937, in Pastura, New Mexico. He spent his childhood in the village of Santa Rosa, New Mexico, and moved to Albuquerque as an adolescent. His childhood hospitalization for a spinal injury was a formative experience that he revisited fictionally in Tortuga (1979), a novel about a young boy burdened with a body cast. After briefly attending business school, Anaya earned a B.A. and M.A. in English, as well as an M.A. in counseling, from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. After college, he worked as a public school teacher and a counselor. Anaya eventually returned to the University of New Mexico as a professor of English, where he helped found the well-known creative writing journal Blue Mesa Review. Anaya has since retired from teaching to work as a full-time writer. He first began work on his manuscript for Bless Me, Ultima in 1963, finally finishing the novel in 1970. After circulating the manuscript for two years, Anaya attracted the attention of the small Chicano publishing firm Quinto Sol, which released Ultima in 1972 to great critical and commercial acclaim. His next two books, Heart of Aztlán (1976) and Tortuga, comprise, with Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya's so-called "New Mexico Trilogy." While the latter two books have not received the same popular attention as Bless Me, Ultima, Tortuga did receive the Before Columbus American Book Award in 1980. Since completing his "New Mexico Trilogy," Anaya has been involved with a variety of projects, including several children's books, among them The Farolitos of Christmas: A New Mexican Christmas Story (1987) and Farolitos for Abuelo (1998), as well as a nonfiction account targeted toward adolescents about the life of the celebrated Hispanic labor-rights activist César Chávez called An Elegy on the Death of César Chávez (2000). His literary honors include the Premio Quinto Sol national Chicano literary award for Bless Me, Ultima, the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award for Tortuga, and the PEN-West Fiction Award for Alburquerque (1992). He has also received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Chicano Council of Higher Education, and the Kellogg Foundation. Additionally, Anaya's major novels have been translated into several languages, garnering him international critical attention.

PLOT AND MAJOR CHARACTERS

Utilizing a combination of magic—or sometimes "mythic"—realism and mythpoetics, Bless Me, Ultima functions as a Latino variation on the kunstleroman genre of novels. The kunstleroman is a subgenre of the bildungsroman class of coming-of-age novels, which focuses on the artistic maturation of a juvenile protagonist. Bless Me, Ultima describes the evolution of Antonio Juan Márez y Luna from the age of six to his early adulthood. The book is set in rural Guadelupe, New Mexico, shortly after the end of World War II, during which Antonio's three older brothers served as soldiers in the United States Armed Forces. Antonio is the youngest son, and the product of a union between the Luna clan, a religious family of farmers from the village of El Puerto de Luna, and the wilder, more spiritual Márez family, who are vaqueros from Las Pastoras and tied more closely to the land than to God. The two families are torn over their differing desires for Antonio's future. His mother wants Antonio to become educated and, possibly, enter the priesthood, while his father wants his son to follow in the Márez tradition of herding and shepherding along the llano. This conflict is complicated by the appearance of Ultima, a curandera, or spiritual healer, who helped deliver Antonio. Related to neither clan, Ultima moves in with Antonio and his family, who accept her out of their respect for cultural tradition and her wide influence in the community. Over the course of her stay with the Márez family, Ultima begins opening Antonio's eyes to the greater mysteries of the world through a series of mystical events, many as the result of her conflict with Tenorio Trementina and his daughters, who are Ultima's opposite, a family of evil brujas, or witches. The novel details Antonio's attempts to bridge the various worlds that he becomes exposed to during his adolescence, which include Ultima's lessons about the natural world, his increasing acculturation at the racially-mixed school he attends, and his progression toward his First Communion in the Catholic Church. Antonio's journey towards self-discovery is further complicated by the return of his three brothers from World War II, their rejection of their father's dream of moving the family to California, and Ultima's frightening struggle with the evil Trementina family who place curses on Antonio's Uncle Lucas and the ghosts in the nearby Tellez home. While witnessing the war between Ultima and the Trementinas, Antonio is present for the death of Narciso, an old neighbor who dies on his way to warn Ultima of a threat to her life. In the novel's conclusion, Ultima dies, sacrificed to end the town's struggle with evil Trementinas, and Antonio finds himself more certain about what he wants from his own future, choosing to become an artist and author.

MAJOR THEMES

Bless Me, Ultima is often described as a novel of conflicts—masculine versus feminine, mysticism versus organized religion, Luna versus Márez, good versus evil. These conflicts lie at the root of Antonio's very existence, making him the symbolic battleground between various opposing social, religious, and cultural forces. While several young adult novels have emphasized the inherent culture conflict felt by many Hispanic-Americans, Juan Bruce-Novoa has noted that, "Antonio is not torn between an Anglo and a Chicano world, but between two ways of being Chicano." His mother Maria is from a farming family, tied to the land and devoted to their Catholic roots. His father Gabriel comes from a vaqueros ancestry, which values natural spiritualism and a nomadic lifestyle. Anaya offers a subtextual level to these oppositional natures. Maria's family name, Luna, is Spanish for "moon," which is most often associated with the feminine, while Gabriel's surname, Márez, means "sons of the sea," suggesting a connection with the masculine. Similarly, Catholicism wages symbolic war with Ultima's herbal remedies and the healer's reliance upon the natural world. This conflict is epitomized by a scene where Antonio finds a golden carp, traditionally associated with old gods in folkloric mythology. Questions about the carp's possible divinity plague Antonio as he struggles to decide where to place his trust, particularly given his mother's strong wish for him to become a Catholic priest, a potential role he distrusts given the seeming failure of prayer to enact any change in comparison to the apparent higher degree of success he sees with Ultima's herbs and remedies. Critics have noted many other types of conflict and interpretations existing beyond those previously mentioned, such as the cultural and racial conflicts Antonio encounters while attending a school dominated by caucasians. Debra B. Black has argued that Bless Me, Ultima "is a novel of many things: it is a story of a boy's journey through the rites of passage as he moves into manhood; it is a story of the myths and folklore of a people holding tenaciously onto a past that is quickly slipping away; it is a story of beginnings and endings. It is also a novel of oppositions: Anglo culture against Chicano, and man against women. Although other approaches are possible, the novel is primarily an acculturation novel, and this theme underlies all other interpretations." Despite all of the conflicts surrounding Antonio, the character of Ultima acts a symbol of balance between all of the oppositional forces in the text. For example, even though she is female, Ultima's position as curandera gives her the authority that a man commands; despite her reliance on the natural spirit world in her healing, Ultima is still a devout Catholic who stubbornly disregards the belief that that Christian faith and mysticism are mutually exclusive; and, while she only uses her healing abilities for good, many in the community regard her as an evil witch. Carol Mitchell has suggested that Ultima, functioning as the embodiment of nearly all the forces seeking Antonio's soul, "acts as a mediating influence on the family and as a moderating influence in Tony's life."

CRITICAL RECEPTION

As one of the first international commercially successful works of Chicano literature, Bless Me, Ultima has been viewed as a vastly significant work of twentieth-century literary multiculturalism. Richard J. Rodrigues has characterized Bless Me, Ultima as "an important contribution to literature in a pluralistic United States," while Margarite Fernández Olmos has argued that Ultima "is considered by many the quintessential Chicano bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel." Critics have lauded the novel's layers of contextual symbolism as well as Anaya's lyrical prose style. Many reviewers have further noted that, despite its literary complexity and depth, Ultima still functions as an extremely accessible narrative about the perils of adolescence, an assertion which, some have argued, is buoyed by the novel's wide popularity with young adult and high school readers. However, the book is not without its critics. David James Rose has alleged that, "[m]ost of the book reads like the text from a Walt Disney movie. Infused with bleary-eyed, nostalgic optimism, the characters talk in clichés, and many of the circumstances surrounding them are so sugar-coated that they lose credibility … Anaya has cursed his readers with a book saturated with bogus hocus-pocus." Despite such complaints, Ultima remains a widely popular text, both with critical and popular audiences. Enrique R. Lamadrid has described Anaya as "a mythmaker, both intuitive and self-conscious, whose raw material is folklore, legends, and what might be termed native metaphysics. A creator rather than a collector, he transforms indigenous materials into a rich synthesis of symbol and archetype, new, yet ‘true to the heart.’"

PRINCIPAL WORKS

Bless Me, Ultima (novel) 1972

Heart of Aztlán (novel) 1976

Tortuga (novel) 1979

The Silence of the Llano (short stories) 1982

The Legend of La Llorona (novel) 1984

The Adventures of Juan Chicaspatas [illustrations by Narciso Peña] (poetry) 1985

A Chicano in China (nonfiction) 1986

The Farolitos of Christmas: A New Mexican Christmas Story [illustrations by Edward Gonzales] (picture book) 1987

Lord of the Dawn: The Legend of Quetzalcóatl (folklore) 1987

Alburquerque (novel) 1992

The Anaya Reader (prose, essays, and plays) 1995

Zia Summer (novel) 1995

Jalamanta: A Message from the Desert (novel) 1996

Maya's Children: The Story of La Llorana [illustrations by Maria Baca] (picture book) 1996

Rio Grande Fall (novel) 1996

Farolitos for Abuelo [illustrations by Edward Gonzales] (picture book) 1998

My Land Sings: Stories from the Rio Grande [illustrations by Amy Córdova] (juvenile short stories) 1999

Shaman Winter (novel) 1999

An Elegy on the Death of César Chávez [illustrations by Gaspar Enriquez] (juvenile poetry) 2000

Roadrunner's Dance [illustrations by David Diaz] (picture book) 2000

The Santero's Miracle: A Bilingual Story [Spanish translation by Enrique Lamadrid; illustrations by Amy Córdova] (picture book) 2004

Serafina's Stories (novel) 2004

Jemez Spring (novel) 2005

Curse of the ChupaCabra (young adult novel) 2006

The Man Who Could Fly and Other Stories (short stories) 2006

The First Tortilla: A Bilingual Story [Spanish translation by Enrique Lamadrid; illustrations by Amy Córdova] (picture book) 2007

GENERAL COMMENTARY

Raymond J. Rodrigues (review date January 1976)

SOURCE: Rodrigues, Raymond J. Review of Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo A. Anaya. English Journal 65, no. 1 (January 1976): 63-4.

[In the following review, Rodrigues comments that "Bless Me, Ultima is an important contribution to literature in a pluralistic United States."]

Bless Me, Ultima portrays the conflicts which result from the changes wrought by forces outside one's culture. Ultima, a curandera or healer, living with the boy Antonio Marez and his family, introduces Antonio to mysteries of faith and nature. Antonio's parents each want different futures for their son. His mother, from a family of farmers, wants him to be a priest. His father, who reflects his background of free horsemen or vaqueros, dreams of the time when he and his sons, the oldest three having left to fight in World War II, can move to California and become wealthy. But the father does not count on the influence of war and travel upon those who have left their homes. The novel reveals numerous conflicts: those caused by the differing backgrounds of the parents, the forces of evil vs. those of good, the encroachment of the outside world upon the life of a rural community, organized religion vs. individual beliefs, the dreams of the old vs. those of the young, and Antonio's seeing the world as a beautiful place, yet filled with horrors.

Appropriate for more mature students, this novel easily fits into such units as those on faith, multicultural literature, future shock, man against man, the search for identity, and the generation gap. Among those issues which can be considered by a class are: how much loyalty does one owe his or her parents? Does nature control our lives more than God does? Do we have any choice in deciding our future? If the world is a benevolent place, why is there so much corruption? Does education free or imprison an individual? Can different cultures exist together, or must one overcome the other?

Allied activities leading from or in conjunction with Bless Me, Ultima include collecting examples of "folk medicine," interviewing those whose lives have been influenced by war to determine what changes have ensued, studying why one picks some peers as friends and rejects others, considering ways in which another culture has influenced one's own, investigating different religious beliefs, studying additional Chicano literature, interviewing people of generations older and younger than one's own to determine how their values may differ and why, studying the nature of dreams and whether they influence our lives, learning as much as possible about a culture different from ours, and collecting nicknames to determine why they were chosen and how accurate they are.

Because so many issues are developed in this novel, allied readings may vary widely, but a few which involve similar conflicts and which form a compact unit are Richard Adam's Watership Down, Fred Bodsworth's The Sparrows Fall, J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, Frank Water's People of the Valley, Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again, and Richard Wright's Native Son. All treat individuals who, as a result of outside forces, must choose among vastly different ways of life. Whether considered in conjunction with other works or by itself, Bless Me, Ultima is an important contribution to literature in a pluralistic United States.

Carol Mitchell (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Mitchell, Carol. "Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima: Folk Culture in Literature." Critique 22, no. 1 (1980): 55-64.

[In the following essay, Mitchell discusses the amalgam of folk culture and religion in Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima.]

In Bless Me, Ultima (1972) Rudolfo Anaya draws a vivid picture of traditional rural Spanish-American culture of the recent past, and through his characters, especially the folk figures of the curandera and the bruja, he takes the reader into that traditional society where the sacred and secular worlds are closely intertwined—a world that is different from the largely secular contemporary urban society of most readers. In order to understand and appreciate the novel, one needs to pay particular attention to four different aspects of traditional culture: la familia and the roles of children, adults, and the aged; the conflicts in a traditional patriarchal family between the roles of women and men; the roles of and attitudes toward the curandera and the bruja; and the close ties between the sacred and secular life in traditional society.

Bless Me, Ultima is a novel that is particularly insightful in its depiction of several aspects of the traditional Spanish-American family in New Mexico. The term "Spanish-American" is appropriate because like many New Mexicans the family has been living in the area for a number of generations. The Marez side of the family traces itself back to the conquistadores and the Luna side back to a priest, either Spanish or Mexican, who established a colony under a land grant early in the colonization of New Mexico. While the contemporary Lunas find their Luna ancestor priest a bit of an embarrassment, the practice of padres having one or more wives was widespread in the New World until 1851.1 The story takes place at the end of World War II in eastern New Mexico, mainly in Guadalupe, a small town where both Anglos and Hispanos live. The Luna-Marez family seems relatively unaffected by Anglo-American attitudes and ways of life. A few culture conflicts occur, as when the three older sons return home from the war and are no longer satisfied with rural life, but such conflicts are a very minor theme; the major one involves the conflicts of individuals in a traditional rural folk culture and one character's conflicts within himself as he grows up in this culture.

The main character is Tony Marez, age six at the beginning of the novel. With the help and guidance of the curandera Ultima, Tony learns how to cope with the existence of sin and evil. The plot involves a series of episodes that are significant in Tony's growth: he sees two men die violently; he learns about nature—the river, the llano, and the farm at Las Pasturas; he welcomes the return of his idolized older brothers and sadly sees them depart again; he participates with Ultima in curing his uncle from the curse of a bruja and in lifting another curse that is affecting a family friend; he takes his first communion; and, finally, he sees Ultima die. During the process of Tony's growth, the influence of traditional culture on a particular individual is examined.

Tony's immediate family consists of his parents, three older brothers about twenty years old, and two sisters who are two or three years older than he. During his sixth year the old woman Ultima, la Grande, comes to live with them. She is not related to them, but they feel a responsibility for her since she was the midwife for Tony's mother during his birth and the births of his brothers and sisters. Additionally, it is not right for an old woman to have to live alone: Tony's mother says, "we cannot let her live her last days in loneliness," and his father replies, "No, it is not the way of our people."2 They briefly consider whether or not they should bring a curandera into their home because of the effect her reputation would have on the children, a reputation gained because she could not only heal people but also lift curses laid by brujas: "And because a curandera had this power she was misunderstood and often suspected of practicing witchcraft herself" (4). They decide that she can only be good for the children; besides, "it was the custom to provide for the old and the sick. There was always room in the safety and warmth of la familia for one more person, be that person stranger or friend" (4). So for the period of the novel, three generations live together.

By observing these three age groups, we learn of the traditional attitudes toward their roles. Reverence for the old and respect for their wisdom are shown as well as the feeling of responsibility for the old who, after all, brought up the younger generation. Old age seems to be a time of rest, a lightening of the load of day-to-day responsibilities. Ultima still helps around the house with the children and the daily chores, but these are the primary responsibility of the mother, and she still acts occasionally in her magical role of curandera, when no one else can effect a cure, but she no longer goes out regularly for illnesses or births. The middle generation, Tony's parents, bear the heaviest load for the welfare of the family. Tony's father is primarily concerned with being the breadwinner, and although he takes some responsibility for Tony's welfare, we never see him interacting with his daughters. Tony's mother has the main responsibility for raising the children and running the household. She sees that the children learn their catechism and attend school; she is most often shown in the kitchen and sometimes sewing. The older brothers have already left home and seem to have few responsibilities within the family. They return to visit and help out a little; although their parents would like them to return to the family home and find work in the neighborhood, they are restless and drawn to the city. The two girls hardly appear in the novel; they play dolls and giggle, they go to school and help their mother a little, but they really are never shown interacting with the other characters. The life of the young boy is shown the most extensively; by the age of six he is clearing rocks away for a garden for his mother. We see him interacting with his teachers and friends at school, his priest at catechism class, his parents, and Ultima. He has plenty of time during the summer to play along the river and in the country around. His primary responsibility is to do well in school so that he will bring respect to the family.

Through Anaya's description we learn the different role expectations for females and males, but we see the conflict between female and male primarily on the symbolic level. On the literal level, the conflict between husband and wife is caused more by their own characters than by the roles they play. However, through these two personalities and their respective family ideals, the conflict between feminine and masculine values is portrayed; and through the androgynous character of Ultima, a solution is suggested. Mr. Marez is a descendent of the conquistadores who crossed the sea and became men of the llano: they loved the wide open spaces of the sea and the llano, the wild freedom of the wind and the sun, and they became the vaqueros; they loved drinking, storytelling, and horses and were exuberant, restless wanderers. Mrs. Luna-Marez is the descendent of farmers who depend on the phases of the moon and who are quietly in touch with the rhythms of nature. Their innate character involves being tied to the land rather than roaming over it, and their extended family lives together farming the same land rather than separated like the Marez family in their restless wandering. Finally, because the founder of the Lunas was a priest, the Catholic religion and the education required for the priesthood are more important to the Lunas than to the Marezes.

The conflict between feminine and masculine is also shown on the religious level. God, the father, is omniscient and omnipotent—the Old Testament deity who can seem harsh because he has justice without mercy: "Perhaps that is why God could not forgive, He was too much like man" (131). He is a deity who because of his power and perfection seems very distant from human beings and their everyday weaknesses and imperfections. On the other hand, the Virgin Mary, who is not omniscient nor omnipotent, understands humans and their weaknesses and loves them anyway. Because she is female, she can plead with God and intercede for mercy on the behalf of humans.

God was not always forgiving. He made laws to follow and if you broke them you were punished. The Virgin always forgave.

God had power. He spoke and the thunder echoed through the skies.

The Virgin was full of quiet and peaceful love….

But he was a giant man, and she was a woman. She could go to him and ask Him to forgive you. Her voice was sweet and gentle and with the help of her son they could persuade the powerful father to change his mind.
     (42)

Anaya shows the effect of this male/female conflict on Tony, who is being torn between the ideals and desires of his parents who have different expectations for him. The mother's goal for her son is clear; she wants him to become a priest or, if that is impossible, a farmer. The father's goal for Tony is not so clear, but he does not want him to become a priest or a farmer, rather something more in keeping with the men of his own family. Furthermore, Tony is being torn by his religious doubts about a harsh God who seems to allow so much evil in the world.

Ultima, who is in some ways the archetypal earth mother, attempts to lead Tony to some middle way between the extremes of his parents and the female/male tensions. Despite being the archetypal female, she is really androgynous. She has had no husband or children, although she has been a mother figure to many. Because her age exempts her from normal female/male role expectations and because she is a curandera, she has power that a woman would not normally have. She has been active in the public world as well as the private household in ways not usually accepted for women in traditional patriarchal societies. (At least partially because of such power and public role, she is accused of being a bruja.) Finally, she is a devout Catholic like the Lunas, but also devout in her love of the wind, the sun, and the llano like the Marezes. Because she personally combines many of the qualities of both female and male, of Luna and Marez, she acts as a mediating influence on the family and as a moderating influence in Tony's life:

From my mother I had learned that man is of the earth, that his clay feet are part of the ground that nourishes him, and that it is this inextricable mixture that gives man his measure of safety and security. Because man plants in the earth he believes in the miracles of birth, and he provides a home for his family, and he builds a church to preserve his faith and the soul that is bound to his flesh, his clay. But from my father and Ultima I had learned that the greater immortality is in the freedom of man, and that freedom is best nourished by the noble expanse of land and air and pure, white sky….

"There is power here, a power that can fill a man with satisfaction," my father said.

"And there is faith here," Ultima added, "a faith in the reason for nature being, evolving, growing—"
     (217, 220)

But Ultima, like the others, is more than female archetype, androgynous symbol, or curandera; she is a human being, an individual in society. She is an individual who has learned to understand and love her society and its members and to accept the bad along with the good. Tony, too, is an individual, and he is just learning about himself, his family, and his society. At times he is disillusioned by the wickedness he sees, and at times he feels that he can satisfy only the desires of one of his parents, but not both; as a result of Ultima's guidance, he may be able to find a middle path.

Anaya uses the curandera and the bruja to show the traditional ties between the sacred and secular worlds. Ultima, the curandera, is the most important figure in Tony's life during the three years from ages six to nine; she is his teacher, counselor, and friend. She seems to be known throughout the area as a midwife and herb doctor who learned her skills from a renowned healer, "the flying man of Las Pasturas." She is respected as "una mujer que no ha pecado" (30), a woman who has not sinned, but she is also feared by others who call her hechicera, white witch, and even bruja, black witch. She is wise in her knowledge of nature, humanity, and the supernatural and seems to be a devout Catholic—although some conflict arises between the church and her magic: "The priest at El Puerto did not want the people to place much faith in the powers of la curandera. He wanted the mercy and faith of the church to be the villagers' only guiding light" (90).

Ultima, like the other traditional folk healers of Western cultures, uses botanical medicines, faith healing, psychological practices, and magical rituals. She has practical knowledge of the curing properties of certain herbs, and she knows when to harvest and how to cure them. She believes that the natural world is also a spiritual world, so she tells Tony when he is helping her to collect herbs that he should "speak to the plant and tell it why we pulled it from its home in the earth" (36). In her curing she uses such plants as yerba del manso, oregano, osha, manzanilla, and atole (the sacred blue corn meal of the Pueblo Indians). Not only does she use Catholic prayers, but she may also use other prayers to the spirit world, possibly to spirits known to the Indians. Such practice would be consonant with our knowledge of curandismo since it derives from both Spanish and Indian healing traditions. She also uses what she calls "the magic beyond evil, the magic that endures forever" (88), which includes incantations and rituals as well as the more clearly described imitative magic of sticking pins into clay dolls in order to kill the evil witches. Unlike the curanderas of some areas who do not accept payment for cures or who only accept donations after the cure, Ultima requires the payment of forty dollars in silver for the curing of someone who has been cursed, the payment agreed on in advance. Ultima, then, combines botanical, psychological, and faith curing with magic, but magic is used only when the source of the illness is magical.

Ultima acts in her role of curandera or hechicera three different times in the novel. Lucas, Tony's uncle, was bewitched by brujas because he chased them away from where they were dancing; they placed a curse on him that was causing him to waste away, and even the city doctors and the priest had been powerless to cure him. Before agreeing to effect the magical cure needed for Lucas' illness, Ultima warns his family about the consequences in the natural world of tampering with the supernatural:

You must understand that when anybody, bruja or curandera, priest or sinner, tampers with the fate of a man that sometimes a chain of events is set into motion over which no one will have ultimate control. You must be willing to accept this responsibility.
     (80)

Before beginning her cure, she goes to Tenorio, the father of the brujas and a brujo himself, to attempt to have the curse lifted so that she will not have to turn the daughters' own curse upon them, but her visit is of no avail. The cure, involving herbs steeped in a mixture of kerosene and water, atole, and chanted prayers, lasts for three days. Tony acts as Ultima's helper during the cure, and his strength is magically used to strengthen his uncle. Toward the end of the cure, Ultima makes clay figurines of the three witches and then sticks pins in them. Finally, both Tony and his uncle vomit out the poison, and Lucas is on the road to recovery.

Although the cure involved magical practices, it could be explained by the skeptical reader as a psychological cure. The skeptic would believe that Lucas became ill because he feared the witches, that because he believed that witchcraft was the cause of his illness, he also believed that only magic could cure him (hence the inability of the doctors and priest to cure him), that Ultima's reputation as curandera and hechicera makes her the only one whom Lucas will have faith in to effect his cure, that Lucas receives psychological support, especially through Tony, as well as monetary support from his family—itself often important in curing psychological illnesses, and that the herbs Ultima gives to Lucas may also have some curative value. Ultima's cure is described only through Tony's eyes, and Anaya does not insist that the reader accept everything that Tony believes as literal fact. Clearly, however, all the family believe that only Ultima's magic cured Lucas.

The second cure Ultima performs is on Tony. During a snowstorm Tony chances on a fight between Tenorio, the brujo, and Narciso, a kind old man, and sees Narciso shot. Later, Narciso dies in Tony's arms, and the boy gives confession to him. Naturally, the incident causes Tony considerable emotional upheaval. As the result of chill from the snowstorm and the emotional trauma, Tony develops pneumonia. For the physical part of his illness, Ultima rubs him with an ointment of Vicks mixed with herbs and gives him a cool liquid to drink, and the doctor from town treats him. Ultima alone treats Tony's feverish nightmares by staying at his side and reassuring him. Her curing this time is almost entirely psychological; no magic is used because the illness does not have a magical cause. Although Tony realizes Ultima's important part in his cure, Anaya does not insist that only Ultima cured him.

The third cure involves the lifting of another curse, one laid by Tenorio on three ghosts or bultos who then disturb the Tellez family. Although the family members are not yet sick, they cannot eat or sleep because the bultos are causing pots and pans to fly against the wall, dishes to jump when people try to eat from them, and stones to fall on the house from the sky. Once again, the priest has been unable to do anything. Ultima realizes that the curse is on the ghosts rather than on the family and that the ghosts are those of three Indians who died on the ranch two generations earlier and were not buried properly. The brujo's curse has awakened them and caused them to do wrong. The cure, then, involves laying these spirits to rest. Ultima has a rectangular platform erected with the four posts in each of the four directions—similar to some Indian burials. During a whole day she chants and in the evening brings out three bundles which are placed on the platform. Tony wonders if these are the remains of the Indians, and it is not clear whether they are or not. Then the platform is burned. The description of Ultima at the cremation again ties her practice of curandismo with Indian practices for she seems like an Indian woman with her long braids falling over her shoulders and a bright sash at her waist, and Tony feels "she had performed this ceremony in some distant past" (223).

Again the skeptic could explain the curse and cure in psychological terms as perhaps mass hallucination, but Anaya makes clear here that the reader should not use that explanation, for the flying dishes and falling rocks are experienced not only by the Tellez family but by Tony's skeptical father as well. The reality of the curse and cure, though seen through Tony's eyes, is insisted on by Anaya by showing the father's skepticism. Throughout the novel, Anaya gradually tries to bring the reader to an understanding and acceptance of the way the curandera and others in the natural, secular world affect and are affected by the supernatural, sacred world. From early in the novel where Ultima teaches Tony to speak to the spirits of the plants and to listen to the voices and rhythms of nature, through the curses and their cures, and finally to the climax of the novel when Tenorio shoots Ultima's "familiar," the owl, and Ultima almost immediately dies, Anaya shows the close ties of the sacred and secular, the supernatural and natural worlds. Improper acts in the natural world have their repercussions in both the natural and supernatural worlds.

The brujas, too, help tie these worlds together. The actions of the four black witches, Tenorio and his three daughters, unlike Ultima's, are only reported; we do not see them practicing their magic. Tenorio is a tavern keeper and a barber, and on occasion his barbering can be dangerous to his clients—Tenorio's daughters took some of Lucas' hair to use in placing their curse on him. The daughters are all bad tempered and ugly, "too ugly to make men happy" (91), and although we learn little about the daughters, Tenorio is shown as a troublemaker in the village and the murderer of Narciso. In a close-knit traditional society, the troublemakers and the dissatisfied are sometimes labeled witches, for their unhappiness would cause them to envy and hate others and, therefore, be willing and desirous of causing others pain and trouble.

The description of the brujas, like that of the curandera, conforms to the traditional pattern for witches in Christian societies. They sell their souls to the devil; they have black masses and a sabbat of sorts; they read the Black Book; they stir up horrible concoctions of such things as blood of bats, entrails of toads, and blood of roosters; they use incantations and magical words; and, of course, they can perform image magic. They can change into animals, especially coyotes, and also into balls of fire—two forms that are found in Southwest Indian beliefs as well as Spanish-American beliefs. Witches cannot pass by a cross, nor can they stand the sight of it, and the names "Christ" and "Mary" hurt their ears. They can be killed in their own bodies or in their animal shapes by shooting them with bullets etched with a cross.

Although we see the bruja and the curandera both performing magic, Ultima uses her magic only for what she and the reader perceive as good. Her killing of three people is considered justifiable since they are brujas. Twice Ultima is accused of being a bruja, but in one incident the mob is satisfied that she is not, for it thinks she walks under a cross, and in the other she does not flinch when a cross is held up in front of her. Throughout the novel, good magic is shown to conquer evil magic, but magic must be fought with magic, and the Catholic religious rituals cannot take the place of the ancient magic. One must remember, however, that using magic to tamper with fate as it affects the natural order of things may bring undesired and unexpected consequences.

Anaya shows considerable love for and understanding of the traditional rural Spanish-American society of the Southwest United States. However, his love of these people does not lead him to romanticize their traditional way of life, for he describes the harsh along with the pleasant realities of that life. Bless Me, Ultima helps to give contemporary urban Americans, both Hispanos and Anglos, a better understanding of and respect for traditional peoples and their beliefs in the spiritual nature of the world we live in.

Notes

1. Carey McWilliams, North from Mexico (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1949), p. 70.

2. Rudolfo A. Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (Berkeley: Quinto Sol Publications, 1972), p. 3. Subsequent references are to this edition.

Enrique R. Lamadrid (essay date September 1985)

SOURCE: Lamadrid, Enrique R. "Myth as the Cognitive Process of Popular Culture in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima: The Dialectics of Knowledge." Hispania 68, no. 3 (September 1985): 496-501.

[In the following essay, Lamadrid characterizes Bless Me, Ultima as a novel of oppositional conflicts with Ultima and Antonio acting as mediating forces.]

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya appeared in 1972, quickly earning a place in Chicano literary history as its first truly transcendent work of long prose fiction.1 The novel has since captured more readers and critical attention than any other single work of Chicano literature and the debate continues concerning the implications of the author's use of what might be termed magical or even mythical realism.2 Was the novel merely an apolitical expression of local color or costumbrismo, New Mexico style? And if so, how did the work fit into the overall social and creative context of chicanismo? As the first best seller novel of Chicano literature, it was impossible to dismiss Ultima 's introduction of compelling mythic themes into the disjunctive context of the combative and polemical ethnic literatures of the late sixties. Ultima was serene in the face of this turmoil, full of conflict, yet noncombative, a portrait of the developing consciousness of the young protagonist, Antonio. The metaphysics of this emerging consciousness were so convincingly drawn that no reader doubted that the seeds of social conscience were deeply sown if yet untested in the chief character.

Rudolfo Anaya strikes a deep chord in portraying two primordial ways of relating to the earth, the pastoral and the agricultural. Bless Me, Ultima, (BMU ), is not a quaint, historical sketch of rural folkways, but rather a dialectical exploration of the contradictions between lifestyles and cultures. At the novel's heart is the process which generates social and historical consciousness. A Marxist-Structuralist perspective defines this process as myth, the collective interpretation and mediation of the contradictions in the historical and ecological experience of a people.

In his account of the relationship between a curandera (folk healer) and her young apprentice, Anaya penetrates deeply the mythical conscience of the reader. Despite their enthusiasm for his novel, critics have thus far been unable to define the parameters of this response nor prove the reason for its depth. Contributing elements in the narrative include: the primordial quality of the rivalry of the Luna and Márez clans, the religious conflicts and rich dream life of the boy Antonio Márez, and the power of Ultima herself which in the end is nothing more nor less than "the magical strength that resides in the human heart" (BMU, p. 237). From the first reviews to later articles, an increasing body of vague but glowing commentary points to a rich "mythic" or "magical" dimension that underlies the novel.3 To those who prioritize the social relevancy of Chicano literature, this psychic plunge seems disturbing or even reactionary in its irrationality. Despite these claims, there appears to be something exceptional about the emerging consciousness of the boy. It is mystically harmonious with nature, yet also incorporates a dynamic, even dialectical awareness of historical forces, from the colonization by Hispanic farmers and ranchers to the coming of the Anglos and World War II. These seeming contradictions invite a reexamination of the relation of myth and social consciousness, often defined as antithetical, incompatible categories which erode and undermine each other. Since the novel apparently transcends this impasse, we are obliged to consider a critical model comprehensive enough to explain this achievement. A review of commentary on the novel is the first step in this direction.

Bless Me, Ultima has undergone extensive dream and thematic analyses which include attempts to link its "mythic" elements to precolumbian roots.4 The preponderance of interest in these "irrational" aspects plus the sometimes supernatural tone of the narrative has lead progressive critics to characterize the novel as ahistorical, having only limited and passing value in depicting the "quaint" folkways of rural New Mexico.5 Thematic analysis has enumerated various tendencies, especially the folkloric, but is unable to characterize the book as anything more than a local color or costumbrista piece.6 Dream analysis has been more productive because of the consistency and symbolic unity of the many dream sequences.7 Analysis of the mythic and religious systems, notably the "Legend of the Golden Carp" is unconvincing simply because Anaya's alleged allusions to Aztec or other precolumbian mythologies are not literal enough.8 True, the idea of successive worlds, intervening apocalypses and the exile of gods is common in Native American religions. The suggestion of analogical patterns achieves credibility for the Golden Carp without having to invoke Huitzilopochtli or Quetzalcoatl as other Chicano writers have done. The political analysis which deems the novel reactionary seems to be based on the assumption that Chicano novels should document only the most relevant social and political struggles. These diverse and fragmentary approaches have fallen short of estimating the overall impact and unity of the work and the structural integrity it has achieved on a number of levels.

Since the "mythic" dimension of Bless Me, Ultima is a point of confluence in the above commentaries, a definition of terms is necessary at this point. Thus far, the study of myth in Chicano literature has been scholastic. The neoclassic allusions to Aztec and other precolumbian mythological and religious systems are fairly common in Chicano Literature, especially in poetry and theater. Critics have been quick to point this out, elaborating only superficially by tracing the origins of the myths and speculating on how they pertain to the socio-cultural identity of the present day Chicano.9 Freud was able to tap Greek mythology for insight into the European psyche and on it founded the basis for Western psychology. Inspired by the work of Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes on the Mexican national psyche, an analogous process has been initiated in Chicano literature and criticism, although it is doubtful that an institutionalized Chicano psychotherapy will be the result. The underlying assumption that would prevent this is that these mythic or collective psychological patterns supposedly lie outside time, eternally remanifesting themselves in different epochs.10 This same danger plagues Chicano cultural studies in general, which often tend to analyze culture and its values as something eternal and independent of history, instead of the dynamic product or actual embodiment of history, conflict, and change.11

What is proposed here is a more dynamic critical approach to myth which goes beyond scholasticism and the tracing of classical mythologies. Myth is here considered to be an ongoing process of interpreting and mediating the contradictions in the everyday historical experience of the people. Such a structuralist approach to myth offers some analytical tools which can be applied in a way that avoids ideological analysis and is potentially much more penetrating and historically relevant than traditional thematic or culturalist approaches.

The reader of Bless Me, Ultima recognizes the elderly curandera as a kind of repository for the wisdom and knowledge invested in Indo-Hispanic culture. The novel functions well at this level, for Ultima is indeed in touch with the spirit that moves the land and is intent on conveying this knowledge to Antonio in her indirect and mysterious ways. Yet, the knowledge she commands and the role she plays go far beyond the herbs she utilizes, the stories she saves for the children and her dabbling in "white" witchcraft. The crossed pins, the demon hairballs, the rocks falling from the sky and the fireballs are "colorful" touches which are authentic enough in terms of folk legend. Anaya inserts the "witchery" only after having won the readers' trust in a clever conquest of their disbelief. However, the enumeration of the standard paraphernalia and the usual supernatural feats of a curandera are neither the reason for nor a barrier to the novel's success.

There is an ancient system of knowledge that Ultima exercises that in this novel does not happen to be in the herbs she uses. Any anthropologist is aware that taxonomies such as those of ethnobotany actually contain the philosophical roots and perceptual conventions of the culture.12 However, herbs and related folk knowledge are not the ultimate focus of the novel, although it is understood that Ultima is intimately familiar with them. It is her role as a cultural mediator and Antonio's natural inclination towards a similar calling that link them to their real power, which is the ability to recognize and resolve the internal contradictions of their culture. These oppositions are clearly defined in both social and symbolic terms. The rivalry of the Lunas and the Márez, the struggle of good and evil, innocence and experience, Jehovah and the Golden Carp are not simply narra- tive devices. If they were, they would then be merely pretexts for a combination mystery story, morality play and Hatfield-McCoy saga with a New Mexican flavor.

Something more profound is at work in Bless Me, Ultima, for the oppositions are dialectical, and they are mediated in a way that has counterparts in many different cultures around the earth. In his comparative studies of origin myths, Claude Levi-Strauss extracts the two most basic and primordial ones which occurred either exclusively or in combination in every culture studied.13 The "autochthonous" origin myth is exactly as the meaning of the word implies: "one supposed to have risen or sprung from the ground of the region he inhabits." This version often has a vegetative model: man springs from the earth like a plant. The rival origin myth is more empirically based: man is born from woman. Then comes the task of finding the first woman. In Bless Me, Ultima the opposition between the agricultural Lunas and the pastoral Márez has roots that go as deep as the very foundation of human consciousness as it moves from the paleolithic into the neolithic. Each lifestyle and the world view it is based on is as compelling, soul satisfying, and original as the other. The opposition as it occurs in the novel may be schematized as follows:

—pastoral economy

—the Márez family

—live in Las Pasturas on the open plains

—people of the sun

—descendents of conquistadors and seafarers

—baptized in the salt water of the sea

—speak with the wind

—tempestuous, anarchic freethinkers

—live free upon the earth and roam over it

—the Horse is their totem animal

—agricultural economy

—the Luna family

—live in El Puerto de la Luna in a fertile valley

—people of the moon

—descendents of a priest

—baptized in the sweet water of the moon

—speak with their plants and fields

—quiet, introspective pious people

—live tied to the earth and its cycles

—Corn is their totem plant

The earthshaking impact of the passage from hunting and gathering (paleolithic) into agricultural (neolithic) economies is recorded in mythologies the world over.14 The crises and contradictions that history, economic change and technological innovation bring are the chief motivating factors for the collective cognitive process called myth. The settling down of humankind into the sedentary ways of the neolithic brought with it the emergence of social classes and institutionalized religion and all the economic and social contradictions that accompany the birth of civilization. Likewise, the agricultural developments of horticulture and animal husbandry are distinct enough to carry with them their own ideologies as evident above. Relating more specifically to the novel in question is the history of the colonization of New Mexico and the tremendous impact of the advent of large scale pastoralism. As grazing became more important, the communal egalitarianism of agrarian society began giving way to an emerging class system based on the partidario grazing system and the rise of patrones (bosses). However, such developments are not evident in the novel, perhaps because its locale, eastern New Mexico, was the last area to be settled before American annexation.15 The anarchic freedom enjoyed by the Márez clan was ephemeral and creates the basic historical irony of the story. The coming of the Texas ranchers, the railroad and the barbed wire destroyed the freedom of the plains. As the popular saying goes, "Cuando vino el alambre, vino el hambre" (when the barbed wire came, so did hunger). When an economic system is threatened, so is its ideology, which becomes nostalgic as its dreams are shattered.

These historical pressures intensified the oppositions listed above and made the birth of the boy Antonio Márez Luna especially portentous for the two clans whose blood coursed through his veins. Each felt the importance of having their values dominate in the boy and both vied to establish their influence at the dream scene of Antonio's birth:

This one will be a Luna, the old man said, he will be a farmer and keep our customs and traditions. Perhaps God will bless our family and make the baby a priest.

And to show their hope they rubbed the dark earth of the river valley on the baby's forehead, and they surrounded the bed with the fruits of their harvest so the small room smelled of fresh green chile and corn, ripe apples and peaches, pumpkins and green beans.

Then the silence was shattered with the thunder of hoof-beats; vaqueros surrounded the small house with shouts and gunshots, and when they entered the room they were laughing and singing and drinking.

Gabriel, they shouted, you have a fine son. He will make a fine vaquero. And they smashed the fruits and vegetables that surrounded the bed and replaced them with a saddle, horse blankets, bottles of whiskey, a new rope, bridles, chapas, and an old guitar. And they rubbed the stain of earth from the baby's forehead because man was not to be tied to the earth but free upon it.
     (BMU, p. 5)

The disposal of the baby's umbilical cord and placenta was also a point of contention. The Lunas wanted it buried in their fields to add to their fertility and the Márez wanted it burned to scatter the ashes to the winds of the llano (plain). The intervention of Ultima to settle the feud illustrates her role of mediator and demonstrates the basic mechanism of myth. As in all cultures the thrust of mythical thought progresses from the awareness of oppositions towards their resolution.16 Thus we see the importance in the mythic process of the mediator, which in many cultures assumes the form of powerful tricksters like the coyote and the raven in Native American mythology. In Bless Me, Ultima, both the curandera and the boy serve as mediators between the oppositions within their culture. Their intermediary functions can be traced throughout the text.

The middle ground that Ultima and Antonio occupy is evident even in special and geographic terms. Ultima has lived on the plain and in the valley, in Las Pasturas as well as in El Puerto de la Luna, gaining the respect of the people in both places. Antonio's family lives in Guadalupe, in a compromise location at mid-point between Las Pasturas and El Puerto. Through the father's insistence, the house is built at the end of the valley where the plain begins. Antonio mediates between father and mother, trying to please the latter by scraping a garden out of the rocky hillside:

Everyday I reclaimed from the rocky soil of the hill a few more feet of earth to cultivate. The land of the llano was not good for farming, the good land was along the river. But my mother wanted a garden and I worked to make her happy.
     (BMU, p. 9)

Even within the town Antonio occupies a centralized neutral position: "Since I was not from across the tracks or from town, I was caught in the middle" (BMU, p. 212). This positioning makes it impossible to take sides in the territorial groupings of his peers.

Anaya explains the power of the curandera as that of the human heart, but in fact demonstrates that it is derived from the knowledge of mythic thought processes, the awareness and resolution of contradictions within the culture. People turn to Ultima and Antonio at crucial moments in their lives because they are instinctively aware that mediators (curanderos and tricksters) possess an overview or power of synthesis that can help them resolve their problems. The multiple episodes of Antonio playing the role of priest are especially significant in this light. It is his mother's and her family's dream for Antonio to become a Luna priest and man of knowledge. In fact he performs the role seriously, administering last rights to Lupito, a war-crazed murderer and Narciso, an ally of Ultima and Antonio's family. The blessings he bestows on his brothers and his friends are real and invested with a power they never fully realize as they taunt him. In his spiritual searching, Antonio discovers the contradictions in Christianity and realizes that the scope of his mediations would include the "pagan," animistic forces implicit in the very synthesis that he will be a part of: "Take the llano and the river valley, the moon and the sea, God and the golden carp—and make something new…. That is what Ultima meant by building strength from life" (BMU, p. 236).

The dynamism of mythic thought and its power of synthesis is poignantly expressed in Antonio's description of the feelings and emotions that are aroused by contact with Ultima:

She took my hand and I felt the power of a whirlwind sweep around me. Her eyes swept the surrounding hills and through them I saw for the first time the wild beauty of our hills and the magic of the green river. My nostrils quivered as I felt the song of the mockingbirds and the drone of the grasshoppers mingle with the pulse of the earth. The four directions of the llano met in me, and the white sun shone on my soul. The granules of sand at my feet and the sun and sky above me seemed to dissolve into one strange, complete being.
     (BMU, p. 11)

The power invested in the mythical process is the knowledge derived from seeing the world as a totality and understanding its contradictions in a dialectical manner. There are other characters in the novel who demonstrate differing degrees of awareness of this totality, proving that it is indeed a mechanism of popular culture rather than a mystery reserved for a privileged visionary few. A good example is Narciso, a powerful man of the llano who nevertheless lives in the valley, having discovered its secrets. Ample evidence of this is his exuberant, drunken garden, the likes of which not many llaneros (plainsmen) could foster. (BMU, p. 101)

In perhaps the most global or cosmic synthesis of the novel, Ultima in a dream reveals to Antonio the totality which subsumes the oppositions contained in his culture at the moment when they seemed about to split into a dichotomy and create another apocalypse:

Cease! she cried to the raging powers, and the power from the heavens and the power from the earth obeyed her. The storm abated.

Stand, Antonio, she commanded, and I stood. You both know, she spoke to my father and my mother, that the sweet water of the moon which falls as rain is the same water that gathers into rivers and flows to fill the seas. Without the waters of the moon to replenish the oceans there would be no oceans. And the same salt waters of the oceans are drawn by the sun to the heavens, and in turn become again the waters of the moon. Without the sun there would be no waters formed to slake the dark earth's thirst.

The waters are one, Antonio. I looked into her bright, clear eyes and understood her truth.

You have been seeing only parts, she finished, and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all.
     (BMU, p. 113)

The implied definition of apocalypse in this system of thought is the destructive result of changes which are not assimilated, of oppositions which are not mediated. The awareness of the characters of the apocalyptic threat of the atomic bomb, first tested just to the southwest of their fertile valley, demonstrates a real and historical dimension of apocalypse. They sense that the previous balance has been disturbed. The bomb seems to have changed the weather just as surely as World War II has twisted the souls of the men from the area who had fought in it. The need for a synthesis is as urgent as ever in this new time of crisis. Ultima involves herself in the healing of men who were suffering war-sickness and it is Antonio's role to continue the tradition of mediating old and new contradictions.

In one sense Ultima's knowledge may seem mystical because of the way it incorporates nature as well as culture, but when applied to society and history it is penetratingly comprehensive and valid. After Ultima's death, her knowledge continues in Antonio and the reader feels sure that whatever his fate may be, he possesses the conceptual tools to continue to help his people and culture with their internal conflicts as well as with the oncoming struggle between a whole new set of oppositions stemming from the fast approaching aggressive proximity of the Anglo culture and way of life.

In portraying power as the ability to think and understand in a dialectical way, Anaya demonstrates in Bless Me, Ultima the ancient collective cognitive process of mythical thought in Chicano culture and the importance of those individuals who take on the role of mediators (curanderos, tricksters or activists) in pointing out and moving towards the resolution of the contradictions generated by human history and new technology.

Notes

1. Rudolfo A. Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (Berkeley, California: Quinto Sol, 1972). All quotations are from this edition. Page numbers are noted in text.

2. Teresa Márquez, "Works by and about Rudolfo A. Anaya," in The Magic of Words: Rudolfo Anaya and His Writings, ed. Paul Vassallo, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), pp. 55-81.

3. Among many others see Arnulfo Trejo, Review of Bless Me, Ultima, Arizona Quarterly, 29, No. 2 (Spring 1973), 95-6.

4. Vernon E. Lattin, "The Quest for Mythic Vision in Contemporary Native American and Chicano Fiction," American Literature, 50, No. 4 (January 1979), 625-40.

5. Juan Rodríguez, "La Búsqueda de identidad y sus motivos en la Literatura Chicana," in The Identification and Analysis of Chicano Literature, ed. Francisco Jiménez (New York: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1979), pp. 170-78.

6. Carlota Cárdenas Dwyer, "Myth and Folk Culture in Contemporary Chicano Literature," La Luz, (December 1974), pp. 28-9. Carol Mitchell, "Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima: Folk Culture in Literature," Critique XXII, No. 1 (1980), 55-64. Jane Rogers, "The Function of the La Llorona Motif in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima," Latin American Literary Review, Vol. 5, No. 10 (Spring-Summer 1977), 64-9.

7. Roberto Cantú, "Estructura y sentido de lo onírico de Bless Me, Ultima," Southwestern American Literature, Vol. 4 (1974), 74-9.

8. Febe Portillo-Orozco, "Rudolfo Anaya's Use of History, Myth and Legend in His Novels: Bless Me, Ultima and Heart of Aztlán," M. A. thesis, San Francisco State University, 1981.

9. J. Karen Ray, "Cultural and Mythical Archetypes in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima," New Mexico Humanities Review, 1, No. 3 (September 1978), 23-8.

10. Octavio Paz, Posdata (México: Siglo XXI, 1970). Carlos Fuentes, Tiempo Mexicano (México: Joaquin Mortiz, 1971).

11. Joseph Sommers, "From the Critical Premise to the Product: Critical Modes and Their Applications to a Chicano Literary Text," in New Directions in Chicano Scholarship, ed. Ricardo Romo and Raymundo Paredes, Chicano Studies Monograph Series (La Jolla: University of California, 1978), pp. 51-80.

12. Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1962); rpt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), pp. 1-34.

13. Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1963), pp. 210-18.

14. Ibid, pp. 206-31.

15. Marc Simmons, New Mexico: A History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), pp. 107-67.

16. Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, pp. 224-25.

Enrique R. Lamadrid (essay date 1989)

SOURCE: Lamadrid, Enrique R. "The Dynamics of Myth in the Creative Vision of Rudolfo Anaya." In Pasó por Aqui: Critical Essays on the New Mexican Literary Tradition, 1542-1988, edited by Erlinda Gonzales-Berry, pp. 243-54. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1989.

[In the following essay, Lamadrid classifies Bless Me, Ultima as a novel of "mythical realism," which borrows elements of traditional Chicano folklore.]

In the range and breadth of New Mexican literature there is no writer as deeply rooted in the native folkways and regional landscapes as Rudolfo Anaya. Yet, it is his prose that shows the greatest promise of transcending the limitations of narrow regionalism and ethnic literatures. The universal thrust of Anaya's creative vision is based in myth, which he defines impressionistically as "the truth in the heart." In the same discussion of myth he further elaborates his understanding of myth as it relates to harmony and alienation, the archaic and the modern, and the role of the unconscious as link to the universal:

Our civilizing and socializing influence has made us not as unified, not as harmonious as archaic man. To go back and get in touch, and to become more harmonious, we go back to the unconscious and we bring out all of the symbols and archetypals that are available to all people.1

Anaya is a mythmaker, both intuitive and self-conscious, whose raw material is folklore, legends, and what might be termed native metaphysics. A creator rather than a collector, he transforms indigenous materials into a rich synthesis of symbol and archetype, new, yet "true to the heart." As mythmaker, Anaya is at his intuitive best when his conception of myth is guided by his unconscious as in Bless Me, Ultima (1972), and again in Tortuga (1979).2Heart of Aztlán (1976) is a more deliberate and self-conscious if less effective effort at interweaving myth into a narrative. He uses myth according to archetypal definitions and formulae of Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, or Mircea Eliade. Critics have been grappling with the dynamics of Anaya's mythopoetics ever since the appearance of Ultima. Yet, the critical analyses of myth has been as impressionistic as the author's. Thematic and archetypal analyses of myth have contributed much to elucidate the content of myth, but little to the understanding of its function as a system of cognition and communication. It is this latter aspect of myth that will be emphasized here to understand the achievements as well as the shortcomings of Anaya's mythopoetics.

As the first best seller novel of Chicano literature, it was impossible to dismiss Ultima 's introduction of compelling mythic themes into the disjunctive context of the combative and polemical ethnic literatures of the late sixties. Ultima was serene in the face of this turmoil, full of conflict, yet non combative, a portrait of the developing consciousness of the young protagonist, Antonio. The metaphysics of this emerging consciousness were so convincingly drawn that no reader doubted that the seeds of social conscience were deeply sown if yet untested in the character.

Myth was defined in Ultima as a way of knowing and making sense of the world. Myth as praxis, or a way of changing the world, was the next creative challenge Anaya faced in Heart of Aztlán. But the search for the juncture of the mythic and the revolutionary became overly self-conscious. The mythmak- ing flowed much less intuitively from Anaya's pen the more he pursued his stated purpose of "trying to touch the mythological roots."3 Myth becomes epic archetype and narrative formula rather than a natural dialectical system of knowledge. However, as in Ultima, the net of symbols underlying the novel is compelling and coherent: on one side, the same sacred sense of redeeming telluric power that pervaded Ultima pitted against a dehumanized industrial capitalism symbolized by the infernal railroad shops with snakes of steel dominated by the Santa Fe tower, "The Holy Faith embedded in a faded cross, a perverted faith in steel" (HA [Heart of Aztlán ] 197). What weakens the novel and invalidates it politically speaking for many readers is a neo-classic scheme of mythmaking imposed on it by an author alluding to the classic heroic archetypes outlined by Jung, Campbell, and Eliade: the visionary quest of the hero, the descent into the collective subconscious, the ascent to the mountain, the return.4 True, the overly familiar quest of Clemente Chávez has its analogues, even in history. A visionary Simón Bolivar climbed the mountain, the Aventine hill outside Rome, to utter his sacred oath vowing to change his world. But this is history mystified (or "mythefied," to use the Spanish equivalent). Leaders emerge and to succeed must project a vision that their people share, but history continues to be forged by the masses. The myth of Aztlán developed in the novel is a collective vision skillfully evoked by Anaya in compelling imagery, the surging river of humanity, the pulsing heart of Aztlán. But it is ultimately incompatible with the deliberate imposition of classical heroic archetypes. Several critics attribute the novel's shortcomings to defects in craftsmanship, that Anaya does not allow his symbols to "accumulate enough power in themselves to exercise power in the text," in the words of Juan Bruce Novoa.5 It is my contention that the symbolic scheme of Heart of Aztlán is impeccable. The defect lies in the overly scholastic conception and application of myth that obscures the juncture of the mythic and the revolutionary that Anaya was seeking.

Tortuga represents a return to the intuitive mythmaking of Ultima with a praxis that operates more in the individual soul than in the collective one. As Anaya has said, "just as the natural end of art is to make us well and to cure our souls, so is our relationship to the earth and its power…. I mean that there is an actual healing power which the epiphany of place provides."6 The protagonist, nicknamed Tortuga is a boy imprisoned in his cast shell by a spinal injury. The disharmony in the boy's universe has physiological rather than social causes. Social institutions, in this case the hospital, are insensitive to the spiritual content of the healing process. The boy has to draw healing power directly from the earth itself in his rehabilitation.

Besides similarities in symbolism and the evocative if sometimes romanticized handling of poetic imagery, Anaya's three novels share an important structural element in mythmaking: the seer or spiritual guide whose role it is to mediate contradictions, the key function in myth as a system of communication. In Bless Me, Ultima the chief mediator is Ultima, the curandera, whose message is that conflict and contradiction are not dichotomous but rather dialectical oppositions in the ongoing cycles of the universe. In Heart of Aztlán, the seer is the blind Crispín, master of the blue guitar, adviser and guide to Clemente Chávez in his quest for the meaning of Aztlán. In Tortuga, the seer is Salomón, Tortuga's fellow patient who shows him the way of hope, "the path of the sun" (T [Tortuga ] 160). All three seers serve integrative functions, pointing out the oneness and sanctity of the universe and the meaning of human life and the healing power of the human heart.

The mythopoetics of Rudolfo Anaya pervade the entire body of his creative work including his numerous short stories. His most comprehensive insight into the workings and cognitive function of myth as an aspect of popular culture is contained in Bless Me, Ultima, the particular focus of this analysis. Anaya strikes a deep chord in portraying two primordial ways of relating to the earth, the pastoral and the agricultural. Bless Me, Ultima is not a quaint, ahistorical sketch of rural folkways, but rather a dialectical exploration of the contradictions between lifestyles and cultures. At the novel's heart is the process which generates social and historical consciousness. A Marxist Structuralist perspective defines this process as myth, the collective interpretation and mediation of the contradictions in the historical and ecological experience of a people.

In his account of the relationship between a curandera (folk healer) and her young apprentice, Anaya deeply penetrates the mythical conscience of the reader. Despite their enthusiasm for his novel, critics have thus far been unable to define the parameters of this response nor probe the reason for its depth. Contributing elements in the narrative include: the primordial quality of the rivalry of the Luna and Márez clans, the religious conflicts and rich dream life of the boy Antonio Márez, and the power of Ultima herself, which in the end is nothing more nor less than "the magical strength that resides in the human heart" (BMU [Bless Me, Ultima ] 237). From the first reviews to later articles, an increasing body of vague but glowing commentary points to a rich "mythic" or "magical" dimension that underlies the novel.7 To those who prioritize the social relevancy of Chicano literature, this psychic plunge seemed disturbing or even reactionary in its irrationality. Despite these claims, there appeared to be something exceptional about the emerging consciousness of the boy. It was mystically harmonious with nature, yet also incorporated a dynamic, even dialectical awareness of historical forces, from the colonization of Hispanic farmers and ranchers to the coming of the Anglos and World War II. These seeming contradictions invite a reexamination of the relation of myth and social consciousness, often defined as antithetical or incompatible categories that erode and undermine each other. Since the novel apparently transcends this impasse, we are obliged to consider a critical model comprehensive enough to explain this achievement. A review of commentary on the novel is the first step in this direction.

Bless Me, Ultima has undergone extensive dream and thematic analyses that include attempts to link its "mythic" elements to precolumbian roots.8 The preponderance of interest in these "irrational" aspects plus the sometimes supernatural tone of the narrative has lead some politically progressive critics to characterize the novel as ahistorical, having only limited and passing value in depicting the "quaint" folkways of rural New Mexico.9 Thematic analysis has enumerated various tendencies, especially the folkloric, but is unable to characterize the book as anything more than a local color or costumbrista piece.10 Dream analysis has been more productive because of the consistency and symbolic unity of the many dream sequences.11 Analysis of the mythic and religious systems, notably the "Legend of the Golden Carp" is unconvincing simply because Anaya's alleged allusions to Aztec or other precolumbian mythologies are not literal enough.12 True, the idea of successive worlds, intervening apocalypses, and the exile of Gods is common in Native American religions. The suggestion of analogical patterns achieves credibility for the Golden Carp without having to invoke Huitzilopochtli or Quetzalcoatl as other Chicano writers have done. The political analysis, which deems the novel reactionary seems to be based on the assumption that Chicano novels should document only the most relevant social and political struggles. These diverse and fragmentary approaches have fallen short of estimating the overall impact and unity of the work and the structural integrity it has achieved on a number of levels.

Since the "mythic" dimension of Bless Me, Ultima is a point of confluence in the above commentaries, a definition of terms is necessary at this point. Thus far, the study of myth in Chicano literature is scholastic. The neoclassic allusions to Aztec and other precolumbian mythological and religious systems is fairly common in Chicano literature, especially in poetry and theatre. Critics have been quick to point this out, elaborating only superficially by tracing the origins of the myths and speculating on how they pertain to the sociocultural identity of the present day Chicano.13 Freud was able to tap Greek mythology for insight into the European psyche and founded the basis for Western psychology. Inspired by the work of Octavio Paz and Carlos Fuentes on the Mexican national psyche, an analogous process has been initiated in Chicano literature and criticism, although it is doubtful that an institutionalized Chicano psychotherapy would result. The underlying assumption that would prevent this is that these mythic or collective psychological patterns supposedly lie outside time, eternally remanifesting themselves in different epochs.14 This same danger plagues Chicano cultural studies in general, which often tend to analyze culture and its values as something eternal and independent of history, instead of the dynamic product or actual embodiment of history, conflict, and change.15

What I propose is a more dynamic critical approach to myth that goes beyond scholasticism and the tracing of classical mythologies. Myth is here considered to be an ongoing process of interpreting and mediating the contradictions in the everyday historical experience of the people. Such a structuralist approach to myth offers some analytical tools that can be applied in such a way as to avoid the ideological limitations of structuralism while opening the Chicano text to a dialectical analysis potentially much more penetrating and historically relevant than traditional thematic or culturalist approaches.

The reader of Bless Me, Ultima recognizes the elderly curandera as a kind of repository for the wisdom and knowledge invested in Indo-Hispanic culture. The novel functions well at this level, for Ultima is indeed in touch with the spirit that moves the land and is intent on conveying this knowledge to Antonio in her indirect and mysterious ways. Yet, the knowledge she commands and the role she plays go far beyond the herbs she knows, the stories she saves for the children, and her dabbling in "white" witchcraft. The crossed pins, the demon hairballs, the rocks falling from the sky, and the fireballs are "colorful" touches that are authentic enough in terms of folk legend. Anaya inserts the "witchery" only after having won the reader's trust in a clever conquest of their disbelief. However, the enumeration of the standard paraphernalia and the usual supernatural feats of a curandera are neither the reason for nor a barrier to the novel's success.

There is an ancient system of knowledge that Ultima exercises that in this novel does not happen to be in the herbs she uses. Any anthropologist is aware that taxonomies such as those of ethnobotany actually contain the philosophical roots and perceptual conventions of the culture.16 However, herbs and related folk knowledge are not the ultimate focus of the novel, although it is understood that Ultima is intimately familiar with them. It is her role as a cultural mediator and Antonio's natural inclination towards a similar calling that link them to their real power, which is the ability to recognize and resolve the internal contradictions of their culture. These oppositions are clearly defined in both social and symbolic terms. The rivalry of the Lunas and the Márez, the struggle of good and evil, innocence and experience, Jehovah and the Golden Carp are not simply narrative devices. If they were, then they would be merely pretexts for a combination mystery story, morality play, and Hatfield-McCoy saga with a New Mexican flavor.

Something more profound is at work in Bless Me, Ultima, for the oppositions are dialectical, and they are mediated in a way that has counterparts in many different cultures around the earth. In his comparative studies of origin myths, Claude Levi-Strauss extracts the two most basic and primordial ones, which occurred either exclusively or in combination in every culture studied.17 The "autochthonous" origin myth is exactly as the original meaning of the word implies: "one supposed to have risen or sprung from the ground of the region he inhabits." This version often has a vegetative model: man springs from the earth like a plant. The rival origin myth is more empirically based: man is born from woman. Then comes the task of finding the first woman. In Bless Me, Ultima the opposition between the agricultural Luna family and the pastoral Márez family has roots that go as deep as the very foundation of human consciousness as it moves from the paleolithic into the neolithic. Each lifestyle and the world view it is based on is as compelling, soul satisfying, and original as the other. The opposition as it occurs in the novel may be schematized as follows:

pastoral economy
the Márez family
live in Las Pasturas on the open plains
people of the sun
descendents of conquistadors and seafarers
baptized in the salt water of the sea
speak with the wind
tempestuous, anarchic freethinkers
live free upon the earth and roam over it
the horse is their totem animal
agricultural economy
the Luna family
live in El Puerto de la Luna in a fertile valley
people of the moon
descendents of a priest
baptized in the sweet water of the moon
speak with their plants and fields
quiet, introspective pious people
live tied to the earth and its cycles
corn is their totem plant

The earthshaking impact of the passage from hunting and gathering (paleolithic) into agricultural (neolithic) economies is recorded in mythologies the world over.18 The crises and contradictions that history, economic change, and technological innovation bring are the chief motivating factors for the collective cognitive process called myth. The settling down of humankind into the sedentary ways of the neolithic brought with it the emergence of social classes and institutionalized religion and all the economic and social contradictions that accompany the birth of civilization. Likewise, the developments with agriculture of horticulture and animal husbandry are distinct enough to carry with them their own ideologies as evident above. Relating more specifically to the novel in question is the history of the colonization of New Mexico and the tremendous impact of the advent of large scale pastoralism. As grazing became more important, the communal egalitarianism of agrarian society began giving way to an emerging class system based on the partidario grazing system and the rise of patrones (bosses). However, such developments are not evident in the novel, perhaps be- cause its locale, eastern New Mexico, was the last area to be settled before American annexation.19 The anarchic freedom enjoyed by the Márez clan was ephemeral, the basic historical irony of the story. The coming of the Texas ranchers, the railroad, and the barbed wire destroyed the freedom of the plains. As the popular saying goes, "Cuando vino el alambre, vino el hambre" (When the barbed wire came, so did hunger). When an economic system is threatened, so is its ideology which starts filling with nostalgia as its dreams are broken.

These historical pressures intensified the oppositions listed above and made the birth of the boy Antonio Márez Luna especially portentous for both clans whose blood coursed through his veins. Each felt the importance of having their values dominate in the boy and both vied to establish their influence at the dream scene of Antonio's birth:

This one will be a Luna, the old man said, he will be a farmer and keep our customs and traditions. Perhaps God will bless our family and make the baby a priest.

And to show their hope they rubbed the dark earth of the river valley on the baby's forehead, and they surrounded the bed with the fruits of their harvest so the small room smelled of fresh green chile and corn, ripe apples and peaches, pumpkins and green beans.

Then the silence was shattered with the thunder of hoof-beats; vaqueros surrounded the small house with shouts and gunshots, and when they entered the room they were laughing and singing and drinking.

Gabriel, they shouted, you have a fine son! He will make a fine vaquero! And they smashed the fruits and vegetables that surrounded the bed and replaced them with a saddle, horse blankets, bottles of whiskey, a new rope, bridles, chapas, and an old guitar. And they rubbed the stain of earth from the baby's forehead because man was not to be tied to the earth but free upon it.
     (BMU, 5)

The disposal of the baby's umbilical cord and placenta was also a point of contention. The Lunas wanted it buried in their fields to add to their fertility and the Márez wanted it burned to scatter the ashes to the winds of the llano (plain). The intervention of Ultima to settle the feud illustrates her role of mediator and demonstrates the basic mechanism of myth. As in all cultures the thrust of mythical thought progresses from the awareness of oppositions towards their resolution.20 Thus the importance in the mythic process of the mediator, which in many cultures assumes the form of powerful tricksters like coyote and raven in Native American mythology. In Bless Me, Ultima, both the curandera and the boy serve as mediators between the oppositions within their culture. Their intermediary functions can be traced throughout the text.

The middle ground that Ultima and Antonio occupy is evident even in spacial and geographic terms. Ultima has lived on the plain and in the valley, in Las Pasturas as well as El Puerto de la Luna, gaining the respect of the people in both places. Antonio's family lives in Guadalupe in a compromise location at mid point between Las Pasturas and El Puerto. Through the father's insistence, the house is built at the edge of the valley where the plain begins. Antonio mediates between father and mother, trying to please the latter by scraping a garden out of the rocky hillside:

Every day I reclaimed from the rocky soil of the hill a few more feet of earth to cultivate. The land of the llano was not good for farming, the good land was along the river. But my mother wanted a garden and I worked to make her happy.
     (BMU, 9)

Even within the town Antonio occupies a centralized neutral position: "Since I was not from across the tracks or from town, I was caught in the middle." (BMU, 212). This positioning made it impossible to take sides in the territorial groupings of his peers.

Anaya explains the power of the curandera as the power of the human heart, but in fact demonstrates that it is derived from the knowledge of mythic thought processes, the awareness and resolution of contradictions within the culture. People turn to Ultima and Antonio at crucial moments in their lives because they are instinctively aware that mediators (curanderos and tricksters) possess an overview or power of synthesis that can help them resolve their problems. The multiple episodes of Antonio playing the role of priest are especially significant in this light. It is his mother's and her family's dream for Antonio to become a Luna priest and man of knowledge. In fact he performs the role seriously, administering last rights to Lupito, a war-crazed murderer and Narciso, an ally of Ultima and Antonio's family. The blessings he bestows on his brothers and his friends are real and invested with a power they never fully realize as they taunt him. In his spiritual searching, Antonio discovers the contradictions in Christianity and realizes that the scope of his mediations would include the "pagan", animistic forces im- plicit in the very landscape he inhabited. In his musings to himself, he feels the new synthesis that he will be a part of: "‘Take the llano and the river valley, the moon and the sea, God and the golden carp—and make something new.’ … That is what Ultima meant by building strength from life" (BMU, 236).

The dynamism of mythic thought and its power of synthesis is poigniantly expressed in Antonio's description of the feelings and emotions that are aroused by contact with Ultima:

She took my hand and I felt the power of a whirlwind sweep around me. Her eyes swept the surrounding hills and through them I saw for the first time the wild beauty of our hills and the magic of the green river. My nostrils quivered as I felt the song of the mockingbirds and the drone of the grasshoppers mingle with the pulse of the earth. The four directions of the llano met in me, and the white sun shone on my soul. The granules of sand at my feet and the sun and sky above me seemed to dissolve into one strange, complete being.
     (BMU, 11)

The power invested in the mythical process is the knowledge derived from seeing the world as a totality and understanding its contradictions in a dialectical manner. There are other characters in the novel who demonstrate differing degrees of awareness of this totality, proving that it is indeed a mechanism of popular culture rather than a mystery reserved for a privileged, visionary few. A good example is Narciso, a powerful man of the llano who nevertheless lives in the valley, having discovered its secrets. Ample evidence of this is his exuberant, drunken garden, the likes of which not many llaneros (plainsmen) could foster (BMU, 101).

In perhaps the most global or cosmic synthesis of the novel, Ultima in a dream reveals to Antonio the totality which subsumes the oppositions contained in his culture at the moment when they seemed about to split into a dichotomy and create another apocalypse:

Cease! she cried to the raging powers, and the power from the heavens and the power from the earth obeyed her. The storm abated.

Stand, Antonio, she commanded, and I stood. You both know, she spoke to my father and my mother, that the sweet water of the moon which falls as rain is the same water that gathers into rivers and flows to fill the seas. Without the waters of the moon to replenish the oceans there would be no oceans. And the same salt waters of the oceans are drawn by the sun to the heavens, and in turn become again the waters of the moon. Without the sun there would be no waters formed to slake the dark earth's thirst.

The waters are one, Antonio. I looked into her bright, clear eyes and understood her truth.

You have been seeing only parts, she finished, and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all.
     (BMU, 113)

The implied definition of apocalypse in this system of thought is the destructive result of changes that are not assimilated, of oppositions that are not mediated. The awareness of the characters of the apocalyptic threat of the atomic bomb, first tested just to the southwest of their fertile valley, demonstrates a real and historical dimension of apocalypse. They sense the previous balance has been disturbed. The bomb seems to have changed the weather just as surely as World War II had twisted the souls of the men from the area who had fought. The need for a new synthesis is as urgent as ever in this new time of crisis. Ultima immediately involved herself in the healing of men who were suffering war sickness and it would be up to Antonio to continue the tradition of mediating contradictions both old and new.

In one sense the knowledge of Ultima may seem mystical because of the way it incorporates nature as well as culture, but when applied to society and history it is just as penetratingly comprehensive and its value just as valid. With Ultima's eventual death, her knowledge continues in Antonio and the reader feels sure that whatever his fate will be, he possesses the conceptual tools to continue to benefit his people and culture with their internal conflicts as well as with the oncoming struggle with a whole new set of oppositions stemming from the fast approaching and aggressive proximity of the Anglo culture and way of life.

In portraying power as the ability to think and understand in a dialectical way, Anaya demonstrates in Bless Me, Ultima the ancient collective cognitive process of mythical thought in Chicano culture and the importance of those individuals who take on the role of mediators (curanderos, tricksters, or activists) in pointing out and moving towards the resolution of the contradictions generated by human history and new technology. It is this dialectical conception of myth which underlies Anaya's most powerful and moving creative work. Only with the self-conscious application of heroic archetypes and a scholastic con- ception of myth can he be accused of mystifying his political and social concerns. In the former vision the magical qualities of Anaya's work become a form of knowledge while in the latter they run the risk of becoming little more than a quaint distraction or worse, an obfuscation of clear political thought.

Notes

1. "Mitólogos y Mitómanos: Mesa Redonda con Alurista, R. Anaya, M. Herrera Sobeck, A. Morales y H. Viramontes," Maize: Xicano Art and Literature Notebook, 4:3-4 (Spring-Summer 1981), pp. 6-23.

2. Rudolfo A. Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (Berkeley, California: Quinto Sol, 1972); Heart of Aztlán (Berkeley, California: Editorial Justa Publications, 1976); Tortuga (Berkeley, California: Editorial Justa Publications, 1979).

3. Richard S. Johnson, "Rudolfo Anaya: A Vision of the Heroic," Empire Magazine Denver Post, March 2, 1980, pp. 25-27.

4. Of special relevance on the topic of heroic archetypes see Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, (Cleveland: Meridian, World Publishing Company, 1969).

5. Bruce-Novoa, Review of Heart of Aztlán, La Confluencia, 1-2 (1976-78), pp. 61-62.

See also Antonio Márquez, "The Achievement of Rudolfo Anaya," in The Magic of Words: Rudolfo Anaya and His Writings, ed. Paul Vassallo, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1982), p. 40.

6. Rudolfo A. Anaya, "The Writer's Landscape: Epiphany in Landscape," Latin American Literary Review, 5-6 (1977-78), p. 101.

7. Among many others see Arnulfo Trejo, Review of Bless Me, Ultima, Arizona Quarterly, 29:2 (Spring 1973), pp. 95-96.

8. Vernon E. Lattin, "The Quest for Mythic Vision in Contemporary Native American and Chicano Fiction," American Literature, 50:4 (January 1979), pp. 625-40.

9. Juan Rodríguez, "La Búsqueda de Identidad y Sus Motivos en la Literatura Chicana," in The Identification and Analysis of Chicano Literature, ed. Francisco Jiménez (New York: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1979), pp. 170-78.

10. Carlota Cárdenas Dwyer, "Myth and Folk Culture in Contemporary Chicano Literature," La Luz, (December 1974), pp. 28-29.

Carol Mitchell, "Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima: Folk Culture in Literature," Critique 22, No. 1 (1980), pp. 55-64.

Jane Rogers, "The Function of the La Llorona Motif in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima," Latin American Literary Review, 5:10 (Spring-Summer 1977), pp. 64-69.

11. Roberto Cantú, "Estructura y Sentido de lo onírico en Bless Me, Ultima," Mester, 5:1 (Noviembre 1974), pp. 27-41.

Amy Waggoner, "Tony's Dreams—An Important Dimension in Bless Me, Ultima," Southwestern American Literature, Vol. 4 (1974), pp. 74-79.

12. Febe Portillo-Orozco, "Rudolfo Anaya's Use of History, Myth and Legend in His Novels: Bless Me, Ultima and Heart of Aztlán," M.A. thesis, San Francisco State University, 1981.

13. J. Karen Ray, "Cultural and Mythical Archetypes in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima," New Mexico Humanities Review, 1:3 (September 1978), pp. 23-28.

14. Octavio Paz, Posdata (México: Siglo XXI, 1970).

Carlos Fuentes, Tiempo Mexicano (México: Joaquín Mortiz, 1971).

15. Joseph Sommers, "From the Critical Premise to the Product: Critical Modes and Their Application to a Chicano Literary Text," in New Directions in Chicano Scholarship, ed. Ricardo Romo and Raymund Paredes, Chicano Studies Monograph Series (La Jolla: University of California, 1978), pp. 51-80.

16. Claude Levi-Strauss, The Savage Mind (1962; rpt. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970), pp. 1-34.

17. Claude Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology (New York: Basic Books, 1963), pp. 210-18.

18. Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, pp. 206-231.

19. Marc Simmons, New Mexico: A History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977), pp. 107-67.

20. Levi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, pp. 224-25.

Dianne Klein (essay date September 1992)

SOURCE: Klein, Dianne. "Coming of Ages Novels by Rudolfo Anaya and Sandra Cisneros." English Journal 81, no. 5 (September 1992): 21-6.

[In the following essay, Klein examines two Chicano coming-of-age novels, Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street and Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, calling them hybrids of the bildungsroman and Chicano traditions.]

At birth, each person begins a search to know the world and others, to answer the age-old question, "Who am I?" This search for knowledge, for truth, and for personal identity is written about in autobiographies and in bildungsroman fiction. For years, though, the canon of United States literature has included predominantly the coming-of-age stories of white, heterosexual males. Where are the stories of the others—the women, the African Americans, the Asian Americans, the Hispanics, the gay males and lesbians? What differences and similarities would we find in their bildungsromans? Many writers, silenced before, are now finding the strengths, the voices, and the market for publication to tell their stories.

Chicano/a writers, like African Americans, Asian Americans, and others, are being heard; in autobiography and in fiction, they are telling their coming-of-age stories. Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya (1972) and The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (1989) are two such Chicano/a works of fiction. In these texts, Anaya and Cisneros show the forces—social and cultural—that shape and define their characters. These two novels, separated by about a generation, one about the male experience, one about the female; one rural, one urban; one mythopoetic and one dialectic, both show the struggle of the Chicano/a people to find identities that are true to themselves as individuals and artists but that do not betray their culture and their people.

This is no mean feat, considering that Anglos did not teach them to value their cultural heritage and experiences, that they were shown no Chicano/a role models, that, in fact, they were often discouraged from writing. The struggle to overcome these barriers may, of course, be different for different Chicano/a writers, but for these two, there are common threads. Both make similar comments about their roots. Anaya says that Chicano/a writers

came from poor families … but we were rich with love and culture and a sense of sharing and imagination. We had to face a school system that very often told us we couldn't write. It did not teach us our own works and we had nothing to emulate.
     (Bruce-Novoa 1980, 198)

Cisneros says that as a writer growing up without models of Chicano/a literature, she felt impoverished with nothing of personal merit to say.

As a poor person growing up in a society where the class norm was superimposed on a TV screen, I couldn't understand why our home wasn't all green lawn and white wood…. I rejected what was at hand and emulated the voices of the poets … big, male voices … all wrong for me … it seems crazy, but … I had never felt my home, family, and neighborhood unique or worthy of writing about.
     (1987a, 72)

Even though neither had Chicano/a literature to read as a child, both cite "reading voraciously" as a major factor in becoming writers. Anaya remembers Miss Pansy, the librarian who kept him supplied with books on Saturday afternoons which

disappeared as the time of day dissolved into the time of distant worlds…. I took the time to read…. [T]hose of you who have felt the same exhilaration … will know about what I'm speaking.
     (1983, 306)

Anaya spent much time as well playing with friends, but Cisneros, being an only daughter in a family of six sons, was often lonely. She read, in part, to escape her loneliness. Cisneros reflects that her aloneness "was good for a would-be writer—it allowed … time to think … to imagine … to read and prepare" (1990, 256). Cisneros in "Notes to a Young(-er) Writer" explains that her reading was an important "first step." She says she left chores undone as she was "reading and reading, nurturing myself with books like vitamins" (1987b, 74). Perhaps these experiences by Anaya and Cisneros nurtured their creation of protagonists who, like themselves, had no models—but were possessed by destiny, by inclination, and by courage to be artists—writers who would spin Chicano/a stories.

Bless Me, Ultima and The House on Mango Street are strong coming-of-age stories containing many of the elements of the traditional bildungsroman as well as other features that place them firmly in the Chicano/a tradition. The protagonists come of age by going through painful rites of passage, by performing heroic feats or passing tests with the help of mentors, by surviving symbolic descents into hell, and finally by reaching a new level of consciousness—the protagonists have changed and have moved from initial innocence to knowledge, from childhood to adolescence. Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima closely follows the traditional male bildungsroman. Its protagonist is the child, Antonio Márez; the novel begins when he says, "Ultima came to stay with us the summer I was almost seven" (1). Antonio, the first-person narrator, travels an almost classical mythic road, moving chronologically through his coming of age.

Cisneros' House on Mango Street is also narrated by a child protagonist. Esperanza, the protagonist, tells about her life on Mango Street; we see her family, friends, and community, their daily troubles and concerns. By the end of the story, she has gained understanding about both herself and her community/culture. But, unlike Anaya's chronological novel, The House on Mango Street is the story of growing awareness which comes in fits and starts, a series of almost epiphanic narrations mirrored in a structure that is neither linear nor traditional, a hybrid of fictive and poetic form, more like an impressionistic painting where the subject isn't clear until the viewer moves back a bit and views the whole. Esperanza tells her story in a series of forty-four, individually titled vignettes. Ellen McCracken believes that this bildungsroman, which she prefers to label a "collection" rather than a novel, "roots the individual self in the broader socio-political reality of the Chicano/a community" (1989, 64).

The settings of these two novels are very different—one essentially rural and the other urban—but each functions symbolically in the character's childhood and developing consciousness. In Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio lives on the edge of the llano, a wide open prairie, a place where his father's anarchic and noisy relatives and ancestors roamed as cowboys. The restlessness of his forebears is in Antonio's blood, and from the llano he learns about the wild forces of nature, herb lore, and the pagan awesomeness of the natural world. Through this landscape runs the river, heavily endowed with significance. Anaya has said that as a child in Santa Rosa, he spent much time by the river, his "numinous" place.

I was haunted by the soul of the river…. [T]hat presence … touched my primal memory and allowed me to discover the river gods and the other essential symbols which were to become so important to my writing.
     (1977, 40)

But there are polarities even in the landscape in Bless Me, Ultima, for Antonio lives close to town, and he must try to learn the lessons of his schooling and the teachings of the Catholic Church. He must also try to understand the sometimes violent, sometimes despairing lives and compulsions of the people who live in the town. And there is yet a third place of importance to Antonio, El Puerto de Luna, the village of his mother, where the people are rooted, entrenched in agriculture and the land, moving quietly through life under the cycles of the moon. All these landscapes claim Antonio as a child, and he must decide upon their importance and allow or disallow their influences as he grows into adulthood.

For Esperanza in The House on Mango Street, the notion of "house"—or a space of her own—is critical to her coming of age as a mature person and artist. Ramón Saldívar says that this novel "emphasizes the crucial roles of racial and material as well as ideological conditions of oppression" (1990, 182). At the beginning of the novel, Esperanza explains how her parents talk about moving into a "real" house that "would have running water and pipes that worked" (Cisneros 1989, 4). Instead she lives in a run-down flat and is made to feel embarrassed and humiliated because of it. One day while she is playing outside, a nun from her school walks by and stops to talk to her.

Where do you live? she asked.

There, I said pointing to the third floor.

You live there?

There. I had to look where she pointed—the third floor, the paint peeling, wooden bars Papa had nailed in the windows so we wouldn't fall out. You live there? The way she said it made me feel like nothing.
     (5)

Later in the novel, in a similar occurrence, a nun assumes that Esperanza lives in an even worse poverty-stricken area than, in fact, is the case. Julián Olivares says thus the "house and narrator become identified as one, thereby revealing an ideological perspective of poverty and shame" (1988, 162-63). Esperanza desires a space of her own, a real home with warmth and comfort and security, a home she wouldn't be ashamed of. For Esperanza, the house is also a necessity; echoing Virginia Woolf, she needs "A House of My Own" in order to create, a "house quiet as snow … clean as paper before the poem" (Cisneros 1989, 108).

Other houses on Mango Street do not live up to Esperanza's desires either, for they are houses that "imprison" women. Many vignettes illustrate this. There is the story of Marin who always has to babysit for her aunt; when her aunt returns from work, she may stay out front but not go anywhere else. There is also the story of Rafaela whose husband locks her indoors when he goes off to play dominoes. He wishes to protect his woman, his "possession," since Rafaela is "too beautiful to look at" (79). And there is Sally whose father "says to be this beautiful is trouble…. [H]e remembers his sisters and is sad. Then she can't go out" (81). Sally marries, even before eighth grade, in order to escape the confinement and abuse of her father's house, but in the vignette, "Linoleum Roses," we see her dominated as well in the house of her husband.

She is happy … except he won't let her talk on the telephone. And he doesn't let her look out the window….

She sits home because she is afraid to go outside without his permission.
     (101-02)

Esperanza sees, as Olivares notes, that "the woman's place is one of domestic confinement, not one of liberation and choice" (163). And so, slowly, cumulatively, stroke by stroke, and story by story, Esperanza comes to realize that she must leave Mango Street so that she will not be entrapped by poverty and shame or imprisoned by patriarchy.

Another element of the bildungsroman is the appearance of a mentor who helps guide the protagonist. These coming-of-age novels both feature guides although they differ greatly in the two texts. In Bless Me, Ultima, we are introduced to Antonio's mentor, Ultima, in the very first line. Ultima, who comes to live with Antonio's family is a wise woman, called a curandera. She is also a midwife, knowledgeable in healing and herb lore, and she possesses other, seemingly magic, shaman-like qualities: an owl "familiar" and the power to deal with the evil of witches (brujas). Antonio takes to her from the beginning. He says,

I was happy with Ultima…. [S]he taught me the names of plants and flowers … of birds and animals; but most important, I learned from her that there was beauty…. [M]y soul grew under her careful guidance.
    (14)

Beset by tensions and confusion in his world, Antonio turns increasingly to her.

In The House on Mango Street there is an ironic twist to the guidance of mentors, for often Esperanza is guided by examples of women she does not want to emulate, such as Sally and Rafaela. Esperanza's other mentors are very different from Ultima, but there are several role models who sometimes give her advice. They nurture her writing talent, show her ways to escape the bonds of patriarchy, and remind her of her cultural and communal responsibilities. Minerva is a young woman who, despite being married to an abusive husband, writes poems and lets Esperanza read them. She also reads Esperanza's writing. Aunt Lupe, dying of a wasting illness, urges Esperanza to keep writing and counsels her that this will be her freedom. Alicia, who appears in two stories, is, perhaps, the best role model. While she must keep house for her father, she still studies at the university so she won't be trapped. Alicia also reminds Esperanza that Esperanza is Mango Street and will one day return. McCracken says that Alicia fights "what patriarchy expects of her" and

at the same time represents a clear-sighted, non-mystified vision of the barrio…. [S]he embodies both the antipatriarchal themes and the social obligation to return to one's ethnic community.
     (69-70)

The story, "Three Sisters," is a kind of subversive fairytale. Esperanza attends the wake of her friends' baby sister and is suddenly confronted by three mysterious old women. These women examine Esperanza's hands, tell her to make a wish, and advise, "When you leave, you must remember always to come back…. [Y]ou can't forget who you are…. [C]ome back for the ones who cannot leave as easily as you" (Cisneros 1989, 105). They direct her to remember her responsibilities to her community. In this bildungsroman, Esperanza is reminded consistently that the search for self involves more than mere personal satisfaction. All of these women offer guidance to help Esperanza in her coming of age.

The protagonists must endure other rites of passage to reach full personhood and understanding. Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima is deeply mythic. Part of Antonio's understanding comes from a series of ten dreams that Vernon Lattin believes are "just as important as Antonio's waking life…. [These] Jungian dreams help Antonio across the thresholds of transformation" (1979, 631). Antonio's first dream, for example, helps him with the anxiety he feels about the conflicting expectations that his father's and mother's families have for him. The dream is about his birth, and in it both families are at odds, battling with one another for control of Antonio's future. When the battle becomes so furious that guns are drawn, Ultima steps in and cries that only she will know his destiny. Antonio learns from this dream that he must not be destroyed by guilt or by the expectations of either family, but with Ultima he must find his one way in the world.

Near the end of the novel, Antonio experiences a terrifying, apocalyptic dream after witnessing the violent murder of Narcisco, who was coming to warn Ultima of danger. In the dream, Antonio sees his own death, and the blasphemous deaths of Ultima and the golden carp, symbol of the naturalistic, pagan world. All die and everything is destroyed; yet at the end it is decided that people will survive in "new form…. [There is] a new sun to shine its good light upon a new earth" (168). David Carrasco, who believes that Bless Me, Ultima can be read as a "religious text," says that the message Antonio learns is "the pattern of death and rebirth, decay and regeneration" and that Antonio is consciously aware that the "integration of his diverse and conflicting elements and the cultivation of sacred forces within a human being can lead to a life full of blessings" (1982, 218).

Antonio endures rites of passage in his waking life as well: he sees the brutality of his schoolmates towards those who are different; he watches two people, Lupito and Narcisco, shot to death; he is with Ultima when she dies. Perhaps his descent into darkness, a traditional rite of passage, occurs when he goes with Ultima to help cure his Uncle Lucas, who is desperately ill because of an evil spell cast by the witchlike Tenorio sisters. Ultima battles this spell, using Antonio as a kind of medium to expel the evil. He is very sick, but both he and his uncle vomit poisonous bile and recover. In the middle of the novel, he realizes what Ultima revealed earlier in a dream: "The waters are one, Antonio…. [Y]ou have been seeing only parts … and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all" (113). And so, Antonio comes of age, having gone beyond the dualities in his life.

Esperanza's rites of passage speak not through myth and dreams, but through the political realities of Mango Street. She faces pain and experiences violence in a very different way. Her major loss of innocence has to do with gender and with being sexually appropriated by men. In the vignette, "The Family of Little Feet," Esperanza and her friends don high heels and strut confidently down the street. They are pleased at first with their long legs and grown-up demeanors, then frightened as they are leered at, yelled to, threatened, and solicited. McCracken says, "Cisneros proscribes a romantic or exotic reading of the dress-up episode, focusing instead on the girls' discovery of the threatening nature of male sexual power" (67).

Perhaps Esperanza's "descent into darkness" occurs in the story "Red Clowns." Unlike the traditional bildungsroman, the knowledge with which she emerges is not that of regeneration, but of painful knowledge, the knowledge of betrayal and physical violation. In this story, she is waiting for Sally, who is off on a romantic liaison. Esperanza, all alone, is grabbed and raped. Afterward, she says, "Sally, make him stop. I couldn't make them go away. I couldn't do anything but cry. I don't remember. It was dark…. [P]lease don't make me tell it all" (Cisneros 1989, 100). In this story, Esperanza is also angry and calls Sally "a liar" because through books and magazines and the talk of women she has been led to believe the myth of romantic love. María Herrera-Sobek calls this story a "diatribe" that is directed not only at Sally,

but at the community of women in a conspiracy of silence … silence in not denouncing the "real" facts of life about sex and its negative aspects in violent sexual encounters, and complicity in romanticizing and idealizing unrealistic sexual relations.
     (177-78)

Esperanza, triply marginalized by race, class, and gender, has lost her innocence. Yet, despite this pain and violation, she manages to tell her story. She has come of age, and she understands that in the future she must serve both herself and her community.

I will say goodbye to Mango…. Friends and neighbors will say, what happened to that Esperanza? … They will not know I have gone away to come back. For the ones I left behind. For the ones who cannot get out.
     (Cisneros 1989, 110)

And so, these two novels are every bit as strong, as literary, and as meaningful as the bildungsromans traditionally read in United States-literature classes. At the same time, they take different paths, preventing a single or stereotyped view of the Chicano/a coming-of-age experience. Bless Me, Ultima celebrates a rich cultural past and heritage, taking joy in myth and in the spiritual quest. The House on Mango Street, instead, celebrates the search for the real self and cultural responsibility in the face of different oppressions. Yet both texts show that Chicano/a literature has come of age; they announce "I am." That announcement should not go unheard.

Works Cited

Anaya, Rudolfo A. 1983. "In Commemoration: One Million Volumes." American Libraries 14.5 (May): 304-07.

———. 1977. "A Writer Discusses His Craft." The CEA Critic 40 (Nov.): 39-43.

———. 1972. Bless Me, Ultima. Berkeley, CA: Tonatiuh Quinto Sol International Publishers.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. 1980. Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview. Austin: U of Texas P.

Carrasco, David. 1982. "A Perspective for a Study of Religious Dimensions in Chicano Experience: Bless Me, Ultima as a Religious Text." Aztlan 13 (Spring/Fall): 195-221.

Cisneros, Sandra. 1990. "Only Daughter." Glamour (Nov.): 256, 285.

———. 1989. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage.

———. 1987a. "From a Writer's Notebook: Ghosts and Voices: Writing from Obsession." The Americas Review 15.1 (Spring): 69-73.

———. 1987b. "Notes to a Young(er) Writer." The Americas Review 15.1 (Spring): 74-76.

Herrera-Sobek, María. 1988. "The Politics of Rape: Sexual Transgression in Chicana Fiction." The Americas Review 15.3-4 (Fall-Winter): 17-82.

Lattin, Vernon E. 1979. "The Quest for Mythic Vision in Contemporary Native American and Chicano Fiction." American Literature 50.4 (Jan.): 625-40.

McCracken, Ellen. 1989. "Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street: Community-Oriented Introspection and the Demystification of Patriarchal Violence." Breaking Boundaries: Latina Writings and Critical Readings. Ed. Asunción Horno-Delgado et al. Amherst: U of Massachusetts P. 62-71.

Olivares, Julián. 1988. "Sandra Cisneros' The House on Mango Street and the Poetics of Space." Chicana Creativity and Criticism: Charting New Frontiers in American Literature. Ed. María Herrera-Sobek and Helena María Viramontes. Houston, TX: Arte Publico P. 160-69.

Saldívar, Ramón. 1990. Chicano Narrative: The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: U of Wisconsin P.

Juan Bruce-Novoa (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Bruce-Novoa, Juan. "Learning to Read (and/in) Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima." In Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays, edited by John R. Maitino and David R. Peck, pp. 179-91. Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Bruce-Novoa studies Anaya's subtle messages about the symbolic meanings of reading and writing in Bless Me, Ultima.]

A. Analysis Of Themes And Forms

Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima is a bildungsroman, a growing-up text about a young boy passing through rites of passage that eventually turn him into a mature product of that experience. The specifics of how, where, when, and with whom not only determine who and what the adult character becomes, but communicate to both the character and the reader the cultural values that serve as the code of conduct—the code of personal and social identity—that the author has chosen to convey. Whether or not the author judges, and wants readers to judge, that code as admirable and even exemplary is evidenced in the presentation of the experience; that is, the experience is beneficial, leading to triumph within the narrative time or implied for the future, or, in cases in which the protagonist suffers defeat, the circumstances are shown to be wrongfully oppressive of the positive ideals. Anaya clearly intends his novel to be read as a positive message of a lesson that merits learning, or—in the case of the narrator/protagonist, the adult Antonio—relearning.

Bless Me, Ultima is thus a didactic novel. Lessons are taught through Antonio's maturing process. More than simply relating an interesting story about a boy growing up in World War II New Mexico, the novel offers readers a useful response to their own time and place. In other words, the novel calls for a reading that then goes beyond passive reception into a praxis, an application in one's own life of the lessons learned. The text's values, a code of behavior, are to be embodied by the reader, who is likely suffering from similar, even essentially the same, ills as the character who seeks an answer. Given this, the question arises: what is this lesson?

Bless Me, Ultima —a book so replete with fascinating details and diverse thematic lines that even experienced critics follow tangents that reveal more about themselves than about the novel—is about learning to read. Trite, but true. Antonio, from the first pages portrayed as a boy troubled by the familial conflict in which he lives and in search of the knowledge to understand his identity with respect to his specific context—familial and social—learns how to read. But lest we fall into one of the traps set by the author, we must qualify the statement: while reading is often associated with print, and print in turn is linked to reason, linear logic, and the differentiation of elements into oppositional categories—this is this and not that—Antonio's reading lesson goes beyond to the great text of signs through which all life is experienced. And those who associate reading with the rational must be reminded that in the signifying code that Antonio learns, letters are magical. Instead of limiting one to strictly defined meanings, true reading, as taught to Antonio, sensitizes one to the great web of interrelated meanings that binds all living things into a mutually dependent/supportive system. Reading for Antonio goes from the semantics of oppositional difference to the semiotics of similarity, from suffering contingency to perceiving and fostering coherence, from a rationality of perception to an ecology of participation—from understanding to sympathy.

Given that the lesson is imparted to readers as well as to Antonio, readers also receive instruction on the reading process. And just as in Antonio's case, readers can easily derive superficially partial messages from the "facts" of the content. This is the danger in attempting to list the novel's central themes or key incidents. It is too easy to misread them.

For example, a significant context for Antonio's passage into maturity is the conflict between his mother's farming family, the Lunas, and his father's pastoral family, the Márez. These are two age-old occupations in New Mexico, so together they represent facets of a heterogeneous Hispanic tradition. However, for Antonio the tradition of settled land cultivation seems impossible to reconcile with the equally strong tradition of working livestock on the open range. Readers can fall into viewing the two in the terms used by the characters themselves, and at times by the narrator: that of the freedom loving Márez (the name means "The Sons of Sea") and their opposite, the firmly rooted Lunas (Moon).

The binary opposition of apparent opposites is reinforced by the implicit values assigned to each side. The Márez are MALE, while the Lunas, through the female quality associated with the moon, are FEMININE. Thus, the question of Antonio's passage into maturity becomes one of having to decide between his father or mother, with added implications about his own sexuality. Will he be forever a "Mama's boy," or will he cut her apron strings to go out into the realm of men? Goodness is associated with the former; evil with the latter. The Lunas are quiet, calm, religious men; the Márez, loud, unsettled, and hard drinking.

This opposition is unavoidable for Antonio; it is evident in the location of his home, on a hill outside town, neither in the fertile valley nor fully in the "llano" (plains). There, he performs chores—familial training rituals—associated with both parental lines: he feeds the livestock, but also ekes out a garden for his mother from the stony and arid fringe of the plain. In the opening paragraph of the novel, although seemingly fully immersed in the wonderful memory of Ultima, the narrator conveys Antonio's spatial orientation before her actual entrance into the text by opposing the "sun-baked llano" to "the green river valley" under "the blue bowl which was the white sun's home" (1).1

This symbolic distribution of space echoes Alfonso Ortiz's explanation of the three concentric environments of Tewa people of San Juan Pueblo. The women's inner space "consists of the village, the farmlands, and other lowlands near the village." This inner space, called the navel of the earth mother, is subsectioned into the four directions. A second circle, "of hills, mesas, and washes, is a mediating environment in every important sense." While open to women and men, "women and children did not usually go unless accompanied by men," who were in charge of the area. "Both hunting and gathering are done there, by both sexes. In a spiritual sense, it is an area defined by four sacred mesas, or flat-topped buttes, one in each direction." It is believed that entrances to the underworld exist in these hills, making them dangerous to uninitiated women and children. The outermost circle is the "clear cut domain of men … the destination of purely male religious pilgrimages." The Zunis of the region go further by locating four oceans "bounding the earth's circular coastline," as Weigle and White have explained in The Lore of New Mexico.

Antonio's fears arise from being torn by the conflicting pull between the inner and outer circles, and by the fact that his family inhabits an in-between space from which it is expected that he will choose one of two directions. However, Ultima arrives, the aging wise woman, and immediately Antonio begins to see his surroundings differently. This is reflected in a subtle change in the description of his environment. When Ultima takes Antonio's hand for the first time, his first impression is that of a "whirlwind" sweeping around him; that is, the circular orientation envelops this boy who previously has been torn between two poles in linear opposition. Then the narrator declares: "Her eyes swept the surrounding hills and through them I saw for the first time the wild beauty of our hills and the magic of the green river" (10). Her eyes, in their circular sweep, place into Antonio's space a geological presence that he, in his disorienting turmoil, had not seen, the hills—the characteristic landmark of the second Tewa circle. To reinforce the circular sensation, Anaya repeats the circular sweep, now with Antonio's eyes fused with Ultima. Yet, in a technique repeated throughout the novel, when the apprentice repeats the mentor's lesson, the perceived space expands even more. For example, Antonio sees not just hills, but the "wild beauty of the hills," to which yet another important feature of the environment is then added: "the magic of the river." Ultima teaches Antonio not to see merely what is there, but to interpret what he sees by recognizing attributes that the sign conveys—in other words, he learns to read, not just see. That act profoundly changes a boy who has been living in fear of his environment:

My nostrils quivered as I felt the song of the mockingbirds and the drone of the grasshoppers mingle with the pulse of the earth. The four directions of the llano met in me, and the white sun shone on my soul. The granules of sand at my feet and the sun and the sky above me seemed to dissolve into one strange, complete being.
     (10-11)

Antonio experiences a mystical union with the cosmos—an epiphany—as he is converted into a classic axis mundi, a cosmic center of all directions, horizontal and vertical, in which nature, both animal and mineral, fuse in his being. This experience is what the novel would have readers eventually reach.

The lesson, however, is hard for readers or Antonio to grasp. Hence, it must be repeated over and over as Antonio passes through two-plus years of his passage into maturity. A similar expansion of his space comes in Chapter 2. In Chapter 1, readers are told that Antonio can see only two structures above the village: the church tower and the schoolhouse (6). These structures represent the two forces on his immediate horizon: he will start school and a little later begin preparing for his First Communion. Then, in Chapter 2, after witnessing the killing of a crazed war veteran, Antonio looks over to the town again, but this time he sees, besides the church and school, the "town's water tower" (21). Readers should recall that the discoveries provoked by Ultima's arrival also culminated in the presence of water, the magic of the river. Antonio is being led slowly but surely to discover, in Chapter 11, that the town is surrounded by water, a fact he associates with an ancient legend about the evil that pervades the world. It is no coincidence that it also reflects the Zuni concept of cosmic space.

This is not the place to trace each incident in Antonio's expanding ability to read his environment. A few key examples must suffice. In one of his frequent revelatory dreams, Antonio sees his own birth, to which the Lunas brought the fruits of the earth from their farm, while the Márez brought the implements of a cowboy's profession; the families almost battled over the right to claim the child's future. All through the novel Antonio worries about his destiny. Will he be a farmer priest as his mother dreams, or the son his father desires to help him fulfill his dream of moving to California? The opposition, however, is one of those misleading plays of signs that Antonio and readers must learn to read at a different level, where differences are revealed as parts of a whole. The families actually are not diametrical opposites. As mentioned above, they represent traditions common to New Mexican Hispano communities. Antonio is not torn between an Anglo and a Chicano world, but between two ways of being Chicano, ways which the Chicanos involved cannot, or will not, bring into harmony.

Significantly, however, the Márez way of life is no longer feasible—and this fact alludes to the encroachment of modern society, the one too simplistically called Anglo by some. Barbed wire killed the open range in the nineteenth century; then came trains and highways. The horse itself was supplanted by the car. Thus, while the Márez retain their dream of free movement, it has led them to the degradation of migrant labor. They pretend to be free wanderers, but their movements actually are determined by the demand for cheap workers. The irony is, of course, that the Márez have become second-class farmers, performing harvest chores on other people's land. When one of their sons is killed by a tractor, they lack even the consolation of knowing that he died working the family land. They are victims of exploitation, but also victims of stubborn nostalgia for an illusion they call tradition. The Lunas, however, have adapted to modernity—they drive pickups and use modern farm implements—yet they continue to cultivate in traditional ways, following the cycles of the moon, their namesake. Unlike the Márez, the Lunas remain themselves, true to their own tradition.

Antonio and readers can learn this lesson by observing events carefully. Yet, in case they miss it, Ultima comes to the rescue again. She holds the key to Antonio's future because she buried his afterbirth, a folk ritual common among rural peoples all over the world, in which an infant's destiny is determined by fixing its fleshy link to creation in a certain spot. Thus, when in another of Antonio's dreams he asks where he can find a permanent innocence—he is troubled with the conflicts around him that he associates with evil—Ultima tells him to look not to the quarreling families present at his birth, but to the moment in which his parents joined in love's embrace to conceive him. In other words, she instructs Antonio, as Anaya instructs readers, to search for the harmony in creative union, not the disintegration of focusing on difference.

This key image exemplifies Anaya's demand that images be read carefully to discover a depth of implications beyond the obvious. The anti-farmer father is cultivating the fertile soil of a Luna woman, metaphorically plowing and planting seed. At the same time, the mother is metaphorically the mount for her rider husband, leading him to free himself beyond his bodily limits. Like a Yin-Yang meshing of apparently opposite forces, the mother and father fuse into each other's metaphoric codes to form a hybrid product, Antonio, the new sign of mediated differences. Readers learn that the desired origin lies in harmony and love, not conflict; in synthesis, not resistance.

In one of Antonio's worst nightmares, he dreams the apocalypse of his small world torn apart by the opposition of cosmic forces in raging conflict. While his mother claims him as baptized in the moon's water, his father calls her a liar, insisting that the baptismal water came from the salty sea. At this point Ultima intervenes again, calms the storm, and proceeds to teach us how to read the same signs correctly.

Stand, Antonio, she commanded, and I stood. You both know, she spoke to my father and my mother, that the sweet water of the moon which falls as rain is the same water that gathers into rivers and flows to fill the seas. Without the waters of the moon to replenish the oceans there would be no oceans. And the same salt waters of the oceans are drawn by the sun to the heavens, and in turn become again the waters of the moon. Without the sun there would be no waters formed to slake the dark earth's thirst.

The waters are one, Antonio. I looked into her bright, clear eyes and understood her truth.

You have been seeing only parts, she finished, and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all.

Then there was peace in my dreams and I could rest.
    (113)

Other characters misread their signs as well. The father thinks that he has lost a freedom that his fellow plainsmen still enjoy. Yet, as seen above, the wandering Márez are nothing more than slaves in the migrant-farmworkers stream. The father's dream of going to the idyllic vineyards of California rings ironic to readers who know that in the West Coast grape industry Chicanos are migrant pickers. The mother's dream is that Antonio will become a priest. She reads her son's intelligence and academic success as signs of his religious vocation. Yet Ultima reveals that the items the infant Antonio picked, when offered the tools of life, were pen and paper. The mother takes this to signify a priest's learning, while readers know that Antonio's true vocation is to become a writer.

Readers, even critics, have often misread the novel as a conflict between a utopian past and a realistic present. The lesson of the Márez could affirm this position. The Márez hang on to their wandering ways and fall victim to the exploitation of the new economic reality. The Lunas, however, survive by adapting to circumstance—a lesson learned from the founder of their family enclave, a married Catholic priest. Anaya's position is that of adaptation. Antonio learns not an old role—he will be neither cowboy nor farmer, nor "curandero" like Ultima—but a new one, that of writer. And he is a writer, a craftsman with the tools of sign inscription, not an oral storyteller as some would like him to be, because his tools are a writer's tools. Moreover, his mentor is too taciturn to be the model of a storyteller. Also, what he produces is a text we read, not a story to which we listen—although perhaps here too we should apply Ultima's lesson and admit the possibility that his craft is that of putting into writing the oral tradition.

We must not forget that the reading lesson includes praxis. In Antonio's case, the praxis of correct reading is to recreate the sign system of his experience, a system in which Ultima is the center and catalyst of activity. In this way he keeps his promise, made at the end of Chapter 1, to never let her die. While the surface signs seem to condemn her to death as the novel ends, Antonio the narrator resuscitates her through his writing. This is the irony of his statement when he says that the gunshot that kills Ultima and her owl shattered his "childhood into a thousand fragments that long ago stopped falling and are now dusty relics gathered in distant memories" (245).

Faced with the collapse of his world at the end of the narrative, Antonio the narrator apparently does not yet recognize in himself the power to restore the unity and order about which Ultima so often instructed him. This ironic distance between what the narrator believes and what the author has allowed the reader to learn creates a test of the reader's ability to read beyond surfaces to the greater cycle of signs in that space of the novel where words perpetually repeat themselves and the plot can be renewed over and over. In literary space, Ultima, though she dies, actually lives forever. Perhaps Antonio the narrator will have to become Antonio the reader.

We must not close before discussing Ultima's character. She also is the object of the general lesson of reading beyond the surface. From the start she is introduced as a curandera, or traditional curing woman, although some people think she is a witch. Antonio is convinced that she is the former, and readers are led to agree. Yet, in a key chapter in which Ultima cures one of the Lunas who is dying from a spell laid on him by three witches—an act that sets off the deadly conflict that drives the plot to its violent end—Ultima utilizes practices that most readers will associate with witchcraft. She fabricates dolls to represent the enemy witches, piercing the dolls with pins to make them waste away and die. These are signs of witchcraft. Later, when Ultima is put to the test—crossed pins to block a witch's passage—Antonio discovers that Ultima probably passed the test by distracting the witnesses while someone removed the pins. In other words, Ultima could well be a witch. Once again, readers must read beyond the system of binary opposites. As Ultima teaches Antonio, none of this is really a matter of clear choices, but of a system of harmonious balances. What appears to be evil is a temporary imbalance that must right itself. Whether Ultima is called a witch or a curandera is almost irrelevant. What she achieves is beneficial because it restores harmony.

Critics have tried to read Bless Me, Ultima within a historical context of the plot, the 1940s. Again, this is a superficial reading that limits the text. True, the specifics of the problems caused by the draft and the effects of combat on veterans, the exodus of young people to the cities, the encroachment of modernity with the changing realities of labor, and so on, were problems of the period. However, the novel's proper historical context is the 1960s, when it was written. The same problems were painfully present: the Vietnam War, the mobility of the counterculture generation, and the full-blown effects of the mass-media revolution. Social disorientation seemed rampant. Just as the country was suffering from a questioning of traditional definitions of the national identity, Chicanos were questioning who they were, where they were going, and the history that had produced them. The questions were usually stated in radically binary terms: Us versus Them. Conflict and violence were often the result. Yet the 1960s also saw responses of a different sort, those that proposed love, harmony, and the brotherhood of all creatures in a totally integrated ecology of resources. Proponents of this latter tendency often turned to "non-occidental" responses such as Zen Buddhism, the wisdom of the I-Ching, or Native American beliefs. Bless Me, Ultima belongs to the counterculture of brotherhood based on respect for all creation. In these terms, it is shortsighted to couch the novel in terms of some kind of Chicano resistance to the dominant American culture. Anaya produced the novel when resistance to traditional limits was so common that it was a major trend of 1960s American culture. Moreover, the kind of binary opposition the novel attacks was a feature of much Chicano rhetoric, so in a real way, if Bless Me, Ultima resists something, it is the burgeoning Chicano militancy of ethnic resistance.

B. Teaching The Work

1. There are various sources of background information that will help decipher Anaya's novel. Among several texts by the author, the best are "Rudolfo A. Anaya" in Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series 4 (1986): 15-28; and "The Writer's Landscape: Epiphany in Landscape," Latin American Literary Review 5, no. 10 (1977): 98-102. Two good interviews with the author can be found in Bruce-Novoa, Chicano Authors: Inquiry by Interview (1980); and David Johnson and David Apodaca, "Myth and the Writer: A Conversation with Rudolfo Anaya," in New America 3, no. 3 (Spring 1979): 76-85. For the folklore context, consult Marta Weigle and Peter White, The Lore of New Mexico (1988). For the specific topic of witchcraft in New Mexico, see Marc Simmons, Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande (1974). For Native American myths of the region, see Alfonso Ortiz, "San Juan Pueblo," and Dennis Tedlock, "Zuni Religion and World View," both in Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 9: Southwest (1979). It should be noted that in 1994, Time Warner Com- pany became Anaya's publishing house, releasing Bless Me, Ultima in both hardcover and paperback editions, as well as a Spanish translation, Bendíceme, Ultima, for the U.S. market.

2. Bless Me, Ultima lends itself to varied interpretations. One can approach it from a perspective of mythical archetypes, applying the concepts of Carl Jung or Joseph Campbell. The novel thus becomes the story of the apprenticeship of the heroic figure in his voyage from childhood into maturity. Ultima is his guide, instructing him, leading him through ritual training, and even calling on him to do battle with the forces of evil. During one of these trials, Antonio and the readers discover his other, his sacred warrior's name, Juan, an occurrence common in heroic voyages to manhood. Hector Calderón has done a similar archetypal and mythical reading à la Northrop Frye. In his method the text is not a novel, but a romance, with a different set of rules and expectations. While the novel is supposed to be a faithful picture of real life and customs, the romance is a heroic fable about fabulous persons and things. One must be careful when using this approach, however, to avoid condemning Anaya to the reactionary position of a nostalgic dreamer in search of a golden age no longer, and perhaps never, possible in reality. Anaya is clearly conscious of the malaise of modernity. He does not reject the realities of the nuclear age, as Calderón seems to imply, but rather offers, like other 1960s counterculture writers, an alternative based in the ancient wisdom of peoples and not limited to the rationalism that sees anything but reason as escapist fantasy. It is no coincidence, in a book so concerned with shapes and spatial configurations, that the whirlwind is associated both with Ultima and the witches, nor that the same design can be traced in the windmill, the object upon which Antonio's father performs his recuperation-of-cosmicharmony ritual, nor that the father then explains to Antonio that the atomic bomb is inherently neither good nor evil, just another force in nature—and, of course, the shape of the atomic-bomb explosion is yet another avatar of the ubiquitous whirlwind. If one has learned the reading lesson of the text, then the construction of such neat binary opposites, such as golden age versus unclear age, should be immediately suspicious.

The study of binary oppositions is an obvious approach, since Anaya constructs so many in the novel. Yet, as pointed out above, this is misleading, since the oppositions are continually revealed as not mutually exclusive. Rather than pursue the oppositions for their own sake, one might profit by applying to them Jacques Derrida's sense of the mutual dependency of all binaries. Or even better, one can learn directly from the novel its message of synthesis and harmony within an ecological unity of a total system. While some critics may see this as nostalgic romanticism, others will see it as the wisdom of the ages. Enrique Lamadrid's essay is most enlightening in this respect. He recognizes that Anaya sets up the binary opposition in order to highlight the mediating position and function of Ultima and Antonio. By extension, the ideological message is then a call for a politics of mediation in the face of cultural forces that produce destructive conflict by insisting on the confrontation of oppositional absolutes. If one historicizes the text in the period of its creation, the 1960s, one can appreciate Anaya's response to the divisive forces that utilized the rhetoric of radical confrontation. His message is one of harmony, of sympathy for others, including enemies against which, when all other alternatives are impossible, one fights to the death.

3. Students can be assigned a short essay about a situation in which they have found themselves between two opposing positions, each of which had reason to expect their loyalty. In class, students can be asked to create a microcosm of a community divided into three parts. They must write the rules of two of the parts in terms of binary opposites: that is, light/dark, English/Other language, male/female, old/young, and so on. The third area is defined as the space of mediation. Then have them act out conflicts over specific areas of opposition, but communicating only through a designated mediator, who represents both sides.

Ask students to identify "before" and "after" situations in the novel, in which a description or an action is repeated, yet with some degree of alteration the second time around. Have them explain what has happened between the two scenes to produce the change. Have them consider how this technique affects the meaning of the narrative.

Have students do some historical research into the 1960s. Groups could be assigned different foci. The goal is for them to understand the atmosphere of great turmoil and radical conflict over social values. One group should focus on the counterculture's search for alternative social and spiritual models. Another group should explore the vogue of the mentor from another culture, that is, figures such as Don Juan from the Carlos Castaneda series, the Maharishi Yogi and his brand of Transcendental Meditation, the figure of the Master in the television series Kung Fu, or the figure of the poet/guide in the work of Alurista. Then have a discussion about Ultima in light of what they find.

Possible paper topics may develop from the following process: analyze what elements in the novel can be attributed to Anglo cultural influences; then consider if they actually provoke the conflicts in Antonio's life. Could they have occurred just as well without the Anglo presence?

Assign the reading of Tomás Rivera's … y no se lo tragó la tierra. Have students reconsider the Márez family as a symbol of freedom in the light of Rivera's sense of severely limited spaces associated with the migrant worker's social reality. Have students read Rodolfo Gonzales's Yo soy Joaquín/I Am Joaquín; this classic of Chicano literature—from the same period as Bless Me, Ultima —also constructs a series of binary opposition in harsh conflict. Have students consider the difference between the cultural responses called for in these two texts.

Note

1. The page numbers in parentheses, which appear throughout this essay, refer to the third edition of 1974.

C. Bibliographies

1. Related Works

Baca, Jimmy Santiago. Martín and Meditations on the South Valley. New York: New Directions, 1986. Baca's collections of poems also trace a boy's development into manhood in the same area of New Mexico in which Anaya's works are set. It can be read as a version of the same experience through a darker lens.

Candelaria, Nash. Inheritance of Strangers. Binghamton, N.Y.: Bilingual Press/Editorial Bilingüe, 1985. Candelaria's novel, set in New Mexico at the end of the nineteenth century, narrates the impact of U.S. encroachment on the traditional Hispanic society. Candelaria, however, is much more a realist in style.

Nichols, John. The Milagro Beanfield War. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1978. In this novel, Nichols creates a satirical view of the same cultural concerns and historical conflicts treated by Anaya. His humor undermines the seriousness found in many Chicano treatments of the subject.

Rivera, Tomás … y no se lo tragó la tierra / And the Earth Did Not Part. Berkeley: Quinto Sol Press, 1971. Rivera tells a very different version of a Chicano boy's development, set on the migrant farmworker circuit coming out of Texas. The style is much more fragmented and oral. There is little of the magical. This novel was awarded the Quinto Sol Prize a year before Bless Me, Ultima won it.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Viking, 1977. A novel about Native Americans in New Mexico under similar acculturation pressures as those experienced by Antonio and his family. It offers a good comparison in the treatment of the landscape, the relationship of people to the sacred earth, and the function of oral tradition in a situation of changing values.

2. Best Criticism

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. "Portraits of Chicano Artists as Young Men: The Making of the ‘Author’ in Three Chicano Novels." Festival Floricanto II, 150-61. Albuquerque: Pajarito Press, 1977. One of the most influential interpretations of the novel. The author shows the novel to be about the apprenticeship of a writer, Antonio, who fulfills his training with Ultima by becoming a novelist, the author of his own text.

Cantú, Roberto. "Apocalypse as an Ideological Construct: The Storyteller's Art in Bless Me, Ultima." In Rudolfo A. Anaya: Focus on Criticism, ed. César A. González-T., 13-63. Highly insightful article by one of the best informed scholars of Anaya's production. In spite of the unsubstantiated claim that the text is that of an oral storyteller, much valuable information can be garnered from the lengthy essay.

Cazemajou, Jean. "The Search for a Center: The Shamanic Journey of Mediators in Anaya's Trilogy, Bless Me, Ultima; Heart of Aztlán; and Tortuga." In Rudolfo A. Anaya: Focus on Criticism, ed. César González-T., 254-73. The leading French critic on Anaya's production traces the fundamental theme of sacred-world centeredness in Anaya's major novels.

González-T., César A., ed. Rudolfo A. Anaya: Focus on Criticism. La Jolla: Lalo Press, 1990. The best collection of critical writing on Anaya's work by some of the leading critics in the field.

Lamadrid, Enrique R. "The Dynamics of Myth in the Creative Vision of Rudolfo Anaya." In Pasó por aquí: Critical Essays on the New Mexican Literary Tradition, 1542-1988, 243-54. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989. A well-informed interpretation of the utilization of New Mexican myth in Anaya's work.

3. Other Sources

Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. Berkeley: Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol International, 1972.

Bauder, Thomas. "The Triumph of White Magic in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima." Mester 14, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 41-54.

Castenada, Carlos. The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge. 1968. Reprint, New York: Pocket Books, 1974

———. A Separate Reality: Further Conversations with Don Juan. 1971. Reprint, New York: Pocket Books, 1972.

Ortiz, Alfonso. "San Juan Pueblo." In Handbook of North American Indians, Volume 9: Southwest. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1979.

Simmons, Marc. Witchcraft in the Southwest: Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1974.

Weigle, Marta, and Peter White. The Lore of New Mexico. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1988.

Debra B. Black (essay date May-August 2000)

SOURCE: Black, Debra B. "Times of Conflict: Bless Me, Ultima as a Novel of Acculturation." Bilingual Review 25, no. 2 (May-August 2000): 146-62.

[In the following essay, Black describes Bless Me, Ultima as a novel of acculturation.]

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This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions.

Margarite Fernández Olmos (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Fernández Olmos, Margarite. "Historical and Magical, Ancient and Contemporary: The World of Rudolfo A. Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima." In U.S. Latino Literature: A Critical Guide for Students and Teachers, edited by Harold Augenbaum and Margarite Fernández Olmos, pp. 39-54. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Fernández Olmos offers an analysis of the thematic content of Bless Me, Ultima, providing several readings of the pervading elements of the story.]

Rudolfo A. Anaya was born on October 30, 1937, in a small village in the eastern llanos or plains of New Mexico, a barren, desolate area of mournful winds and tough vegetation that materializes in many of his writings. His roots in the region run deep. Anaya's ancestors were among the original settlers of the area and thus the cultural richness of one of the oldest communities of the Americas informs Anaya's literary worldview.

As a student at the University of New Mexico Anaya wrote several novels, some quite extensive, which he later destroyed. In 1963 he graduated with a B.A. de- gree in English and American Literature, and in 1968 he completed an M.A. in English and earned another M.A. degree (1972) in guidance and counseling which he supported by his work as a high school teacher. Anaya's quest for a unique literary voice led him to spend seven years, from 1963 to 1970, to complete his first novel. That work, Bless Me, Ultima (1972), one of the very few Chicano best-sellers, established Anaya's reputation as an author and as one of the founders of the contemporary Chicano literary movement.

By the time Anaya had published his second novel, Heart of Aztlán, in 1976, he was no longer a high school teacher. In 1974 the English Department at the University of New Mexico invited him to become a member of the faculty to teach creative writing. Tortuga (1979) is the third novel of what the author has called his New Mexico trilogy. Heart of Aztlán and Anaya's later novellas from the 1980s, The Legend of La Llorona (1984) and Lord of the Dawn: The Legend of Quetzalcoatl (1987), are closely inspired by Aztec mythology and symbolism, but Anaya's writings embrace a variety of genres and styles, including a travel journal, A Chicano in China (1986), as well as plays, short stories, poetry, edited anthologies, and essays.

In 1992 Rudolfo Anaya published Alburquerque, the recipient of a PEN-West Fiction Award, a suspenseful story of a young boxer's quest for his family's origins. The following three novels, Zia Summer (1995), Rio Grande Fall (1996), and Shaman Winter (1999), represent Anaya's incursion into the genre of detective fiction and a dramatic change in subject matter and style. Less mystical and lyrical than his earlier novels, but more easily read, Anaya's recent novels explore sociopolitical, ethical, and environmental problems that result from the power struggles inherent in rapid economic growth and development. Jalamanta, his novel published in 1996, is the tale of a spiritual leader banished from the "Seventh City" who returns with wise teachings and challenging beliefs. While not directly related to his suspense/detective novels, initiated by Alburquerque, Jalamanta nonetheless reflects the quest for truth that pervades all of Anaya's writings.

Analysis of Themes and Forms

The celebrated Mexican-American novelist, poet, playwright, and essayist Rudolfo A. Anaya has described his literary work as a quest to compose the Chicano literary worldview. As a student of the classics and of contemporary literature in the English/Anglo American traditions, Anaya was well acquainted with the myths and symbols of King Arthur's Court, a metaphor the author uses in his essay "An American Chicano in King Arthur's Court" for the communal memory of Anglo Americans whose history and culture have been almost exclusively associated with American identity. But the voice he was searching for, the worldview he wished to discover in literature, was not to be found in those works nor in any others of the time. His creative voice as an author of his Hispanic/Indian/New Mexican identity Anaya would have to discover on his own. That quest resulted in his 1972 novel, Bless Me, Ultima, still considered among the most memorable works of Chicano fiction.

Anaya has portrayed his "meeting" with the fictional character of his first novel, "Ultima," as a type of spiritual or magical encounter. He had begun to work on the story of a young boy, Antonio, and his relationship with his family. The story, however, never seemed to coalesce. The author found it difficult to uncover the symbols and patterns of his own culture. The pathway to that process, he claims, was opened up to him by Ultima's "appearance." "That strong, old curandera [folk healer] … came to me one night and pointed the way. That is, she came to me from my subconscious, a guide and mentor who was to lead me into the world of my native American experience. Write what you know … learn who you really are" ("An American Chicano" 115). From that moment, the ideas for the novel flowed as Anaya rediscovered the collective symbols of his Hispanic, indigenous heritage. In the author's first novel he turned to his life experiences for inspiration. The story of the awakening of a young boy's consciousness growing up in a small New Mexico town shortly after World War II closely parallels the author's own experience. At the same time, however, Bless Me, Ultima is a highly original work with a unique story and a universal appeal that has established Anaya's international reputation.

Bless Me, Ultima is considered by many the quintessential Chicano bildungsroman or coming-of-age novel. In Bless Me, Ultima, as in other works of this genre, the reader observes the process of the maturation of the main character through a series of rites of passage that affect the hero profoundly. In Anaya's novel the passage of time is limited to the main character's experiences from ages six to eight, much briefer than in the traditional bildungsroman. Young Antonio learns much in those two years, however, thanks to his apprenticeship with the old folk healer who guides his growing consciousness. Writers like Rudolfo Anaya from ethnically and racially marginalized groups in the United States take full advantage of the genre's potential. Often the coming-of-age novel as expressed in their works reflects the identity and adjustment problems of the protagonist to the dominant cultural society. The novel reveals the influence of objective cultural values on the moral maturation of the central character. In asserting an identity not always condoned or accepted by the power structure of his or her society, the ethnic or minority writer attempts to create new standards and perspectives from his or her position on the periphery of mainstream society.

Bless Me, Ultima blazed a path within the Chicano literary tradition in the category referred to as "novels of identity" in which the main characters must redefine themselves within the larger society from the vantage point of their own distinct ethnicity. In identity novels the character is always aware of his or her cultural heritage (often questioning it as well) and attempts to forge some type of reconciliation with the larger society while maintaining a distinct identity. In Bless Me, Ultima the figure of Ultima in this context is crucial. As young Antonio's guide and mentor, her teachings not only bring him into contact with a mystical, primordial world but also with a culture—his own Hispanic/Indian culture—that he must learn to appreciate if he is ever to understand truly himself and his place within society.

How can a story told from the vantage point of a seven-year-old boy express profound insights and complex ideas? Bless Me, Ultima accomplishes the task by being an extended flashback, that is, by assuring the reader from the very beginning that the events described, although seemingly occurring in the present, in fact occurred at an earlier time; the narrator is therefore, by implication, an adult. Anaya is able to maneuver this tension of the older implied narrator and the younger voice of the child-protagonist Antonio by carefully recreating the reactions of a small boy. Antonio's comments reflect the expected limitations of a child of that age. For Antonio, World War II is a "far-off war of the Japanese and the Germans," for example, and other historical events are explained in an equally simple age-appropriate manner. The reader is informed that Ultima came to stay with Antonio's family the summer that he was almost seven years old. Her arrival marks the beginning: "the beginning that came with Ultima" (1), and indeed Antonio's story begins and ends with her. Subsequent references in the same chapter to a time "long after Ultima was gone and I had grown to be a man" (13) affirm the fact that, although the story is presented in the voice of a young boy, it is actually the tale of a remembered youth. Time and chronology assume additional significance; time is described as "magical," it "stands still" and is linked with the character of Ultima. She represents origins and beginnings; her very name implies extremes and the extent of time and distance that Antonio will travel on his passage from innocence into awareness.

Bless Me, Ultima is an accessible novel despite its grounding in Chicano folk culture and myth and its occasional use of Spanish. It follows a linear or straightforward story development, a plot line that is clearly defined, and avoids the more experimental prose styles of other writers. Levels of narration are clearly delineated for the reader by the use of italics, a frequent Anaya device. Antonio's dream sequences, for example, are separated from the rest of the narration by italics, indicating a different dimension of consciousness. The first chapter serves important functions in plot development and structure. It gently guides the reader toward essential story elements, such as setting, characters, and historical background, and introduces the major conflicts that will form the basis for the dramatic tension throughout the novel. The technique of foreshadowing, which can often provide structural and thematic unity to a work, first appears in the introductory chapter. In Bless Me, Ultima foreshadowing ranges from statements that openly indicate future events to symbolic premonitions in dreams that suggest them. After Antonio's home is described in chapter one as a place that offers the young boy a unique vantage point from which to observe family incidents, he refers to the tragedy of the sheriff's murder that has yet to occur, the anguish of his brothers' future rebellion against their father, and the many nights when he will see Ultima returning from her moonlit labors gathering the herbs that are a folk healer's remedies. Ultima, who rarely speaks and whose words are therefore significant, states that "there will be something" between herself and Antonio, suggesting a strong and important relationship yet to come. But the most effective foreshadowing technique is found in Antonio's dream sequences throughout the novel, the first of which occurs in chapter one. They express the dread and anxiety of his inner world but are also frequently premonitions of the future. Antonio's dreams provide both a structural and thematic framework for the novel as they illustrate past events and suggest future conflicts.

Family history and New Mexican history are inextricably linked in Bless Me, Ultima. Antonio's father teaches the young boy about his past, which is tied to the Spanish colonial period of the religion. His father, Gabriel, is a vaquero or cowboy. More than an occupation, it is a calling that has united his father and his paternal ancestors to the New Mexican plains, described as being as vast as the oceans. (Antonio's father's surname, Márez, derives from the Spanish word mar meaning the sea.) Social and economic changes in the state severely curtailed the free-spirited, aggressive lifestyle of the vaqueros when Anglo settlers took control of the land. The novel refers to such background information as part of the process of Antonio's education concerning his family's past; these facts also serve, of course, to provide readers with the cultural and historical foundation that will broaden their appreciation of events in the novel.

Antonio's mother is also linked with local culture but from a different perspective, as her own surname implies; she is a Luna, a people of the moon, tied to the land as farmers. The Lunas represent a different tradition within the rural U.S. Hispanic culture of the Southwest—the farming tradition, settled, tranquil, modest, devout, tied to old ways and customs. Antonio's mother, María, had convinced her husband to leave the village of Las Pasturas, and a lifestyle she considered coarse and wild, and move the family to the town of Guadalupe where better opportunities existed for their children. The move separates Gabriel from the other vaqueros and the free llano life he loves. He becomes a bitter man who drinks to soothe his hurt pride and his loneliness. The differences between these two cultures forms the basis for the first major conflict that affects Antonio's family. These tensions, as one discovers throughout the work, are presented as dichotomies: Márez/Luna, vaquero/farmer, free spirited/settled. Antonio must find a balance to these divided forces which tug at him from opposite directions.

The first dream sequence in chapter one illustrates his anxieties. Antonio describes a dream in which he witnesses his own birth assisted by an old midwife. After he is born she wraps the umbilical cord and the placenta as an offering to the Virgin of Guadalupe, the patron saint of the town (and of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in general). In his dream Antonio observes a terrible quarrel between the two branches of his family. The Lunas hope that the baby will become one of them, or possibly even a priest (his mother's fervent hope); the Márez uncles smash the symbolic offerings of fruits and vegetables brought by the mother's clan and replace them with their own emblematic gifts of a saddle, a bridle, and a guitar. They hope Antonio will follow their free-spirited ways. Both families frantically attempt to take hold of the placenta hoping to control the baby's destiny by disposing of it in their own allegorical fashion. The Lunas would bury it in the fields, tying the boy to the earth; the Márez family wish to burn it and scatter the ashes freely to the winds of the llano. The families have nearly come to blows when the old midwife steps in to claim her rights, as the person who brought the young life into the world, to dispose of the afterbirth herself. "Only I know his destiny" (6).

That old midwife is, of course, Ultima, the curandera who eventually comes to live in their home. One issue upon which both parents agree is their obligation to provide and care for the elders, respecting customs and traditions. Therefore, when Antonio's father discovers that Ultima will be living alone in the llano when the people abandon the village of Las Pasturas, he and Antonio's mother decide to invite her into their household in gratitude for her years of service to themselves and the community. Ultima is a respected figure, referred to as la Grande, the old, wise one. Outside of the family, however, Ultima is feared by some. Her healing powers are suspect and she is considered a bruja or witch. The suggestion of witchcraft brings a shudder of fear to Antonio and is a warning to the reader as well; the idea that witches can heal but can also place and lift curses with evil powers is another example of Anaya's foreshadowing of things to come.

Ultima is associated with ancient traditions and wisdom; in Bless Me, Ultima she is also equated with the forces of nature. Her meeting with Antonio is accompanied by a whirlwind, an oft-repeated motif representing magical power or warning of danger. And, as in traditional witch stories, Ultima is identified with a specific animal—in this case, an owl. The animal is reputed to be a disguise assumed by witches, but Ultima's owl does not frighten Antonio. On the contrary, her owl protects, defends, and soothes him, an observation legitimized by another of Antonio's dreams in which the owl flies the Virgin of Guadalupe on its wings to heaven.

Throughout Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio's dreams serve several functions: they sometimes anticipate events to come but more importantly they are an index to the main character's emotional and psycho- logical development. Anaya has skillfully blended the "external" plot events with Antonio's frequent introspective musings and his world of dreams, a combination of personal experience, fantasy, and mythical legend. Antonio's dreams pervade his waking hours; each of them influence to some degree his conduct and attitude. In chapter nine, aware that his brothers frequent Rosie's house, the town brothel, Antonio's musings on his older brothers' behavior mirror his own apprehensions with regard to women and sexuality, innocence, and the concept of sin. The young boy represses his disturbing feelings which translates them into a dream about his brothers' restlessness as they experience the restraints of a small town and their parents' aspirations. Their behavior is rationalized in the novel, in great part, by their lineage; the notion of blood and heredity is a motif throughout Bless Me, Ultima. Just as Antonio's father's aggressiveness and his wife's gentle, subdued behavior are understood as hereditary qualities—in the "blood"—his brothers' attitudes and behavior are attributed to their father's character: "The Márez blood draws them away from home and parents" (72). Antonio's mother attempts to link his destiny with that of his Luna ancestor, a priest who supposedly established the town of Guadalupe generations earlier. In his dream, Antonio's brothers declare him to be a Luna who will become a farmer-priest like their maternal ancestor for their mother's sake. The dream sequences serve as a good example of the crossweaving of the external and internal conflicts that drive the plot.

Inquisitive and courageous, sensitive and thoughtful, Antonio's character evolves on several levels. On the objective, external plane his character passes through a variety of experiences, some typical of most young boys, some highly unusual. Many of his experiences can be compared to those of other rural Hispanic children in the U.S. Southwest of a certain era: he is raised in a Spanish-speaking home where traditions are maintained and respected; he confronts an Anglo-oriented school system where he is linguistically and culturally socialized into mainstream society; and he is indoctrinated into the Catholic religion even as he is surrounded by competing influences.

Other experiences are less typical and even extraordinary: in a short period of time, Antonio confronts violence and murder, tragic death, witchcraft, and supernatural phenomena. He will actively participate in ritual healing and even experience a symbolic death and rebirth as a part of his spiritual and psychological maturation. What Antonio cannot face or understand on a conscious level is deciphered in his dreams. His doubts and uncertainties are echoed on the subconscious level and occasionally resolved there as well. His reactions to these events as expressed in his dreams are the most revealing insights into the growth and evolution of the character; they provide a thematic framework of his gradual transformation.

As noted earlier, Antonio's first dream is of his own birth; both his biological mother and his spiritual mother (Ultima) are present. The dreams that follow reflect concerns about family and fear of losses (of people and illusions) that prepare him for his passage into adulthood and individuality. The critic Vernon E. Lattin divides the nine remaining dreams that follow the birth sequence into groups that reveal the path to Antonio's destiny. Dreams three (1978, 45), five (70), and seven (140) reflect the fear of loss: Antonio foresees that he will not become the priest his mother had hoped for, his innocence will be lost as he faces the temptations of sexuality, and the vision of Ultima in her coffin foreshadows the loss through death of his spiritual mother. Dreams two (25), four (61), and nine (235) reflect anxieties concerning Antonio's brothers and the larger world beyond, foreshadowing the experience of loss that he must assimilate in order to attain adulthood. In dreams two and four Antonio's brothers confront their own destinies beyond the family. With Antonio's help they can face the dangers of the treacherous river, but Antonio comes to realize that he cannot always assist these giants of his dreams, and by dream nine he resigns himself to the fact that they are lost to him and his parents. Like the souls of the Comanche spirits calmed by Ultima's ritual cremation, the souls of his brothers are put to rest in Antonio's anguished psyche.

Dreams six (119), eight (172), and ten (243) are considered by Lattin and other critics to be the most significant: "the dreams most homologous with the experience of the sacred, and as they present the dark night of the soul, they prepare the soul for its rebirth" (Lattin, "Horror of Darkness" 55). Dream six is the calm of reconciliation after the storm, an important step in solving Antonio's dilemma of good versus evil. The eighth dream becomes progressively more violent as despair and destruction are vividly communicated to the young boy—his home is set afire, his family is destroyed, Ultima is beheaded by an angry mob, and all life around him disintegrates. From this cosmic nothingness regenerative powers emerge. Although Antonio's final dream is filled with terror of death, the reader senses that he is now more prepared to accept and understand the realities of life. Having witnessed by now so much of Ultima's healing power, the messages of her teaching and his own dreams have revealed themselves to him. Toward the novel's end he reflects: "And that is what Ultima tried to teach me, that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart" (249).

A less-developed character than Antonio, Ultima is crucial nonetheless. She is once a stabilizer and a catalyst for growth and change, and the story revolves around the transference of her knowledge and worldview to Antonio. In Ultima, Anaya has created a fascinating character who embodies the combination of indigenous traditions, ancient beliefs, and shamanic healing. Ultima is seer and natural scientist, teacher and herbal doctor. And despite her never having married or having had children of her own, she is a symbolic mother figure who represents the mysteries of life, death, and transformation.

Ultima is a conciliatory force in the novel who guides Antonio between the extremes of his parents and the myriad other tensions he must attempt to resolve. Respected as "a woman who has not sinned," she is also feared. Her skills were acquired from a renowned healer, "the flying man of Las Pasturas," and hence many consider her a witch. Ultima's characterization goes beyond the usual expectations regarding the gendered roles for men and women because she is a curandera; she is afforded a place in the public world not usually given to women in traditional patriarchal cultures. Her power comes in part from her knowledge of herbal remedies, spiritual healing, and magical rituals. And her spiritual approach is syncretic: it derives both from modern medicine and time-honored Native American curative practices, Christianity, and pagan traditions. The complexity of this character derives from these differing sources that are blended in her. Ultima represents a Mexican Amerindian tradition that has often been preserved precisely by women curanderas. Though uncommon in U.S. letters, curanderas have been a part of the Hispanic tradition for centuries and are familiar characters for many Hispanic readers.

Given the density of symbolism, myth, and cultural references in Bless Me, Ultima, it is not surprising that the novel has inspired a variety of critical responses. On the most fundamental level, of course, the novel's major theme is the coming-of-age and self-realization of a young Hispanic boy in New Mexico. Other obvious topics are the quest for personal and cultural identity, the significance of Chicano tradition and myth in spirituality and healing, and the role of mentors and guides in psychological and spiritual growth and development.

A standard approach to Bless Me, Ultima emphasizes the protagonist's need to reconcile the opposites in his life. The novel offers numerous conflicts the young boy must confront and presents them as seemingly irreconcilable opposites. The most evident is the clash between his father's pastoral lifestyle and his mother's farming tradition. The differences between the two, repeated throughout the novel, are underscored by their very surnames—Márez and Luna. Other striking examples are the conflicts between male and female, good and evil (personified in the beneficent mother-figure Ultima versus the evil father Tenorio), love and hate, town and country, and the Christian God versus the golden carp. Some critics have also noted the message of reconciliation, synthesis, and harmony that is also apparent in the novel. Conflicts and imbalances find a solution in harmony, balance, and a message of oneness; synthesis resolves opposites and mediates differences. Generally the balance and mediation are brought about by Ultima or Antonio; in other instances, the wisdom of nature itself restores harmony.

Some readings of the novel portray it as a nostalgic text, romanticizing an era that has little relevance for contemporary Chicano readers who are largely urban and for whom the conflicts among rural Hispanic traditions are issues of the past. Other critics disagree. For Horst Tonn, Bless Me, Ultima can be read on another level at which "the novel constitutes a significant response to relevant issues of the community. In broad terms, these issues are identity formation, mediation of conflict, and utilization of the past for the exigencies of the present" (2). U.S. society at the time Anaya was writing his work was experiencing a crisis of values similar to that portrayed in the novel in the mid-1940s. The theme of the pressure of change portrayed in the novel that Tonn identifies is underscored in the scene in which the townspeople react to the detonation of the first atomic bomb near Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1945: "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" (190). The disruptive effects of World War II on veterans and their families, as well as on the internal migration from rural areas to the cities, have their counterpart in the social upheavals of the 1960s when Chicanos participated in movements for social change and began to ques- tion their cultural values and identities. Bless Me, Ultima proposes responses to the contemporary crisis of values based on the need for healing and reconciliation. Just as Antonio and Ultima function as mediators, healing a community suffering from strife and disruption, "the novel itself can be said to share in and contribute to a mediation process at work in the Chicano community during the 1960s and early 1970s" (Tonn 5). Juan Bruce-Novoa agrees that Bless Me, Ultima is truly a novel reflective of its era. In the midst of conflict and violence some present at the time proposed the alternative responses of "love, harmony, and the brotherhood of all creatures in a totally integrated ecology of resources … Bless Me, Ultima belongs to the counterculture of brotherhood based on respect for all creation" (Bruce-Novoa, "Learning to Read" 186).

Among the more popular approaches to the analysis of Bless Me, Ultima are those based on myth theory and criticism, a viable alternative given the emphasis that the novel places on the developing dream life of its protagonist, Anaya's familiarity with the theories of Carl G. Jung regarding universal archetypes, and the author's expressed affinity for myth: "One way I have in looking at my own work … is through a sense that I have about primal images, primal imageries. A sense that I have about the archetypal, about what we once must have known collectively" (Johnson and Apodaca, 422). Bless Me, Ultima offers ample opportunities for archetypal interpretations. The archetypal feminine principle—the intuitive, loving, life-affirming protector and nurturer—can be attributed to Ultima, the Good Earth Mother, and on another level, to the Virgin of Guadalupe who appears often in Antonio's dreams and is his mother's spiritual protector. The Terrible Mother—the frightening female figure, emasculating and life-threatening—corresponds to "La Llorona," a legendary mother in the Hispanic tradition who destroyed her own children and threatens those of others.

Antonio's character has been interpreted as that of the classic boy-hero who must successfully complete the universal rite of passage of separation, initiation, and return. He must depart the comforts of his mother's hearth and cross the bridge into the wide world of the town with its perils and challenges. His trials will extend from Lupito's murder to his Uncle Lucas' ritual exorcism for which the hero will sacrifice himself to save another. After three days of agony he will emerge as if reborn, a new, more mature boy who can reconcile himself with his father and mother, as well as the world around him. Ultima provides him with the symbolic tools (her pouch of herbs) and the spiritual weapons (her teachings) that will assist him in his ordeals.

A Jungian approach to Bless Me, Ultima could run the risk of leading to a static, unchanging mythical perception, however, one that certainly would not be faithful to Anaya's views on mythology. For the author, mythology is not simply a refashioning or retelling of ancient or universal tales and patterns. Myths should speak to our contemporary lives, give significance to a community. Historically constructed over generations, myths can help us understand contemporary realities and conditions. A more dynamic approach to myth criticism in Bless Me, Ultima is described by Enrique R. Lamadrid as "an ongoing process of interpreting and mediating the contradictions in the everyday historical experience of the people" (Lamadrid 103). In the novel this would be manifest in the dichotomies and binary oppositions (good and evil, love and hate, etc.) that are mediated by Ultima and Antonio. Their role is to reconcile these contradictions to arrive at harmony and synthesis and, in keeping with the original role of myth, resolve the internal contradictions of their community.

A myth criticism interpretation of Bless Me, Ultima should bear in mind, therefore, that Anaya describes a specific culture, a particular belief system. An analysis of the character Ultima may reflect universal principles, but it must be remembered that Ultima, as a shaman/curandera, represents an actual vocation, that of a healer/spiritual leader, a role with a useful and important function in an authentic culture. The role of a shaman and the role of a curandera are often indistinguishable. Both can resort to dreams and visions for help and guidance, and both practice medical, magical, and spiritual arts. A specialist in the use of spells and incantations as well as herbal remedies, the shaman is believed to have the power to change her or his human form into that of an animal or spirit. The curative practices of a curandera are intertwined with religious beliefs and respect for nature. Disharmony and imbalance cause a disruption of health; healing is a return to oneness and harmony with nature. These alternative healing values have endured for centuries and continue to provide contemporary answers to age-old questions. Bless Me, Ultima demonstrates that myth criticism and a culturally specific approach to a work of literature need not be mutually exclusive. Anaya's novel is historically relevant and magical, ancient and contemporary.

Teaching the Work

1. Bless Me, Ultima was among the first published Chicano bildungsroman. An interesting comparison might be made between Anaya's novel and the works of other Chicano authors, such as Tomás Rivera and Richard Rodriguez, particularly with regard to the protagonists' relationships to their ethnicity, language, and family relations. A comparison with other Latino authors such as Piri Thomas might also prove fruitful if the focus then becomes the influence of the world outside the family on the development of the young male protagonist. How significant is being a member of a specific cultural group compared to issues of race, social class, and environment?

2. The topic of identity could be extended to gender. How do the dilemmas faced by the male protagonist of Bless Me, Ultima compare to the issues proposed by such female authors as Sandra Cisneros and Esmeralda Santiago in their works with female protagonists? Are the social tensions they confront complicated by gender?

3. The figure of Ultima represents a shamanic/folk healer culture that has long been a tradition in the U.S. Southwest. Her use of natural plants and herbs to heal reflects a curative practice, curanderismo, that is ancient but has gained popularity recently among those with an interest in alternative healing practices in the larger mainstream society. Robert T. Trotter's Curanderismo: Mexican American Folk Healing (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981) is useful for this approach. Students could research this fascinating area of study, listing some of Ultima's remedies and suggesting family cures from their own ethnic or family traditions. How is the use of magic significant in healing?

4. Additional student projects could include (1) consideration of what might be Antonio's chosen profession as an adult (despite his parent's dreams, can we imagine what Antonio eventually decided to do with his life?); (2) researching the time and place discussed in the novel, recalling that this was the sight of the first atomic bomb test (why is that significant? How might it affect the inhabitants of the region and the land so cherished by Antonio's family?); (3) consultation of a dictionary or interviewing a Spanish speaker to understand Anaya's Spanish terms and expressions to see the novel from an "insider's" perspective; and (4) consideration of how events might be portrayed differently if narrated by characters other than Antonio.

Manuel Broncano (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Broncano, Manuel. "Landscapes of the Magical: Cather's and Anaya's Explorations of the Southwest." In Willa Cather and the American Southwest, edited by John N. Swift and Joseph R. Urgo, pp. 124-35. Lincoln, Neb.: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

[In the following essay, Broncano studies how the distinct setting of the American Southwest affects Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop and Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima.]

The American experience involves a peculiar conception of land and self. Since the discovery of America as a result of Christopher Columbus's miscalculation, the New World has been tinged with the uncanny and the mysterious. Reports sent to Europe by conquistadores and colonizers of all kinds described a landscape where the fabulous and the real mingled together, a sort of mythological region where every wonder seemed possible. From the beginning, America has been subject to utter misrepresentation, both in the European mind and in the minds of all those adventurers who came to the shores of the New World and then pushed farther and farther into the wilderness in search of a chimera of success and regeneration. In the history of early America, contradictory discourses speak of epic deeds and deplorable failures, always in the guise of a Christian and civilizing mission, or a divine "errand into the wilderness." On the one hand, Hernán Cortés and his squalid battalion of fearless mercenaries conquer the fabulous empire of the Aztecs, backed by the devil-like power of horses and armor; on the other hand, Cabeza de Vaca rambles for ten years on the plains and deserts of the Southwest, the object of trade and abuse among Indians of numerous tribes, and becomes a shaman, or holy man, performing a number of obscure "miraculous healings." Radically different in their tone and content, the reports sent back to Charles I of Spain by Cortés and de Vaca articulate distorted perceptions of the reality they confronted. Yet Cortés's discourse of "mythification" and de Vaca's discourse of "demythification," or failure, coincide in projecting a vision of the New World as a region of wonders and mysteries. American writers of all regions have since developed an acute eye for the "strangeness" of our everyday world and the ambiguous texture of the reality we inhabit.

One striking inheritor of the American tradition of "strangeness" is the remarkable phenomenon in contemporary Hispanic fiction labeled "magical realism." The term has been most often used in relation to the Latin American boom of Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Rulfo, Carlos Fuentes, and others. Notorious disagreement exists, however, over its extent and meaning, making it difficult to use as a general category of analysis. It has been less frequently applied to the dominant literature of the United States, where, nonetheless, realistic writing has always shown a conspicuous tendency toward the magical and the romantic. Thus, Hawthorne and his contemporaries wrote romances, a peculiar kind of realism that tries to reveal the mysteries of everyday reality. And even in the novel that represents the summit of American realism, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, there is a clear presence of the magical (for example, Jim's superstitions and the fear they inspire in Huck), besides a romantic and transcendental vein that permeates the text. In Twain's novel, moreover, frontier humor softens the violent and tense situations that abound in Huck and Jim's journey: a kind of humor characteristic of magical realism as practiced by García Márquez and others. We should also remember the great influence that William Faulkner has exerted on the writers of the Latin American boom, who in return have provided a literary model quite influential in contemporary American fiction.

The debate over the nature and influence of magical realism is extensive. Enrique Anderson Imbert was the first to attempt a distinction between magical realism and the fantastic; Tzvetan Todorov established the distinction between the fantastic and the marvelous; Lucia I. Mena equated the magico-realist mode to Todorov's sense of the marvelous and concluded that while the fantastic creates mysteries that are outside our world, magical realism seeks mysteries that are part of reality. To Mena, the mysterious and the supernatural do not collide with the real but become part of it (66). Roland Walter has suggested that magical realism shows three characteristics: (1) the existence of two levels of reality—the real and the magical; (2) the harmonious integration of the two levels of reality; and (3) a reduced authorial instance, or a reticence on the part of the author (and the narrator) to provide rational explanations regarding magical events. The magical view implies that the individual interprets reality not only in rational terms but also through the myths, legends, and superstitions inherited from the past. The result is that unreal, mysterious, and strange phenomena are perceived as real or natural. In the magico-realist mode, things and events are magical because the author, the narrator, and/or the characters perceive them as such by means of imagination (Walter 20-21).

The importance of magical realism as a category of analysis in the context of North America has been the focus of pioneer critical exercises in the field. José D. Saldivar, whose "Postmodern Realism" in the Columbia Literary History of the American Novel (1991) confirms magical realism as a pan-American phenomenon deeply ingrained in the peculiarities of society and history in the New World, identifies practitioners as Toni Morrison, Arturo Islas, Maxine Hong Kingston, and other U.S. writers whose practice of the mode has received "little attention in our largely Anglophonic Departments of Literature, owing to an inadequate understanding of a vast and rich literary and cultural movement in the Americas that began over forty years ago" (523). Lois P. Zamora (1995) shares Saldivar's transnational approach to the mode, pointing out its proximity to the grotesque in its capacity for unsettling the reader and provoking disgust, a relation to which we shall return later. Wayne Ude (1981, 1989) has identified magical realism as inherent to the North American literary tradition; his work provides the theoretical lead underlying this essay. For Ude, magical realism made its entrance as such in the United States in the late 1960s, in a post-modernist attempt at revitalizing the exhaustion of self-reflexive and language-centered fiction. The roots of the mode, however, extend back to the Puritans and their peculiar conceptions of civilization and wilderness, through the nineteenth-century romance-novel of Hawthorne and others, and up to what Ude labels "North American Magical Realism" ("Forging" 50). It is the purpose of this essay to demonstrate that Rudolfo Anaya and Willa Cather belong in that school as well, for they both practice the "magical grotesque" as the only viable representational mode for coping with the complex reality of the American Southwest.

The Southwest is unique in both the United States and the Americas at large, as it is a composite of peoples, civilizations, religions, and myths resulting from successive frontier experiences of cultural collision. The Southwest contains a landscape—physical and human—without referents in any other region. Confined in its sierras and mesas, gorges and deserts, rivers and valleys, convents and pueblos, it is a world of features to be found nowhere else on the continent. As a place where magic and legend permeate the beliefs and daily life of its inhabitants, this landscape seems to lie beyond the reach of the rational mind. This is, at least, the world created by the two New Mexico novels I will explore in this essay. Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima (originally published in 1972) is a bildungsroman about a child who awakes to the realities and mysteries of life. Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927) speaks of the en- counter between a French priest and the region's very particular practice of Roman Catholicism. The two novels question the viability of Christian orthodoxy in the New World, while projecting the profound religious feelings of the population. They share, to varying degrees, a magical perspective on reality and a profound indebtedness to the aesthetics of the grotesque.

Bless Me, Ultima signals the coming-of-age of Chicano fiction in the American literary tradition. Anaya's novel is a song to a bygone era of tradition and folklore, but it is also a vindication of a culture that strives to preserve its essence in a world of increasing uniformity. In it, patterns and motifs of European origin are blended with indigenous belief, folk legend, myth, and poetically crafted scenes of local color (R. Saldívar 104). The result is an allegorical narrative that has been defined as a romance (Calderón 22) in an attempt to explain its generic ambiguity. In this sense, Anaya belongs to a long tradition in American letters, and his indebtedness to Hawthorne is evident. (The atmosphere of twentieth-century Guadalupe—the location of Bless Me, Ultima —closely resembles that of Puritan Boston or Salem as created by the New England writer.) For Roberto Cantú (1973), the novel possesses rich allegorical implications of place, and though it is set at a specific historical moment, its ultimate meaning is universal, for it deals with the archetypal struggle between good and evil. Other critics, like Jane Rogers (1986), have pointed to rich echoes of world mythology present in the novel, from the Odyssey to the Bible, as well as to myths that incorporate Mexican and Native American traditions and beliefs, such as the legend of La Llorona about a wailing woman who seeks her children, whom she has murdered, in rivers and lakes.

Ultima—the "good witch" who protects the young narrator Antonio in his passage to maturity—is vaguely characterized throughout the novel as possessing an ancient knowledge that escapes the reach of the contemporary mind. This wisdom helps her cure the diseases of body and soul and is the source of her understanding of events that appear "magical" to the rest of the characters. The very nature of magic is one of the central themes of the text, a concept whose meaning has been clearly subverted by the end of the narrative. In a passage resembling Jean Latour's famous perception of miracles as moments of refined perception, Antonio realizes the essence of the magical deeds he has seen performed by Ultima so many times: "Ultima has sympathy for people, and it is so complete that with it she can touch their souls and cure them…. That is her magic" (248).

The old Mexican woman thus becomes the embodiment of a Christlike archetype, while Antonio becomes her archetypal disciple whose task is to spread her message throughout the world. Ultima—called La Grande out of respect—is the last representative of her kind, as her name indicates. With her death, a way of life and a mode of understanding existence seem to disappear forever, except for the act of remembrance that is Antonio's written narrative, which recovers for an instant the ancient inheritance of Ultima's wisdom. She is the link between opposing worlds that seek harmony and quietude, the connection resolving irreconcilable dichotomies: day and night, reality and magic, Christianity and Indian religion, the Anglo-Saxon and the mestizo, good and evil, the farm and the llano, the past and the present, Christ and the golden carp, New Mexico and the world at large. Antonio is called to witness and reconcile these oppositions in his writing and thus become a "true" priest whose gospel speaks of convergence and reunion.

The same wish for preserving remembrance inspires Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop. Again, we find the contrast between country and pueblo, the Anglo-Saxon and the mestizo, the rational and the uncanny (or miraculous), Christ and the primeval gods of the Indians, the desert and the farm. And again, in the background we hear the echoes of large historical forces: in Cather's novel it is the great American expansion to the West, while in Anaya's it is World War II and its impact on New Mexico. Both texts question the concept of history itself, which, like reality and reason, possesses limited relevance to a land unwilling to give up its myth and its magic. The landscape becomes the true protagonist in these novels, a region of wonders and mysteries, like the cave where Latour and his native companion seek shelter, a sanctuary of ancestral Indian rites where the French priest is forced to spend the night. This cave, known only to the Indians, has the shape of a mouth (it is called Stone Lips) and is connected to the heart of the earth and its unfathomable secrets. Here Latour has the intuition that Native beliefs and religious practices may be more than just a set of pagan superstitions, an intuition that forever transforms his perception of the Indians.

Father Latour's early encounter with the hostile geography of the Southwest, where a host of trials repeatedly test both his physical and spiritual strength, is even more painfully dramatic than the hardships anticipated by Bishop Ferrand at the Vatican. As the carrier of civilization, the porter of the European mind, Latour attempts a task even more titanic than Antonio's preservation of tradition: to refuel orthodox Roman Catholicism in a land where Christian religion has mingled with Indian beliefs and practices and where the church has been converted into a system of personal and political power. On his first journey into the wilderness of New Mexico, Latour is the victim of his inability to recognize a country whose major feature is precisely that of being featureless (17). Dangerously lost in the desert, he finds his feet guided by a superior will that delivers him safely to an idyllic haven of water and vegetation, Agua Secreta, where he is welcomed by a group of Mexican settlers eager to receive the holy sacraments. The catalyst for this "miraculous" rescue is a specific act of self-surrender and sympathy in which Father Latour encounters a juniper tree with the exact form of the Cross. There he reenacts Christ's suffering in the Golgotha until his and Christ's flesh become indistinguishable. This paradigmatic early scene anticipates a series of "miracles"—events for which there is no plausible, rational explanation—witnessed by Latour and his lifelong companion, Father Joseph Vaillant, events that defy Latour's skeptic rationality and that gradually change his perception of reality and life. His is a long process of learning and understanding, until he realizes and accepts that there are things that go beyond reason, at least for the European mind he represents: "He was already convinced that neither the white men nor the Mexicans in Santa Fé understood anything about Indian beliefs or the workings of the Indian mind" (133). This recognition is but one instance of what I would call "ideological surrender," the transformation of a European in a New World that appears even older than the Old.

Cather's novel re-creates a magical atmosphere where diverse beliefs and superstitions converge, an atmosphere that openly defies narrow rationality. For Evelyn H. Hively, Death Comes for the Archbishop represents a study in comparative mythology: even though the protagonists are Roman Catholic priests, their archetypal experience is quite close to the Navajo myth of the Twin Heroes, who follow the holy trail, have as their father the sun, and are helped by the Indian counterpart to the Christian Virgin (157). Marilyn B. Callander, on the other hand, relates this pattern to a fairy-tale motif: the story of two brothers of opposite nature who set out in search of fortune. Along the way they find magic helpers (often animals or plants), confront dangers, and eventually become separated, until in the end they are reunited through the intervention of a magic object (50). Similarly, in Death Comes for the Archbishop different traditions come together and are reconciled, both Oriental and Occidental, European and Native. The bell of San Miguel, founded in the Spain of the Reconquest and then carried to America, is a symbol of the perfect continuity between the Orient and the Occident and between these and the New World: "I am glad to think there is Moorish silver in your bell," Latour tells Vaillant. "When we first came here, the one good workman we found in Santa Fé was a silversmith. The Spaniards handed on their skills to the Mexicans, and the Mexicans have taught the Navajos to work silver; but it all came from the Moors" (45).

The religion that emerges from Death Comes for the Archbishop is syncretic, alien to orthodoxy, like the altar decorated with the gods of the wind, the sun, the moon, and the rain, or the bell itself—a Catholic inheritance from the Moslems—or the painting of Saint Joseph that the natives use for their rainmaking rituals. The result is a landscape of fluid boundaries where the extraordinary becomes the norm and therefore ceases to be extraordinary. And this is, precisely, one of the basic features of the magic mode. In this landscape, animals and plants are often endowed with consequential intelligence. The symbiosis of humans and animals is present throughout the novel, a relation of interdependence where men sometimes prove to be the less intelligent (as in, for instance, Latour's guilt in the opening pages when "he, supposed to be the intelligence of the party, had got the poor animals into this interminable desert of ovens" [20]). The novel's bestiary includes a long list of species—cats, parrots, lizards, serpents, horses, donkeys, mules, and pigeons—that contribute to the creation of the text's pervasive magical atmosphere. On his first visit to Ácoma, Father Latour is struck by the turtlelike appearance of the natives: antediluvian-looking creatures of the sea that found refuge on the sun-baked top of the mesa. Sky City and its counterpart, the Enchanted Mesa, are the habitation of beings halfway between humans and animals, creatures in transition who, like the land itself, were left unfinished by God on the eve of creation: a "country … still waiting to be made into landscape" (95).

Cather's attention to plants and animals underscores the fundamental importance of organic nature to the discovered New World landscape of coalescence and interrelationship. Death Comes for the Archbishop is articulated upon a series of gardens that provide the text with a unifying structure, from the aristocratic garden in Rome at the beginning of the narrative, through the minutely re-created southwestern ecosystem, to the orchard where Jean Latour seeks refuge after retirement. Plants and trees are living forces that have adapted to the extreme conditions in that country and have become symbols of the life that flourishes there. The cruciform juniper tree under which Father Latour has a mystical experience, the tamarisk that protects under its shade every Mexican farm, the cacti that feed Manuel Chavez after his miraculous escape from the Indians, and the lavish vegetation in Agua Secreta are only a few examples of the profusion of vegetal life in the novel. Soon after Latour and Vaillant arrive in Santa Fe, they plant a garden that will grow old with them, its trees providing saplings for orchards all over the territory. The Archbishop spends his last years at the farm he bought from an old Mexican. There he puts his creative energy into landscaping and succeeds in domesticating native wildflowers with which he covers the land with a purple mantle, "the true Episcopal colour and countless variations of it" (265). Father Vaillant also insists on planting wherever he goes, from the shores of Lake Ontario to the gardens he creates in New Mexico and Colorado (a place where "nobody would stick a shovel in the earth for less than gold" [258]). This quiet labor, perhaps more lasting than evangelizing itself, leaves behind the priests a trail of vegetation, havens of life in the barren landscapes of the New World. Such a fusion of missionary work with gardening reunites land and spirit, self and nature.

Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima uses vegetal and animal life as the basic ingredients of magic. The novel is populated by primeval creatures that play a central role in human affairs. The most conspicuous example is Ultima's owl, the alter ego of the curandera: "the protective spirit of Ultima, the spirit of the night and the moon, the spirit of the llano! The Owl was her soul" (255). Ultima's owl deploys a power beyond human understanding and becomes the old woman's magical helper in her fight against evil. If the owl is the watcher of the air, the water is the kingdom of the golden carp, the true embodiment of an ancient Indian god. The golden carp, whose counterpart is the sinister black bass, is itself the pagan counterpart of Christ (R. Saldivar 114). Beyond that, even the river seems animated by a silent "presence" that teaches the young boy that his spirit "shared in the spirit of all things" (16). Vegetal life seems to be endowed with a soul: "For Ultima, even the plants had a spirit, and before I dug she made me speak to the plant and tell it why I pulled it from its home in the earth" (38). The motif of the garden recurs also in the text. Antonio's mother insists on farming the poor soil of their plot by the llano even though the crops they obtain are ridiculous. It is in her blood. Likewise, Narciso, the town drunkard who gives his life in an attempt to save Ultima, is endowed with a magical gift for farming, his orchard like the garden of Eden in its wealth and abundance. Narciso's garden, which he plants by moonlight while he dances, becomes a metonymy of himself: "The garden is like Narciso, it is drunk" (109). Here, as in Cather's novel, the communion of humans with animals and plants is complete, and the primeval wilderness of the Southwest emerges a space of kindred creatures, an organic unity of transcendental life where man's is but a humble lot. Only evil, in the form of Tenorio and Buck Scales, is capable of altering the essential harmony of this pastoral landscape. In the end, though, order is restored through the intervention of a superior force, such as Ultima and her owl or Latour and Vaillant under the protection of the Virgin.

Criticism of Death Comes for the Archbishop has explored in detail Cather's sources for the novel: Puvis de Chavannes's frescoes of the life of St. Geneviève, Holbein's Dance of Death, and Jacobus de Voragine's The Golden Legend. Cather was clearly turning her eyes back to the Middle Ages in search of aesthetic models. But critics have generally let pass without comment the presence in the text of the grotesque, a dominant mode in medieval art and literature. Anne Mosely (1998) has broken new ground with her study of Cather's conscious use of the grotesque in My Mortal Enemy. For Mosely, Cather's grotesque in that novel is essentially spiritual—in the sense that Flannery O'Connor defined and practiced it—and intends to portray the life of Myra Henshawe as "under construction," "involved in a transformative, regenerative spiritual process" (36). The essential quality of the grotesque, following Bakhtin's theory of carnival, is ambivalence: it re-creates a world of violent contrasts where differences between contraries are blurred and erased (Mosely 38). Cather's aesthetics, which embraced an admiration of Gothic cathedrals as well as a keen eye for the bizarre, converged in the grotesque as the mode that best suited her artistic concerns and expressed her awareness of the essential "deformity" of human society.

The grotesque is a mode akin to magical realism. Some critics even suggest that they are part of the same phenomenon. John R. Clark (1991), for example, names García Márquez's One Hundred Yearsof Solitude, a canonical text in magical realism, as representative of the "contemporary grotesque." David K. Danow (1995) has explored the proximity of the grotesque and the magical, finding in each expressions of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque attitude, a mode that has dominated twentieth-century art and literature. Henry Ziomek (1983) states that grotesque literature is the product of the interaction of two opposed sides of human nature and that it represents the search for the sublime through the perverse in a fusion of the tragic and the comic. The triple effect of this fusion process where the painful and the risible intermingle, conveying a bizarre effect, is horror, fear, and astonishment (Ziomek 14). The grotesque and the magical share ultimate goals of defying established institutions and habits, questioning and undoing inherited assumptions and fears, and helping human beings to accept their tragicomic destiny with a festive attitude. The Holbein engravings that inspired the title Death Comes for the Archbishop are a good illustration, as they depict deformed beings (like many of the characters in Cather's novel) who pullulate in a landscape of grotesque excess. Cather's Trinidad Lucero, for example, is a caricature of his progenitors, an exaggeration of their lowliness and vice, and his ordination as a priest in the schismatic church represents a carnivalesque parody of the most sacred rites of Roman Catholicism. The spurious descendant of a race that has degenerated for centuries in the spiritual and geographic isolation of the Southwest, the young Lucero—lacking a moral sense to guide him—confuses the holy and the profane. Thus, in accordance with a basic trait of the grotesque, he becomes the symbol of the enormous gap between the foundational ideals of the church and the reality of the heterodox Roman Catholicism that has flourished in the New World.

Human and nonhuman life-forms, animal and vegetal, proliferate and intermingle in Death Comes for the Archbishop. And the landscape itself, which I have defined as a landscape of excesses, is out of all measure, like the desert of ovens in which Latour gets lost at the beginning of the narrative. Yet probably the novel's most grotesque quality is the duality or duplicity of the icons and symbols that abound in the text. Gardens, for example, can be places of ecstatic vision, as in the scene where Magdalena appears transfigured among the pigeons (209); but they can also be the cause of human perdition, as for Father Baltazar, who gives up the idea of running away because his orchard is at its prime (110-11). Pascal's double-edged dictum, as quoted by Latour ("man was lost and saved in a garden" [265]), seems verified by the facts of the novel. The snake, which for the Archbishop is a symbol of evil, is for the natives a symbol of life and nature. The goat, a figure of pagan lasciviousness in Christian iconography, provides humans with warmth and nourishment. ("The young bishop smiled at his mixed theology. But though the goat had always been the symbol of pagan lewdness, he told himself that their fleece had warmed many a good Christian, and their rich milk nourished sickly children" [31].) The cathedral itself, a cultural aberration in the landscape of New Mexico, represents the perfect, although shocking, melting of opposed cultural traditions. In this respect, Latour's midi-Romanesque church becomes the supreme symbol into which all the essential dichotomies framing the narrative are dissolved. It is a monument to convergence and reunion, a symbol of the reconciliation between contraries. The cathedral represents a new creature, "beautiful in its deformity" (Mosely 35) born out of the soil of the New World yet deeply rooted in the Old. The building is Latour's desperate attempt to remain faithful to European orthodoxy, but the bishop and the tradition he embodies inevitably undergo a radical transformation in the new land. Such transformation is, precisely, the essential drive of the grotesque.

In Bless Me, Ultima we find a similar carnivalization of Catholic rites, whose solemnity is derided by the irreverence of youth. Antonio's life during the year re-created in the novel is a long preparation for his first communion, a time of fears and questions without answers. When the ceremony finally arrives, however, the ritual's high seriousness is comically desecrated by the irreverent attitude of the young communicants, and the wafer fails to provide Antonio with the reassurance he had so eagerly expected (221). The Catholic rite does not fulfill his expectations of a sudden knowledge of God: only when the golden carp and Ultima's "gospel" find their place next to Jesus in the heart of the boy is he capable of grasping the true nature of divinity. His is the pantheistic perception of a divine being inherent in all extant creatures. The world of radical dichotomies thus gives way to the essential unity of creation, something still emergent, as in Cather's novel: "Take the llano and the river valley, the moon and the sea, God and the golden carp—and make something new" (147). This is Ultima's call to the boy: create anew a world of order and harmony out of the material of chaos; complete the landscape left unfinished by God, as Father Latour once thought of the Ácoma country.

Cather said that she considered Death Comes for the Archbishop her best novel. On another occasion she declared that it was hardly a novel and said she preferred to call it a "narrative" in an attempt to explain its generic peculiarities. The book is her aesthetic response to the Southwest, a region where she underwent a profound artistic and personal transformation. Like many of her fictional characters, Cather was faced with the "great fact" of the land itself. And the encounter proved fruitful. In New Mexico, Cather found life in its primary essence, a self-contained universe older than creation, and she learned to translate it into fiction. Inevitably, her writing entered the realm of the "magical grotesque," for it is the mode native to that soil—the same soil that nourishes Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, the moving portrait of a vanishing world threatened by the general uniformity of contemporary America. Despite their cultural, racial, and ideological differences, Cather and Anaya emerge as kindred artists whose portrayals of the Southwest have provided literature with one of its most intriguing regions. We ought to place that region next to Macondo, Yoknapatawpha, or la Mancha in the fictional geography of our world.

Montye P. Fuse (essay date 2003)

SOURCE: Fuse, Montye P. "Culture, Tradition, Family: Gender Roles in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima." In Women in Literature: Reading through the Lens of Gender, edited by Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silber, pp. 44-6. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2003.

[In the following essay, Fuse analyses the role of women in Bless Me, Ultima.]

Given the frequency with which it is taught and anthologized, Bless Me, Ultima seems well on its way to becoming a classic in Mexican American literature. The novel tells of the relationship between 6-year-old Antonio Marez and the curandera (female spiritual healer) Ultima. Antonio realizes that a special bond exists between himself and Ultima when he learns that she assisted his mother, Maria, at his birth. Increasingly, this relationship holds importance for Antonio, as he witnesses several deaths and begins to question the existence of God while preparing for his First Communion. Ultima—her powers rooted in Indigenous spirituality and the natural world—is ever-present in addressing Antonio's questions and satisfying his spiritual concerns. At the novel's conclusion, Antonio seeks and receives Ultima's deathbed blessing, implying that he will continue forth in the ways of curanderismo (spiritual healing).

While Antonio forms his most important relationship with a woman, readers will immediately recognize that Bless Me, Ultima primarily concerns the young protagonist's initiation into manhood. Consequently, the novel centers on Antonio's life choices: Will he become the priest that his mother wants him to be, or will he be a man of the llano (the New Mexican plains) after his father? Antonio has other male role models, including his typically male, older brothers, who leave to fight in World War II, and his friend Florence, an atheist, who courageously questions God's ultimate power. Among these, Ultima represents a middle ground: She does not view life through a pragmatic lens like his father nor does she rely completely on spiritual forces beyond her control like his mother. The story suggests that Antonio will follow Ultima's maverick path as he forms his own values.

In pursuit of Ultima's calling, Antonio incurs his father's fear that his youngest boy will heed his mother's wishes and become a priest, a "sissy's" occupation. Indeed, Anaya presents Maria as a woman grounded in her faith while Antonio's father, Gabriel, is a man of action. Thus, Maria's sphere and focus go no further than the family home, and she appears satisfied with her role as wife and mother. For Antonio, Maria's role has always been that of keeping the family functioning; he remarks that she most often appears in "the heart of our home … [her] kitchen" (1). Today's students may see Maria as particularly powerless, given that her usual response to family crises is to retreat to a quiet sala (room) in prayer; additionally, readers might also see passivity in her remaining a faithful, loving wife despite the well-known fact that her husband frequents the local whorehouse. Although Anaya presents Antonio's mother as conventional in her priorities and interests, readers will note, nonetheless, that Maria's constancy has a steadying influence on her impressionable son.

Ultima plays a maternal role for Antonio, but quite differently from that of his mother. Unlike Maria, who seldom leaves her home, Ultima will not be contained by any physical dwelling. Perhaps Anaya presents an implicit critique of Catholicism in characterizing Maria as spiritually enlightened, but incapable of taking action in the everyday world. By comparison, Ultima exercises power in the real world through her practice of Indigenous healing. By having Ultima heal Antonio's uncle and then defeat the insidious Tenorio and his three bruja (witch) daughters, Anaya makes this point clear. For Antonio and his family, Ultima's powers serve as protection against evil forces and evil people around them.

Anaya's depiction of Ultima can promote interesting discussion from a feminist perspective, especially when she is compared to other female characters. In addition to Ultima and Maria, there are only Antonio's sisters, Deborah and Theresa; Rosie and the prostitutes who work in her brothel; and Tenorio's sinister daughters, none of whom is a fleshed-out character. Instead, they all play minor, conventionally female roles. Readers might expect Deborah and Theresa to occupy a more significant place in that they grow up together with the protagonist. However, the two sisters, both flat characters largely indistinguishable from one another, seldom appear in the narrative and have little, if any, influence on Antonio's development. Further, unlike Antonio's older brothers, who are expected to make something of themselves, Deborah and Theresa are raised only to be good wives and mothers. Barely seen and rarely heard in a man's world, these sisters convey believable depictions of female invisibility within a patriarchal Mexican family.

"Real" women in Bless Me, Ultima slide neatly into three categories: (1) those who are silent and/or inconsequential to Antonio's development (i.e., Deborah and Theresa), (2) those who are virginal and/or who emulate qualities of the Virgin Mary (i.e., Maria), and (3) those who are evil and/or of ill-repute (i.e., Rosie and Tenorio's daughters). Given that Ultima does not fit into this framework, readers may conclude that although Ultima is female, she is cast as "other-worldly," more like a spirit than a "real" woman. Perhaps, if Anaya had depicted Ultima as a "real" woman (more like Maria or other women in the novel), she would not have been as convincing in her supernatural powers as she appears—and likelier still, as a conventional woman, she would not have been considered powerful by the men around her. While Catholicism's teachings generally situate women as secondary within Mexican American culture and the family, the world of curanderismo allows women a position from which they can act with influence.

Why did Anaya portray women (except Ultima) narrowly, relegated strictly to one side of the madonna/whore dichotomy? Any analysis of gender images in this novel should take into account that, most often, Mexican American women's lives have revolved around their roles as wives, mothers, homemakers, or as in the case of Tenorio's daughters, evildoers bent on destruction. Keeping in mind Mexican American women's traditional status, readers should appreciate, especially, Anaya's dynamic, empowered, and unconventional characterization of Ultima.

Work Cited

Anaya, Rodolfo. Bless Me, Ultima [1972]. New York: Warner Books, 1994.

For Further Reading

Stevens, Evelyn P. "Marianismo: The Other Face of Machismo in Latin America." Female and Male in Latin America. Ed. Ann Pescatello. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 1973, 89-102.

Marta Caminero-Santangelo (essay date winter 2004)

SOURCE: Caminero-Santangelo, Marta. "‘Jasón's Indian’: Mexican Americans and the Denial of Indigenous Ethnicity in Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima." Critique 45, no. 2 (winter 2004): 115-28.

[In the following essay, Caminero-Santangelo contends that Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima subtly offers an examination of how Chicano culture internalizes indigenous identities.]

Although Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima is regarded as a classic of Chicano/Latino literature and even of ethnic American literature generally,1 "ethnicity" is not a theme that is foregrounded in the novel. The resulting critical and pedagogical problem is no minor matter. The scholarship of ethnic literature typically not only expects but also assumes that ethnic American novels have something important to say about being "ethnic" or bicultural in the United States. Further, ethnic texts are often taught with an eye to what they might reveal—especially to monocultural students—about the specific cultural situation from which these works emerge.2 Yet the narrative of Ultima, in the form of a bildungsroman, is driven by issues of personal identity that do not seem connected to the larger social and identity issues at the heart of the Chicano movement of the 1960s and early 1970s—a movement that strove to construct and celebrate an ethnic identity on the basis of mestizaje ("hybridity") and the recovery of an indigenous past. The struggle of Ultima 's young protagonist Antonio (or Tony) Márez to negotiate a dual inheritance, the elements of which seem incompatible if not mutually exclusive, may call to mind Gloria Anzaldúa's description of the mestiza who also negotiates apparently incompatible aspects of identity: "The new mestiza copes by developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity. She learns to be an Indian in Mexican culture, to be Mexican from an Anglo point of view. She learns to juggle cultures. She has a plural personality […]" (79).

But, unlike Anzaldúa's application of the theories of the postmodern subject to the particular sociohistorical situation of the Chicana, Anaya's representation of identity conflict appears highly personal—a family matter without larger implications for Chicanos. The Márez men, Antonio's father's family, are associated with the freedom of the vaquero ("cowboy") who roams the expansive llano ("plain"); the Lunas, his mother's family, are linked with the more stable life of farming. The conflict for Antonio is whether he will become a vaquero, following in the footsteps of the Márez men, or a farmer like his Luna uncles—or even a priest, his fervently Catholic mother's dearest wish.

These alternatives seem strikingly disconnected from the ethnic conflicts (Spanish versus indigenous, Mexican/Chicano versus Anglo) that served as the historical and contemporary context for the Chicano movement. Genaro M. Padilla, looking back on the body of critical reaction to the novel more than a decade ago, observed "Many critics objected to Bless Me, Ultima (1972) on the grounds that it seemed non-referential even though it was set in a definable historical moment in a New Mexican village."3 There was simply no obvious connection to "the social contexts of the novel" (Padilla 128).4 Unlike the much earlier Chicano bildungsroman Pocho (1959) by José Antonio Villarreal that dealt with issues of assimilation and integration versus cultural preservation, Bless Me, Ultima contains no such struggles; no obvious or foregrounded "Anglo" influences are trying to Americanize Antonio at the expense of his Mexican roots. Passing references to Antonio's education in the English language and the "old people [who] did not accept the new language" (180) or to his discomfort when he brings a lunch of tortillas to school and is mocked by children with "sandwiches […] made of bread" (58) seem tangential—perhaps even irrelevant—to the core identity conflict of the novel. As Juan Bruce-Novoa decisively states, "Antonio is not torn between an Anglo and a Chicano world, but between two ways of being Chicano […]" (183). Furthermore, although the latter part of Bruce-Novoa's statement might evoke fissures in a collective Chicano/a identity that Antonio (much like Anzaldúa's "New Mestiza") must negotiate, it is hard to see how the particular familial choices that are constructed for Tony (e.g., cowboy or priest, valley or plain) might serve this kind of "referential" capacity.5

Perhaps responding to the implied censure of the novel for not being "Chicano enough" (Cantú 13), some critics have focused on its ostensible ethnic "content"—those elements of Ultima that serve as "ethnic markers," including bilingualism and code-switching as well as folklore or pagan figures like la Llorona and the golden carp.6 Indeed, it is by now a critical commonplace in Anaya scholarship that Bless Me, Ultima "draws deeply on Native American mythology" (Kanoza 160).7 Such readings, however, are more concerned with the influence or traces of indigenous thought and belief systems than they are with the ways in which Ultima 's storyline might comment on indigenous or Chicano ethnic identity. Yet a third strain of criticism sidesteps the question of "ethnicity" by approaching the novel in terms either of "universal" or of specifically Western structures and influences.8 Thus the thorny question of just what, if anything, the novel has to say about "ethnicity" and the matter of being Chicano continues to be elided.

Although I believe that the novel has much to say about Chicana/o ethnicity, I suggest that a first and crucial step in interpreting the novel's commentary is to recognize that the subject is not dealt with openly. A submerged subtext concerning hybrid, mestizo identity lies beneath the plot of Antonio's family-based identity conflict, but obscuring this subtext within the narrative is thematically significant and has been overlooked too long. The novel actually concerns the cultural pressures that caused Mexican Americans to deny their Indian heritage in the decades—and even centuries—before the Chicano movement (after all Bless Me, Ultima is not set during the '60s and '70s of the Chicano movement but during World War II). Structurally, Ultima mirrors those pressures by suppressing issues of Native American heritage and masking them with the father-mother conflict.9 In a parallel to Antonio's learning process, readers must follow the traces of "Indianness" and unearth what has been repressed.

Perhaps the easiest way into the ethnic content of the text is not through Antonio's familial identity conflict but through his religious struggles. As countless scholars have already noted, Antonio weighs the Catholic church against the golden carp, a pagan god vaguely associated with indigenous beliefs. One of the lessons that Antonio must learn on the road to maturity is that elements of Catholicism and paganism can be combined to form a new, hybrid religion. He rejects the colonialist imposition of Catholic conversion onto pagans that is mimed in the scene in which the other children demand that Florence, a nonbeliever, confess his sins and submit to the Catholic faith:

"Give him a penance! Make him ask for forgiveness for those terrible things he said about God!"

Agnes insisted. They were gathering behind me now, I could feel their presence and their hot, bitter breath. They wanted me to be their leader; they wanted me to punish Florence.

"Make his penance hard," Rita leered.

"Make him kneel and we'll all beat him," Ernie suggested.

"Yeah, beat him!" Bones said wildly.

"Stone him!"

"Beat him!"

"Kill him!"

They circled around me and advanced on Florence, their eyes flashing with the thought of the punishment they would impose on the nonbeliever.
     (213)

When Antonio refuses to play the role of punishing priest in this scene, the children turn on him, shouting: "Give him the Indian torture!" (214). The scene's historical parallel is, of course, the efforts by Spanish colonizers to force conversion of the indigenous peoples of New Mexico. (The term "Indian torture" is wonderfully ambiguous; although the children no doubt believe that "Indian torture" is torture administered by Indians, their own acts serve as a reminder and distant echo of the torture exacted on Indians.) Antonio rejects the dogmatic imposition of religious adherence. As a result, Florence later tells him, "You could never be their priest" (215). Instead, by the end of the novel, Antonio opts for religious hybridity; he discovers that he can take "God and the golden carp—and make something new" (247).

Antonio fails utterly to recognize that the sort of religious syncretism that he envisions as a solution to his dilemma has already taken place. A hybrid religion is a reality for Mexicans and Mexican Americans, who routinely incorporate aspects of belief systems inherited from Native American ancestors with the Catholicism imposed by the Spanish conquerors. In one of Antonio's dream, the "ethnic" religious conflict is linked to the familial conflict as he begs, "Oh please tell me which is the water that runs through my veins," and his parents give opposing responses:

It is the sweet water of the moon, my mother crooned softly, it is the water the Church chooses to make holy and place in its font. It is the water of your baptism.

Lies, lies, my father laughed, through your body runs […] the water that binds you to the pagan god of Cico, the golden carp!
     (120)

The mother demands allegiance to Catholic rites in the dream, and pagan beliefs such as faith in the golden carp are here associated with the father. Later in the novel, Antonio's father Gabriel expresses preference for an Indian burial ceremony over a Catholic burial in a casket (233); and Antonio tells us that from his father (along with Ultima ) he has learned an appreciation of the interconnectedness of man with the "noble expanse of land and air and pure, white sky" (228)—a lesson surely meant to be inflected by Native American spirituality. Yet the Márez family, the story insists more than once, is descended from conquistadors and would more logically be associated with Spanish Catholicism. Although Antonio's mother battles his father on Catholic versus pagan grounds in his symbolic dream, in actuality she holds Ultima, a curandera, in the highest regard and actually asks for her help in the matter of the curse on Antonio's uncle. For Antonio's mother, Catholicism and Ultima's pagan form of spirituality are not incompatible, regardless of how Antonio might represent her in his dream. What Antonio constructs as a simple either-or dichotomy is infinitely more complicated, with each supposed "side" a hybrid and contradictory construction bearing traces of a creative syncretism that was part of the history of colonial New Mexico:

Because the Indians were deeply religious anyway, they followed many Christian teachings perfectly […]. Only one God was placed before them, but the many Christian saints, and especially the Virgin de Guadalupe, found ready acceptance by a people accustomed to a pantheon. Baptism, rituals, ceremonies, prayers, fasting, confessions, heaven, hell, and purgatory were not new concepts to the Indians and were thus easily adopted […]. When possible, missionaries incorporated Indian practices to teach Catholic dogma […]. For example, in pre-Columbian times towns honored a patron deity with a processional. The clerics staged the affair on the already established day but replaced Indian idols with Christian saints; thus, a mixed Indian-Spanish ceremony evolved […].
     (Vigil 71-72)

It has been widely acknowledged that the synthesis Ultima advocates as a solution to Antonio's struggles points precisely toward the (already achieved) historical solution of syncretism and hybridity. What has gone virtually without commentary, yet is surely significant, is that Anaya represents this hybridity as obscured, so repressed that Antonio does not see it; he understands each of his dual heritages as pure and nonoverlapping and "discovers" hybridity as though it were a new solution.

Particularly problematic, as I have been hinting all along, is that nowhere in the novel is Indian heritage explicitly mentioned as a part of Antonio's conflicted identity. Yet, as Roberto Cantú notes, Antonio's "conflictive genealogy" is "generally understood to be Spanish and Indian" (40). We can speculate that such a tacit understanding might come from readers' presumptions about Chicana/o literature generally or about Anaya specifically; it certainly does not come from the text.10 Antonio's father's family identifies its ancestors exclusively as conquistadors; his mother also describes hers as "colonizers"—although, in her case, Mexican rather than Spanish: "They were the first colonizers of the Llano Estacado. It was the Lunas who carried the charter from the Mexican government to settle the valley" (52). It is certainly not the Lunas' Indian or even mestizo heritage that is emphasized through this history. Mexican land grant policy after independence from Spain in 1821 was "to increase the size of land grants to individuals or groups who would settle on the dangerous frontiers, to enclose enclaves of […] Indian nomads, and to drive others of them beyond the edge of a moving occupance line" (Cline 17). The Centralist Mexican government that took control in 1836, likewise, did not "recognize native rights to Mexican public lands; so far as they had a view at all, the government officials shared a developing Mexican opinion, current to the Mexican Revolution of 1910, that Indians were a drag on progress and the sooner they disappeared, the better for the nation" (Cline 18). In other words, the Mexicans who colonized New Mexico, much as the Spanish before them, saw themselves as distinct from and in opposition to the Indians (despite their own mestizo inheritance).11

That sense of Indians as fully Other is surely what activates Gabriel's reaction to his children's use of "gosh" and "okay": "What good does an education do them [… if] they only learn to speak like Indians [?]" (54). The father's response is remarkable in that it displaces Anglo influence, identifying the "foreignness" of the words instead as "Indian" (perhaps to him a less threatening alternative than the pressing forces of assimilation to the dominant Anglo culture). All this suggests the degree to which Indian heritage, far from being represented as one of the competing aspects in Antonio's conflictive genealogy is actually so obscured that the characters understand "Indian" as "alien."

Even Ultima, generally understood by critics as deeply in touch with indigenous spirituality (from Ultima, for example, Antonio learns that "even the plants had a spirit, and before I dug she made me speak to the plant and tell it why we pulled it from its home in the earth" [39]) apparently does not acknowledge a common ancestry with Indians. Antonio explains that Ultima "spoke to me of the common herbs and medicines we shared with the Indians of the Rio del Norte. She spoke of the ancient medicines of other tribes, the Aztecas, Mayas, and even of those in the old, old country, the Moors. But I did not listen, I was thinking of my brothers" (42). The most intriguing aspect of this passage is its constructed distance between native peoples and a distinct, collective "We." The suggestion is that Mexican Americans ("we") share herbs and medicines with those of native cultures, rather than having drawn their knowledge precisely from those cultures. In other words, the passage distressingly seems to imply that even Ultima, connected as she is to Indian spirituality, fails to recognize a common heritage with Indians—until one realizes that Ultima's words are reported through Antonio, who was so uninterested in the whole issue of any resemblance to Indians that he "did not listen" (and so is perhaps hearing Ultima only incompletely). Antonio views Ultima's lesson about "ancient" tribes as absolutely tangential to his central concerns.

If Antonio's identity crisis is in fact meant to represent the tensions of being of both Spanish and Native American heritage, why did Anaya not make Antonio's Indian ancestry more explicit? I suggest that Anaya supplies the cue for interpreting this silence in his brief but mysterious anecdote about "Jasón's Indian": "He was the only Indian of the town, and he talked only to Jasón. Jasón's father had forbidden Jasón to talk to the Indian, he had beaten him, he had tried in every way to keep Jasón from the Indian. But Jasón persisted" (10). Jasón's Indian raises several critical questions. Given that the novel is set in Guadalupe, a New Mexican town inhabited at least in part by Mexican Americans (that is, by a mestizo population), why does the narrative so strongly assert irreconcilable and absolute ethnic difference here ("the only Indian of the town")? Why is Jasón's father trying so vehemently—indeed, so violently—to keep Jasón from him?12 What is the critical significance of Jasón's persistence—never mentioned again in the novel—of talking to the Indian? In virtually the only critical discussion to date of this enigmatic passage (yet one that ignores the possible implications for Chicano mestizo identity), Roberto Cantú observes that, although it is said that the Indian speaks only to Jasón, it turns out, contradictorily, that the Indian speaks to quite a few other characters. Cantú poses the additional question: "Why does Antonio affirm that the Indian talks ‘only to Jasón’ […] when obviously that is not the truth?" (17).13

As one of the two moments in the text in which the presence of Native Americans is made explicit (the other, which I discuss later, concerns the curse laid on the ghosts of three murdered Indians), the apparently tangential and inconsequential passage about Jasón's Indian actually reveals much. For one thing, it underscores that the Mexican Americans of Guadalupe (and for that matter, of Las Pasturas, the original home of the Márez family) have buried any memory of their Indian ancestry. They do not see themselves as Indian—even in part—so Jasón's Indian is regarded as the "only Indian of the town." (Perhaps this passage echoes the Mexican land grant policy toward Indians, which viewed them as quite separate and distinct from Mexicans.) In other words, the anecdote dramatizes Mexican Americans' deeply entrenched denial of Indian ancestry before the Chicano movement. But this denial of indigenous heritage is hardly unproblematic; the force necessary to maintain it is suggested by Jasón's father, who beats Jasón in an effort to "keep [him] from the Indian." Only through a violent act of repression can the connection of Mexican Americans to their Indian ancestry (symbolized here by Jasón's intense desire to communicate with the Indian) stay buried. And as Cantú observes, the text elsewhere implies that Jasón's Indian does talk to others in the town, specifically to pass on information about the golden carp (Cantú 17): perhaps these hints suggest metaphorically that, through such oral transmission, fragments of Indian belief systems persist, despite denial and repression.

In their essay "Return to Aztlán: The Chicano Rediscovers His Indian Past," Guillermo Lux and Maurilio E. Vigil review the powerful pressures toward assimilation against which the Chicano movement reacted.14 The denial of Native American heritage had its roots in the Mexican "colonial tradition of being pro-White (Spanish or other European) and anti-Indian" (96) and was given an additional dimension in the United States where Mexican Americans had to

struggle to overcome pernicious, cruel and misleading stereotypes which have been created by Anglo society through motion pictures and other mass media. [… T]he Indian […] has been cast as savage, mean, and treacherous. [… N]ot only was the Mexican American impelled to shed his Mexican-ness […], but he has not been able even to begin to consider his Indian origins.
     (94, emphasis added)15

Lux and Vigil further explain:

For the person who may not physiologically appear distinctive or different it is relatively easy to pass for white. For the distinctive person, the mestizo, the recourse must be "my family descended from the conquistadores; we are Hispanos, Spanish."
     (97, emphasis added)16

That claim cannot help but remind us of Antonio's father, who is drawn to beliefs that the novel labels pagan yet insists that the Márez men were "conquistadores" (25).

It is important to note that although Antonio clearly knows about his conquistador ancestors (in the sense that he knows about his "past"), news of an even more distant past causes him great anxiety. Early in the novel Ultima attempts to give Antonio a history lesson:

"Long ago," she would smile, "long before you were a dream, long before the train came to Las Pasturas, before the Lunas came to their valley, before the great coronado built his bridge—" Then her voice would trail off and my thoughts would be lost in the labyrinth of a time and history I did not know.
     (40)

This scene underscores the degree to which Ultima takes on the role of historical mentor for Antonio, hinting at a past of which he is ignorant. Antonio hears more about his history from the people of Las Pasturas who come to Guadalupe for supplies:

[A]lways the talk would return to stories of the old days […]. The first pioneers there were sheepherders. Then they imported herds of cattle from Mexico and became vaqueros. […] They were the first cowboys in a wild and desolate land which they took from the Indians. Then the railroad came. The barbed wire came. The songs, the corridos became sad, and the meeting of the people from Texas with my forefathers was full of blood, murder, and tragedy. The people were uprooted. They looked around one day and found themselves closed in. The freedom of land and sky they had known was gone. Those people could not live without freedom and so they packed up and moved west. They became migrants.
     (125)

The fascinating part of this history is what Antonio does not learn from it. The stories that the people from Las Pasturas tell is about the history of their confrontation with Anglos, who take their land and obliterate their freedom. Yet the vaqueros themselves, the stories almost inadvertently reveal, took the land from the Indians, obliterating their freedom. The historical lesson embedded in the stories is about the parallels between Anglo and Spanish/Mexican colonization, but neither the people of Las Pasturas nor Antonio hear that lesson. The taking of "their" land is belabored as a tragedy; the taking of the land from the Indians is mentioned only in passing, as a sort of "background" to the real story. On the other hand, Anaya, writing from the context of the Chicano movement with its renewed interest in the history of colonization and the violence done to indigenous peoples, is surely aware of, and intends, the historical lesson that his characters fail to apprehend.

This particular history surfaces again later in the novel, when Ultima is called to remove a curse plaguing the Téllez household. Explaining the curse's origins, Ultima narrates:

A long time ago, […] the Ilano of the Agua Negra was the land of the Comanche Indians. Then the comancheros came, then the Mexican with his flocks—many years ago three Comanche Indians raided the flocks of one man, and this man was the grandfather of Téllez. Téllez gathered the other Mexicans around him and they hanged the three Indians. They left the bodies strung on a tree; they did not bury them according to their custom. Consequently, the three souls were left to wander on that ranch.
     (227)

In the condensed historical narrative that opens this passage, the Indians are semantically supplanted first by the comancheros—traders from Spanish settlements who exchanged goods with Comanche camps (Anderson 231)—and then by the "Mexican with his flocks," suggesting a gradual ceding of the land. Once again, the history of land takeover seems to be told almost in passing, as "background"; but the background is more intimately connected to the main thrust of the story (the origins of the curse). The violence inflicted on the Comanche Indians is quite vividly metaphorized in the brutal hanging by Téllez's ancestor and is not justified within the text by the Indians' raid, which is itself only an outcome of their loss of land to Mexicans. The central focus in the passage is the violence and desecration of the hanging and improper burial, not the criminality of the raid.

Interestingly, the Indians who "haunt" Téllez's household are specifically identified in the novel as Comanche, rather than Aztec or Mayan. (That is, they do not share a genealogy with the Mexicans who killed them.) As Lux and Vigil point out, the Comanches were enemies of Mexicans descended from Aztecs and were identified as "indios bárbaros" (barbaric Indians); this identification provided ideological sanction to the cooperation of Mexican mestizos with Anglo settlers in their "campaigns against los indios bárbaros" (95). Ultimately, of course, the Anglos did not draw fine distinctions between different native peoples: the "only good Indian was a dead Indian" (Lux and Vigil 95). Thus the Mexican identification of Comanches as "barbarians" became a factor in the suppression of Mexican "Indian-ness." Teresa McKenna observes that Alurista, one of the major early literary figures of the Chicano movement, "helped define and foster the notion of ‘Amerindia,’ which connotes the unification of all Indian peoples into one creative, political, and social force" (16). One aspect of the Chicano movement, then, was to reject the divisions and antagonisms among different indigenous peoples that from the beginning had aided in their conquest and continuing suppression. It is notable that, although the spirits of the Indians are now wreaking havoc on the Téllez family (hot skillets and coffee pots fly in the air and burn them; rocks rain on their rooftop), Anaya takes great pains to shift responsibility for the "evil" from the Indians to the wicked Trementina sisters (the central antagonists and villains throughout the novel), who have placed a curse on them. The Comanche Indians of Anaya's text are not (counter to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century representations of them) barbaric or savage; they are simply responding to a threat to their way of life.

Because they have been unjustly killed and improperly buried, they do not stay dead but return to haunt their killers. As Kathleen Brogan writes about ghostly hauntings in ethnic literature, "To be haunted in this literature is to know, viscerally, how specific cultural memories that seem to have disappeared in fact refuse to be buried and still shape the present, in desirable and in troubling ways" (16). Read in connection with the anecdote about Jasón's Indian, the scene of the three Indian spirits begins to take on a larger symbolic significance, along the lines of the "return of the repressed." The town continues to want to deny, suppress, and repress its Indian-ness, but that Indianness will not stay dead; Jasón, for one, returns to rediscover it. Incidents of "cultural haunting," Brogan tells us, "figure prominently [in ethnic literature] wherever people must reconceive a fragmented, partially obliterated history, looking to a newly imagined past to redefine themselves for the future" (29).17

Anaya's novel, published at the height of the Chicano movement, is engaged in precisely such an endeavor; it provides the submerged pieces of a "fragmented, partially obliterated history" that must be constructed into the "newly imagined past" of indigenous identity that "redefined" Chicanos/as after the movement. In other words, it fully participates in the imaginative project of the Chicano movement: to lay the groundwork for an understanding of Chicanas/os as a "people."

Consequently, it is possible to read Anaya's novel as sharing the larger essentialism that often characterized the movement. As Michael Hames-García explains, the push towards cultural nationalism in the 1960s and early 1970s "often resulted in an injunction for Chicano artists to find artistic and liberatory truth in highly idealized visions of an authentic indigenous past. [… Images of an] essential (masculine) ‘Indian-ness’ represented the essence of Chicano identity" (466). However, although Anaya offers a renewed exploration of indigenous identity as a possible grounds for Chicano/a identity, what is dramatized in Bless Me, Ultima is the process by which identity—including ethnic identity—is a social construct that is continually being reconstructed. Indigenous identity has no part in the characters' understanding of their ethnic identity in the novel, despite the possibilities of genealogical ties, suggesting that what has determined their ethnic reality is the pressure of specific social forces, rather than some sort of essentialism. From this point, it is no great leap to the observation that even the cultural nationalist "essentialism" that would privilege indigenous identity was a response to a particular social situation. The history of native peoples subjected to dual conquests (by Spain and the United States) rendered indigenousness a powerful symbol and rallying point for a movement that grounded its struggles for economic and social justice in an oppositional (rather than assimilationist) stance.

In this way we can read, behind a boy's personal and individual bildungsroman of negotiating between his mother and his father, a complicated story of the recovery project instrumental in constructing a Chicano consciousness. Just as Antonio's development to maturity is not complete by the novel's end, so also the process of identity (re)construction is an ongoing process, rather than one that is fully accomplished at the novel's conclusion. As Antonio comments, quite obliquely, after he has heard the story of the Indians: "And there is also the dark, mystical past, I thought, the past of the people who lived here and left their traces in the magic that crops out today" (229). Antonio is now paying more attention to a particular past that he had neglected before (for example, when he "did not listen" to Ultima's lesson about what "We" share with Indian peoples); and he seems to feel less lost in and threatened by "the labyrinth of a time and history I did not know." An explicit connection of "the people who lived here" to Antonio himself has yet to be made, but at least he now is watching for their traces.

Notes

1. Articles on Bless Me, Ultima are standardly included in anthologies of criticism on U.S. ethnic and U.S. Latino and Latina literature, such as Hispanic-American Writers (part of the Chelsea House "Modern Critical Views" series edited by Harold Bloom) or Teaching American Ethnic Literatures (eds. John R. Maitino and David R. Peck). Delia Poey has noted that Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima and Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street "have become ‘representative’ of Chicano and Latina/o literature" (202) and are often "the only Latina/o works assigned in […] Multicultural Literature and Contemporary American Literature syllabi" (204).

2. See for example Jussawalla, who also discusses the teaching of Bless Me, Ultima, and Dasenbrock, who treats as a given the idea that "Multicultural works of literature are multicultural […] in having multiculturalism as part of their subject matter and theme" (18). In their introduction, Maitino and Peck focus on the "stories of assimilation and resistance, of immigration and oppression" and the themes "of marginality, identity, [and] alienation" found in ethnic literature—in other words, on those stories and themes that are explicitly about the situation of being ethnic (4).

3. Héctor Calderón, a prominent representative of this line of criticism, has interpreted Bless Me, Ultima as a "flight from history" to a nostalgic and innocent "Golden Age" ("Chicano Romance," 86, 88) in which mythic concerns substitute for—and erase—historical ones. Calderón also censured Anaya's novel on the grounds that it is "individualistic" in its concentration on the "Hispanic version of the Oedipal triangle of father, mother and son" ("The Novel," 112) at the expense of larger communal issue.

4. Horst Tonn is one of the few critics who disagrees with this assessment, claiming that, in fact, Bless Me, Ultima is centrally concerned with sociohistorical issues. Tonn argues that Anaya's novel is about the "pressing need for adaptation in the vision of the collective identity" in response to the dramatic changes occurring in both the novel's moment of representation and its moment of production (5). Although he reviews the specific historical events that form the backdrop for Ultima's plot (World War II and the atomic bomb) as well as those that constitute the immediate context for its publication (the Civil Rights Movement, the Chicano fieldworkers' strike, land ownership claims in New Mexico, and the "Chicano Moratorium"), he fails to elaborate on what specific sorts of adaptation are suggested by the novel or even what precise version of "collective identity" it invokes; nor does he provide any real explanation of the connection between the novel's moment of production and its themes. Thus he does not pose a strong challenge to reading Ultima as, at least at face value, divorced from the pressing issues of the Chicano movement.

5. Some critics nevertheless elide these difficulties by simply assuming some connection between the familial struggle and the conflicting ethnic heritages that form Chicano identity. Thomas Vallejos, for example, moves seamlessly from the Márez-Luna clash to the "syncretic mestizo culture" of Chicanos (9). Enrique Lamadrid asserts that the family conflict is a "cultural" one on the grounds that the two families have different "cultures" (e.g., agricultural versus pastoral) and reads Bless Me, Ultima as a "dialectical exploration of the contradictions between lifestyles and cultures" (154), thus vaguely evoking the Chicano/Anglo (or perhaps Spanish/indigenous) context. Along the same lines, Paul Beekman Taylor asserts without textual explanation that the "blend of vaquero and farmer" in Anaya's Heart of Aztlán is "a matrix for an Anglo-Chicano mestizo culture" (26).

6. Robert Franklin Gish, for example, focuses on "la Llorona" and "curanderismo" to make his case that "Anaya's novels (especially Ultima) can be read as […] affirming Anaya's belief in the poetic rendering of one's ethnic identity and heritage […]" (128). Willard Gingerich concentrates on Anaya's bilingual writing style as a key to the text's "ethnic" content: "the analysis of language style in Chicano literature […] could provide, in short, the clearest window" to the writer's "unique vision of Chicanismo" (207-08).

7. See Bus, Lattin, and Parr.

8. See for example Holton, Hada, (who, despite the promise of its title, has nothing specific to say about Chicano/a or Latino/a culture). Taylor, and Kanoza. The latter, ironically, also takes for granted the novel's indigenous "content," pointing out that "Bless Me, Ultima has earned acclaim for its ‘cultural uniqueness’ and is lauded for such distinctive Chicano features as its use of Aztec myth and symbol […]" (160). Lamadrid is similarly contradictory in his approach, claiming that Anaya's writing "shows the greatest promise [in New Mexican literature] of transcending the limitations of narrow regionalism and ethnic literatures" (151), yet simultaneously making reference to Anaya's use of "indigenous materials" (151) and to his treatment of "historical forces, from the colonization of Hispanic farmers and ranchers to the coming of the Anglos […]" (154), thus obviously invoking what would typically be considered "ethnic" aspects of the novel. From her title, Jane Rogers would seem to belong to the "indigenous influences" camp of scholars, but she is more properly placed in the "Western/ Universal" camp, as the book uses an entirely Western frame of reference. She never mentions the possible indigenous roots of La Llorona; instead she reads this figure as another manifestation of the sirens in Homer's The Odyssey.

9. My use of the term "Indian" reflects the usage of both Bless Me, Ultima and Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La Frontera. I also wish to respect recent efforts by the indigenous peoples of North America to reappropriate this term. Thus I use "Indian" interchangeably with "Native American."

10. In a striking misreading of the novel that testifies to how easily a Native American component to Antonio's identity crisis is taken for granted without an actual textual basis. Glen A. Newkirk writes, "The action of the novel centers on Tony's attempt to achieve self-identity in a world of conflicting forces. In his community he must synthesize his Hispanic roots with the ‘magic’ of the letters of the Anglo School and the legends told by his Indian friends, Cico, Samuel and Florence" (143). Newkirk simply assumes that any of Tony's friends who are atheist or worshippers of the golden carp—that is, non-Catholics—are "Indian," although the novel explicitly states that "Jasón's Indian […] was the only Indian of the town" (10). Less egregiously, Feroza Jussawalla identifies Bless Me, Ultima as one of several bildungsromans in which the "main characters' essential knowledge" is "an awareness of their rootedness within their cultures"; specifically in Ultima, Antonio learns "that the rituals of the Native Americans provide more comfort than Anglo-American Catholicism and its education" (222). Such a reading ignores Antonio's striking lack of awareness of any Native American component to his own culture. To the degree to which he is made aware of Native American influences at all, it is as influences external to his culture, which he may or may not decide to adopt.

11. In many ways, earlier Spanish policy regarding land grants was more flexible toward Indians than subsequent Mexican policy. An Indian settlement with "claims and documents to show that it had existed under orderly government, and [which] indicated that its people would be loyal subjects" to Spain, could be granted a "royal merced, the land title of that town"; stable Indian settlements were distinguished from nomadic "hostile" Indians under Spanish policy (Cline 13-16). In contrast, when Mexico achieved independence, "Many of the distinctions among Indian groups which earlier underlay Spanish practices had been forgotten or were now generally disregarded" (Cline 17-18).

12. Roberto Cantú notes that although Jasón, his father, and the Indian all reappear as characters in Anaya's Heart of Aztlán, the father's disapproval of the Indian has vanished (17)—and, I would add, with it the theme of repression of "Indian-ness" as an aspect of Chicano identity.

13. Cantú's rather unsatisfactory conclusion is that Antonio is an "unreliable narrator" (16).

14. Although denial of Native American heritage has historically been an aspect of Mexican culture as well, Lux and Vigil point out that strong pressures in the United States to assimilate to an Anglo model created additional, culturally specific forces acting on Mexican Americans. Whereas "[i]n Mexico of the 1930s, during the presidency of Lázaro Cárdenas, the Indian origin of the Mexican people was accepted with pride" (94), differing political and cultural conditions ensured that an analogous cultural shift among Mexican Americans would have to wait until the Chicano movements of the 1960s and 1970s.

15. Here Lux and Vigil echo Armando B. Rendón's Chicano Manifesto, which declared in the year before Bless Me, Ultima first appeared in print, "We have hardly begun to investigate the fathomless inheritance that is ours from our Indian forbears […]" (281).

16. Lux and Vigil cite Weiss 471.

17. Although, as I have suggested, Bless Me, Ultima fits perfectly with Brogan's thesis, she herself refers to the novel only twice and in passing, connecting it loosely with "La Llorona" (3) and with "ghosts who straddle boundaries" (16) and making no mention of the episode of the Comanche Indian spirits.

Works Cited

Anderson, Gary Clayton. The Indian Southwest, 1580-1830: Ethnogenesis and Reinvention. Norman: U of Oklahoma P, 1999.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Hispanic American Writers. Philadelphia: Chelsea, 1998.

Brogan, Kathleen. Cultural Haunting: Ghosts and Ethnicity in Recent American Literature. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1998.

Bruce-Novoa, Juan. "Learning to Read (and/in) Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima." Maitino and Peck 179-91.

Bus, Heiner. "The Presence of Native Americans in Chicano Literature." Revista Chicano-Riqueña 13.3-4 (1985): 148-62.

Calderón, Héctor. "Bless Me, Ultima: A Chicano Romance of the Southwest." Critica: A Journal of Critical Essays 1.3 (Fall 1986): 21-47. Rpt. in Rudolfo A. Anaya: Focus on Criticism. Ed. César A. González-T. La Jolla, CA: Lalo, 1990. 64-93.

———. "The Novel and the Community of Readers: Rereading Tomás Rivera's Y no se lo tragó la tierra." Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature, Culture, and Ideology. Eds. Héctor Calderón and José David Saldívar. Durham: Duke UP, 1991. 97-113.

Cantú, Roberto. "Apocalypse as an Ideological Construct: The Storyteller's Art in Bless Me, Ultima." González-T. 13-63.

Cline, Howard F. Spanish and Mexican Land Grants in New Mexico, 1689-1848: A Technical Report. New York: Clearwater, 1964.

Dasenbrock, Reed Way. "Intelligibility and Meaningfulness in Multicultural Literature in English." PMLA 102.1 (Jan. 1987): 10-19.

Gingerich, Willard. "Aspects of Prose Style in Three Chicano Novels: Pocho, Bless Me, Ultima, and The Road to Tamazunchale." Form and Function in Chicano English. Ed. Jacob Ornstein-Galicia. Rowley, MA: Newbury, 1984. 206-28.

Gish, Robert Franklin. Beyond Bounds: Cross-Cultural Essays on Anglo, American Indian, and Chicano Literature. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P. 1996.

González-T, César A., ed. Rudolfo A. Anaya: Focus on Criticism. La Jolla, CA: Lalo, 1990.

Hada, Ken. "Christ, Culture and Conscience: Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima and Carlos Fuentes's The Good Conscience." Notes on Contemporary Literature 29.4 (1999): 9-10.

Hames-García, Michael. "Dr. Gonzo's Carnival: The Testimonial Satires of Oscar Zeta Acosta." American Literature 72.3 (2000): 463-493.

Holton, Frederick S. "Chicano as Bricoleur: Christianity and Mythmaking in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima." Confluencia 11.1 (1995): 22-41.

Jussawalla, Feroza. "Teaching R. K. Narayan's Swami and Friends." College Literature 19.3 (Oct. 1992)-20.1 (Feb. 1993): 219-224.

Kanoza, Theresa M. "The Golden Carp and Moby Dick: Rudolfo Anaya's Multi-Culturalism." MELUS 24.2 (Summer 1999): 159-71.

Lamadrid, Enrique. "The Dynamics of Myth in the Creative Vision of Rudolfo Anaya." Hispanic American Writers. Bloom. 151-61, Rpt. (and revision) of "Myth as the Cognitive Process of Popular Culture in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima: The Dialectics of Knowledge." Hispania 68.3 (Sept. 1985): 496-501.

Lattin, Vernon E. "The Quest for Mythic Vision in Contemporary Native American and Chicano Fiction." American Literature 50 (1978): 625-40.

Lux, Guillermo, and Maurilio E. Vigil. "Return to Aztlán: The Chicano Rediscovers His Indian Past." Anaya and Lomelí 93-110.

Maitino, John R., and David R. Peck, eds. Teaching American Ethnic Literatures. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico P. 1996.

———. Introduction. Maitino and Peck 3-16.

McKenna, Teresa. Migrant Song: Politics and Process in Contemporary Chicano Literature. Austin: U of Texas P. 1997.

Newkirk, Glen A. "Anaya's Archetypal Women in Bless Me, Ultima." South Dakota Review 31.1 (1993): 142-50.

Padilla, Genaro M. "Myth and Comparative Cultural Nationalism: The Ideological Uses of Aztlán." Anaya and Lomelí 11-34.

Parr, Carmen Salazar. "Current Trends in Chicano Literary Criticism." The Identification and Analysis of Chicano Literature. Ed. Francisco Jimenez. New York: Bilingual, 1979. 134-42.

Poey, Delia. "Coming of Age in the Curriculum: The House on Mango Street and Bless Me, Ultima as Representative Texts." The Americas Review 24.3-4 (Fall/Winter 1996): 201-217.

Rendón, Armando B. Chicano Manifesto. New York: Macmillan, 1971.

Rogers, Jane. "The Function of the La Llorona Motif in Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima." Latin American Literary Review. 10 (1977): 64-69.

Taylor, Paul Beekman. "The Chicano Translation of Troy: Epic Topoi in the Novels of Rudolfo A. Anaya." MELUS 19.3 (Fall 1994): 19-35.

Tonn, Horst. "Bless Me Ultima: A Fictional Response to Times of Transition." Aztlan 18.1 (1989): 59-68. Rpt. in González-T 1-9.

Vallejos, Thomas. "Ritual Process and the Family in the Chicano Novel." MELUS 10.4 (Winter 1983): 5-16.

Vigil, James Diego. From Indians to Chicanos: A Sociocultural History. St. Louis: C. V. Mosby, 1980.

Weiss, Frederick A. "Self-Alienation: Dynamics and Therapy." Man Alone: Alienation in Modern Society. Ed. Eric and Mary Josephson. New York: Dell, 1962.

FURTHER READING

Criticism

Adams, Robert A. "Natives and Others." New York Review of Books (26 March 1987): 32-6.

Explores the issue of ethnic identity in Bless Me, Ultima.

Lee, A. Robert. "Ethnic Renaissance: Rudolfo Anaya, Louise Erdrich, and Maxine Hong Kingston." In The New American Writing: Essays on American Literature since 1970, edited by Graham Clarke, pp. 139-64. New York, N.Y.: St. Martin's Press, 1990.

Discusses the rise of American ethnic literature in the 1960s, focusing on Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima as an example of Chicano literature and its emphasis on cultural identity, tradition, and displacement.

Rogers, Jane. "The Function of the La Llorona Motif in Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima." Latin American Literary Review 50, no. 10 (spring-summer 1977): 64-9.

Examines the archetypal themes of passage, longing, and deadly seduction in Bless Me, Ultima, drawing attention to the symbolism and imagery of the "la llorona" myth.

Rose, David James. Review of Bless Me, Ultima, by Rudolfo Anaya. Hispanic 7, no. 8 (September 1994): 90.

Comments that most of Bless Me, Ultima "reads like the text from a Walt Disney movie."

Additional coverage of Anaya's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 20; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 13; Concise Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 1; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 45-48; Contemporary Authors Autobiography Series, Vol. 4; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 1, 32, 51, 124; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 23, 148; Contemporary Novelists, Eds. 4, 5, 6, 7; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 82, 206, 278; DISCovering Authors Modules: Multicultural Authors, Novelists; Hispanic Literature Criticism, Ed. 1; Hispanic Writers, Ed. 1; Latino and Latina Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Major 21st-Century Writers, Ed. 2005; Modern American Literature, Ed. 5; Novels for Students, Vol. 12; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Twentieth-Century Western Writers, Ed. 2; and World Literature and Its Times, Ed. 1.

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