Bless Me, Ultima, the book that established Anaya as an important writer, is often considered his best work. The novel tells the story of three years in the life of Antonio Marez, a young Mexican American boy living in the small New Mexico farm village of Guadalupe around the time of World War II. During these years, Antonio experiences tragedies and struggles. He emerges as a more mature person because of his relationship with his grandmother and spiritual guide, Ultima.
In exploring this relationship, Anaya uses a large variety of interesting materials and techniques. He interweaves legendary and mythic details into realistic descriptions of the New Mexican landscape to create a rich picture of the lifestyle of the characters. He tells the story from the point of view of the narrator, the boy Antonio, but endows him with insights too mature for a young person, thus creating a multiple point of view for the events. Moreover, Anaya frequently incorporates dreams into the story. The plot consists of the struggles Anaya considers the important ones in life, those concerning loss of faith and family problems. It examines Anaya’s favorite theme: that harmony and reconciliation are necessary for self-knowledge and spiritual fulfillment.
Antonio’s parents welcome Ultima, a curandera (spiritual guide), into their family in the first chapter. This begins Antonio’s awareness of the passage of time. He comments that the time of childhood seemed to stand still. In the middle of the chapter, Anaya uses the boy’s dream to accentuate the element of time as well as to introduce the conflict between his mother’s desire for a stable life and his father’s desire to keep the old ways of the vaquero, the traditional Mexican life for a man.
It is Ultima who helps Antonio through the family struggle between these two philosophies, as well as through his problems with his three brothers and two sisters and through the other conflicts in the book. Antonio excels in school and socially; however, he has problems with his relationship to the Church, because he cannot reconcile its spiritual teachings with the bureaucracy and artifice connected to it. He also experiences four deaths, including the drowning of a close friend. Through all these struggles, Ultima provides stability by satisfying Antonio’s emotional and intellectual needs, thus enabling him to grow spiritually as well.
The story ends with Ultima’s death. The book describes only three years in Antonio’s life, but at the end, he is a different person.
To add dimension to Antonio’s character, Anaya frequently includes dreams made up of legendary and mythic materials. Dreams influence his outlook and conduct. For example, dreams in which battles of mythic proportion appear often lead into real arguments with his parents. A complex nightmare involving ancient rituals and symbols of horror enables him to understand the real events of a friend’s murder. At the end, when events affirm Antonio’s growth and development, the dreams become a quieting, healing experience, paralleling the influence of Ultima upon him.
Even though the boy is only eight years old at the novel’s end, the process and themes Anaya deals with are universal. The structure of the narration and the mingling of dream, legend, and reality make the work interesting. Anaya’s vision of balance and wholeness and his ability to synthesize details from many sources to create myths make Bless Me Ultima an important work.