Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Guadalupe. Small town in eastern New Mexico where Antonio lives. Tony’s family has moved from Las Pasturas (a smaller town where he was born) to Guadalupe, where he will spend these crucial years growing up. The town is dominated by three symbolic structures: the Roman Catholic church where Tony receives his catechism, the school he attends, and the water tower. Many of Tony’s adventures will be on water: It is at the river at night where he watches the death of Lupito, in a pond where he sees the golden carp, in a snowstorm where he witnesses the death of Narciso, and in Blue Lake where he finds his friend Florence drowned.
Tony and his family live on a hillside outside of town, where Tony does traditional chores, feeding the livestock and tending his mother’s garden, and it is from his mother’s family that he learns some of his most lasting lessons: “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 inexplicable mixture that gives man his measure of safety and security. Because man plants in the earth he believes in the miracle 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.”
Ultima, a curandera (or healer) and grandmother-figure who was present at Tony’s birth, introduces him to the beauty that surrounds...
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New Mexico was a Spanish colony from 1595 to 1821. When the Spanish explored the region, they found permanent communities (as opposed to nomadic tribes) along the Rio Grande; they called these pueblos after the small villages in southern Spain. They discovered that many of the plants and animals from their homeland could survive in the region—cattle, horses, sheep, goats, chickens, and pigs were among the animals they brought. They also introduced grains such as wheat and barley, fruit including apples, pears, peaches, and melons, as well as vegetables like lettuce, cucumbers, and chiles.
The Spanish found that there was little gold or other precious metals in the region, so the primary purpose of colonizing the area became the religious conversion of the native people. The Pueblo Indians were enlisted to build mission churches in each of the villages. However, the Indians resented the church’s suppression of their native beliefs and thought they were being exploited by the Spanish labor policies. In 1680, the Indians revolted and drove the Spanish out of the area.
In 1692, Don Diego de Vargas reconquered New Mexico, but this time the colonizers managed to forge a sustainable relationship with the Pueblo Indians. During this time many communities were established, including the communities in which Rudolfo Anaya would be raised centuries later. These communities blended the culture of the Pueblo Indians with the...
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The novel is set in the plains of New Mexico in the 1940s, during World War II. The first part of the book takes place around Tony's home, a small house in Guadalupe, and the second part takes place in the town itself, where Tony learns to cope with the harsh realities of life. Guadalupe is a typical rural New Mexico town, embedded in Hispanic culture, its residents part Spanish and part Native American. Anaya uses the rich sense of history these people embrace to carry his themes. Anaya ties the clash between religious and social ideologies and the deep sense of spiritualism Native Americans embrace to a profound belief in the sacredness of the land. His vivid descriptions of the landscape carry his theme of earth magic. Ultima knows the secrets of the earth, and through her influence, Tony comes to appreciate them as well. "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," Tony says when he first meets Ultima. "The granules of sand at my feet and the sun and sky above me seemed to dissolve into one strange, complete being."
Anaya describes the landscape most vividly when seen through Ultima's or Tony's eyes and we know that both of them understand the power of nature. Tony struggles with the idea of God and spirit, which in his cultural history, manifests itself in all parts of nature. Anaya uses nature imagery throughout the novel, and this helps create a sense...
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Point of View An integral aspect of the construction of Bless Me, Ultima is the point of view from which the story is told. The novel is narrated by the main character, Tony, who is six years old when the novel begins, and yet who is much more perceptive than a six-year-old—it is clear that the narrator is really an adult remembering and articulating the events of his childhood.
The use of the first-person narrator (who uses “I”) means that the reader sees the action only through the eyes of one character, and this sometimes can lead to questions about the reliability of what the reader is told; however, in Bless Me, Ultima, Tony appears to be a reliable narrator whom the reader can trust to tell things the way they are and to give some important insights into what is happening.
In this case, the use of the first-person point of view adds to the depth of the novel and is integral to the novel’s purpose: to portray Tony’s quest for understanding and search for identity. By relating Tony’s thoughts, dreams, and unspoken questions from his own point of view, the novel allows the reader to fully participate in his journey.
Tony lives in a household and community where Spanish is the only language spoken, yet he goes to a school where only English is spoken, and the language of the novel reflects this duality. While the vast majority of the novel is written in English, certain aspects of...
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Much of what Tony learns about his past and his future is revealed to him in dream sequences in which Anaya uses stream of consciousness and flashback techniques to allow Tony to recall his life and to reveal his confusion about his place in the world. In one dream he remembers back to his mother's womb and to the time Ultima delivered him. In another he dreams of Lupito and the soul's journey to the afterlife. He also envisions the death of Ultima in a dream. Ten dream sequences unravel throughout the novel, and they all relate to events in Tony's life but distort the context. Like the myths, these dreams reveal to him how his personal experiences fit into the cosmos. They unravel like myths, and they help Tony make sense of the world around him.
Cuentos, or myths and legends of the people, largely influenced Anaya when he was a young boy. He was captivated by their mystical elements, and he uses these stories to add intensity and complexity to his plot. The Legend of the Golden Carp is a story about creation and reincarnation, and it teaches Tony a lesson in how to reconcile Catholicism with paganism. The Golden Carp is a god, similar in function to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and to Jesus. The Golden Carp, Quetzalcoatl, and Jesus all died to save the souls of their people, and they all had the power to protect or to punish. Tony learns about the carp about the same time he is learning about Catholic religion, and the legend helps build his faith without...
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Anaya covers themes in his novels that have had significance in his own life. But while Tony's experiences mirror Anaya's own experiences, they also typify the experiences of many Hispanics struggling to reconcile two cultures. Tony faces the challenge of reconciling his own Hispanic world with the Anglicized world around him. Religion plays a large role in Tony's life. The people of Mexico were pagans before the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs and converted them to Catholicism, but this did not erase the strong ties the people of Mexico had to pagan religion. As was the case with many Mexicans since the Conquest, Tony had to reconcile what appeared to be two vastly different religious philosophies in order to come to grips with his own spirituality. Tony's mother, Maria, is devoted to Catholicism and his father, Gabriel, has little or no interest in religion at all. Ultima, who has perhaps more of an influence on Tony, has a spirituality rooted in pagan mysticism. She offers Tony a blend of both philosophies, and she reveals to him a power so strong that he cannot help but understand the true nature of God.
When Ultima comes to live with Tony and his family, she is given the utmost respect and welcomed into the family as one of their own. As is true in most traditional cultures, Mexican life centers around the family, and Tony does not stray from his extended family in his early childhood years. When he finally does leave the security of his home, he...
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Compare and Contrast
1940s: During World War II, the U.S. population, including the people living in New Mexico, is mostly located in small towns and rural settings. In 1940, thirty million Americans live on farms.
1970s: Following World War II, the population begins moving toward the big cities, as farming becomes more centralized and therefore less practical and profitable for family operations. Others, including many Hispanic Americans, work on the factory-like farms owned by large landowners.
Today: By the late 1980s, the rural farm population has dwindled to around five million. Today, the trend continues toward a small number of large-scale, corporate-owned farms.
1940s: During World War II, there is strong support for the war effort among Americans. After the Great Depression of the late 1920s and 1930s, the war becomes an economic force that brings the country out of dire economic straits and under a cohesive cause. Thousands of Americans serve the war effort in both civilian and military roles, and those returning from the front receive heroes’ welcomes.
1970s: When Anaya publishes his first novel, the United States is well into its long military involvement in Vietnam. The Vietnam War changes many Americans’ ideas about war: it is the first war to be shown on television, and the violence shocks many who are witnessing it from their homes. Additionally, there is widespread discontent,...
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Topics for Discussion
1. Why was Maria particularly bothered by her sons' exhibiting what she considered inappropriate behavior around Ultima?
2. Why was it so important for Tony to tell Florence the Legend of the Golden Carp?
3. Discuss how Tony's family epitomizes the typical Mexican family.
4. What is the significance of Ultima using "black magic" to help Tio Lucas? What does this reveal about the dividing line between evil and goodness?
5. Why does Tony bury Ultima's owl under the juniper tree?
6. What does Ultima give Tony that his family can not?
7. Why is Tony haunted by the Legend of the Golden Carp?
8. Ultima plays the role of midwife in Tony's birth. Can you explain the symbolism of this role. Do you think Anaya was alluding to more than Tony's physical birth?
9. What is the significance of Ultima's name?
10. In what way does Ultima bless Tony?
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Ideas for Reports and Papers
1. Using Ultima as an example, define the role of the shaman in Mexican American societies. (Daghistany's book in For Further Reference section below should be helpful.)
2. The Legend of the Golden Carp has similarities to the Mexican myth of Quetzalcoatl and to the Biblical myth of the deluge. Dissect the Legend of the Golden Carp and elaborate on the connections to one of the ancient stories that delivers the same message.
3. Explain how Ultima's spiritualism compares with Maria's Catholicism. How are they alike? How do they differ?
4. Explain how Anaya uses myths and legends to help Tony achieve personal identity.
5. Choose one of the symbols in the novel (Ultima's owl, for instance) and explain its significance.
6. Discuss the ways in which Tony achieves cultural identity.
7. Discuss the ways in which Anaya uses the spiritual bond between Ultima and Tony to reveal his belief in the sacredness of the land.
8. Use the symbolism of the moon and the sea to contrast the Lunas with the Marezes.
9. Discuss the discrimination that Mexican Americans living in New Mexico face today.
10. Research the history of el curanderismo and discuss how this practice relates to Hispanic spiritual philosophy.
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Topics for Further Study
Research the practice of curandismo (native healing) in the Southwestern United States, and evaluate Anaya’s portrayal of the curandera Ultima.
Discuss the ways in which Anaya uses paired ideas or dualities to develop the themes in Bless Me, Ultima.
Contrast Anaya’s depiction of the Catholic belief system with his portrayal of pagan beliefs (as represented by Ultima and the Golden Carp).
Bless Me, Ultima is told from the point of view of the main character, Antonio, who is a six-yearold boy. In what ways does the use of the firstperson narrator affect the impact of the story?
Rudolfo Anaya, in an interview with Feroza Jussawalla, defined the “New World person” as one who takes his perspective from indigenous history and spiritual thought and mythology and relationships. The New World person is a person of synthesis, a person who is able to draw, in our case, on our Spanish roots and our native indigenous roots and become a new person, become that Mestizo with a unique perspective.” Explain how the character Tony fits into Anaya’s definition of the New World person.
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Anaya's books attempt to answer some of life's most perplexing questions: how we can understand the nature of God and how we can we find faith in a chaotic world. They also attempt to place these questions in perspective unique to the Chicano culture. Anaya deals with themes particularly similar to those in Bless Me, Ultima in the two novels that directly followed, Heart of Aztlan and Tortuga. Both of these books are coming of age novels centered around the Chicano experience in America, and both feature a young boy who faces trauma and turmoil but gains spiritual insight as he grows emotionally and learns about life and death. Heart of Aztlan deals with the problems of a Chicano worker living in America and Tortuga with the emotional pain of a young boy suffering from paralysis. In both of these novels Anaya incorporates mythic elements to help define the Chicano experience and shed light on the problem of finding faith in a confusing world.
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What Do I Read Next?
Victor Martinez’s Parrot in the Oven: Mi Vida won the 1996 National Book Award for Young People’s Fiction. In powerful prose, it tells the story of Manuel Hernandez, a Mexican-American teenager living in a housing project in California, as he comes of age among a battling family and newly emerging passions.
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros, is made up of short vignettes about a young girl, Esperanza, growing up in a Latino section of Chicago, dreaming of the life she will have someday.
Anaya wrote two more novels that, along with Bless Me, Ultima, make up his “New Mexican Trilogy”: Heart of Aztlan (1976) and Tortuga (1979). In Heart of Aztlan, a man struggles to provide for his family in a barrio of Albuquerque, and goes on a mythic quest in order to help his community. In Tortuga, a teenaged boy is admitted to a hospital for crippled children, where he is initiated into a new way of looking at the world.
Pocho, a novel by Jose Antonio Villarreal that was published in 1970, details the experiences of a young Mexican-American boy in California during the Depression who is torn between his parents’ values and the ideas found in their new country.
And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, by Tomas Rivera, is considered a Chicano classic. The book, which is not written in linear fashion but rather in layers of anecdotes, stories, and...
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For Further Reference
Anaya, Rudolfo. Keep Blessing Us, Ultima: A Teaching Guide for Bless Me, Ultima. Edited by Abelerdo Baeza. Austin: Eakin Press, 1997. A handbook for teachers who are working in Bless Me, Ultima with their classes.
Andrews, Tamra. Legends of the Earth, Sea, and Sky: An Encyclopedia of Nature Myths. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1998. This book should be helpful in understanding the significance of myths of the land and in generating ideas for reports and papers.
Clark, William. "Rudolfo Anaya: The Chicano Worldview." Publishers Weekly (June 5,1955): 41-42.
Daghistany, Ann. "The Shaman, Light and Dark." In Literature and Anthropology. Edited by Philip A. Dennis and Wendell Aycock. Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 1989, pp. 193-208.
"Rudolfo A. Anaya: Bless Me, Ultima." In Literature and Its Times: Profiles of 300 Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events that Influenced Them, Volume 4: World War II to the Affluent Fifties (1940-1950's). Detroit: Gale, 1997.
Stavans, Llan. The Hispanic Condition: Reflections on Culture and Identity in America. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. Presents the history, culture, and identity of Latinos in the United States, touching on some of the same themes Anaya addresses.
Trotter, Robert, and Juan Antonio Chavira. Curanderismo: Mexican American Folk Healing. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1981. Describes the...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Gonzalez, Ray, “Desert Songs,” in Nation, Vol. 259, Issue 3, July 18, 1994, p. 98.
Jussawalla, Feroza, ed., Interview with Rudolfo Anaya, in Interviews with Writers of the Post-Colonial World, University Press of Mississippi, 1992, pp. 17–46.
Kanoza, Theresa M., “The Golden Carp and Moby Dick: Rudolfo Anaya’s Multi-Culturalism,” in MELUS, Vol. 24, No. 2, 1999, p. 159.
Larson, Charles R., “Summer of the Curandera,” in World & I, Vol. 9, No. 8, 1994, pp. 324–30.
Lomeli, Francisco A., and Donaldo W. Urioste, Chicano Perspectives in Literature: A Critical and Annotated Bibliography, Pajarito Publications, 1976.
For Further Study
Clark, William, “Rudolfo Anaya: ‘The Chicano Worldview,’” in Publisher’s Weekly, Vol. 242, No. 23, June 5, 1995, p. 412. This overview of Anaya’s life and works refers to an interview with Anaya in his New Mexico home.
Taylor, Paul Beekman, “Chicano Secrecy in the Fiction of Rudolfo A. Anaya,” in Journal of the Southwest, Vol. 39, No. 2, Summer 1997, pp. 239–65. Taylor discusses the ways in which Anaya uses aspects of two cultures, languages, and traditions to explore secrecy in his fiction. Secrecy is seen as a method of resistance to the dominant culture, an “effective weapon against the tyranny of Eurocentric political, technical, and cultural hegemony.”...
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Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Bruce-Novoa. Portraits of the Chicano Artist as a Young Man: The Making of the “Author” in Three Chicano Novels. Albuquerque, N.Mex.: Pajarito Press, 1977. This important early analysis of Bless Me, Ultima reveals the novel to be “the apprenticeship of a writer who fulfills his training with Ultima by becoming a novelist, the author of his own text.”
Calderón, Héctor. “Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima: A Chicano Romance of the Southwest.” Critica 1, no. 3 (Fall, 1986): 21-47. Argues that the novel is actually a highly crafted romance.
González-T., César A., ed. Rudolfo A. Anaya: Focus on Criticism. La Jolla, Calif.: Lalo Press, 1990.
Gonzalez-T., Cesar A., ed. Rudolfo A. Anaya: Focus on Criticism. La Jolla, Calif.: Lalo Press, 1990. Includes useful essays on Bless Me, Ultima by Roberto Cantu, Jean Cazemajou, and others.
Lamadrid, Enrique R. “The Dynamics of Myth in the Creative Vision of Rudolfo Anaya.” In Paso por aquí: Critical Essays on the New Mexican Literary Tradition, 1542-1988, edited by Erlinda Gonzales-Berry. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1989. Shows the ways in which Anaya uses Southwestern myth in his novel.
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