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.
Bless Me, Ultima is Rudolfo Anaya’s first novel of a trilogy that also includes Heart of Aztlán (1976) and Tortuga (1979). It is a psychological and magical portrait of a quest for identity by a child. In this classic work, Antonio, the protagonist, is subjected to contradicting influences that he must master in order to mature. These influences include symbolic characters and places, the most powerful of which are Ultima, a curandera who evokes the timeless past of a pre-Columbian world, and a golden carp, which swims the river waters of the supernatural and offers a redeeming future.
Antonio is born in Pasturas, a very small village on the Eastern New Mexican plain. Later, the family moves across the river to the small town of Guadalupe, where Antonio spends his childhood. His father belongs to the Márez family and is a cattleman; Antonio’s mother is of the Luna family, whose background is farming. They represent the initial manifestation of the divided world into which Antonio is born. Division is a challenge he must resolve in order to find himself. Antonio’s father wants him to become a horseman of the plain. Antonio’s mother wants him to become a priest to a farming community, which is in the highest tradition of the Luna family.
The parents’ wishes are symptoms of a deeper spiritual challenge facing Antonio involving his Catholic beliefs and those associated with the magical world of a pre-Columbian past. Ultima, the curandera and a creature of both worlds, helps guide Antonio through the ordeal of understanding and dealing with these challenges.
Ultima is a magical character who touches the core of Antonio’s being. She supervised his birth. Later she comes to stay with the family in Guadalupe when Antonio is seven. On several occasions, Antonio is a witness to her power.
Antonio’s adventure takes him beyond the divided world of the farmer and the horseman and beyond the Catholic ritual and its depictions of good and evil. With Ultima’s help, he is able to bridge these opposites and channel them into a new cosmic vision of nature, represented by the river, which stands in the middle of his two worlds, and by the golden carp, which points to a new spiritual covenant.
The novel ends with the killing of Ultima’s owl by one of her enemies. He discovered that the owl carried her spiritual presence. This killing also causes Ultima’s death, but her work is done. Antonio can choose his destiny.