Bless Me, Ultima Essays and Criticism
by Rudolfo Anaya

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Search For Identity Among Conflicting Forces

(Novels for Students)

Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima tells the story of a young boy who is forced to grow up quickly amid violence and family turmoil. Sixyear- old Antonio “Tony” Marez lives with his family in rural New Mexico, but the remoteness of the setting does not translate into an idyllic or pastoral life. By the second chapter, Tony has witnessed the killing of a man and has begun to question the ways of the world around him, including the way in which his own identity will be defined. In searching for his identity, Tony begins to realize that he must reconcile the many opposing expectations of his family and his community if he is to learn the answers for which he hungers.

Tony’s life is fraught with opposing forces. One of the primary conflicts in the novel is the tension between his parents. Tony’s father comes from a line of nomadic cowboys who ranged over the llano, the plains, never staying too long in any one place: “These were the people of my father, the vaqueros of the llano. They were an exuberant, restless people, wandering across the ocean of the plain.” His mother, on the other hand, is a descendant of farmers who settled down and grew crops.

The house in which Tony’s family lives represents these two conflicting ways of life: while they have settled onto a piece of land where they have a small farm, they are just on the border of the llano. Tony’s parents’ desires for their son stem from their relationship with the land. His mother wants Tony to be a farmer and maybe even a priest—she says, “I pray that he will take the vows, that a priest will return to guide the Lunas”—while Tony’s father wishes that his sons will pull up roots and move west so that he can live vicariously through them: he complains, “Another day and more miles of that cursed highway to patch! And for whom? For me that I might travel west! Ay no, that highway is not for the poor man, it is for the tourist.” Tony fears that no matter what he chooses to do in his life, and no matter how he chooses to live with the land, he will be denying some part of his blood.

Another issue encountered by Tony is that of religion. His mother is a devout Catholic, even praying that Tony will one day become a priest. Tony himself appears to be devoted to the Catholic faith, attending catechism and taking the priest’s words to heart. However, when a friend tells him about the golden carp, a pagan god, the possibility that there is another god besides the Christian one forces him to question his entire world view. He wonders, “if the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross, the Virgin? Was my mother praying to the wrong God?” Soon after, he sees the curandera Ultima succeed where the priest has failed: “The power of the doctors and the power of the church had failed to cure my uncle. Now everyone depended on Ultima’s magic. Was it possible that there was more power in Ultima’s magic than in the priest?” In the very next chapter, Tony first lays eyes on the golden carp. When he sees the pagan god, he thinks:

The power of God failed where Ultima’s worked; and then a sudden illumination of beauty and understanding flashed through my mind. This is what I had expected God to do at my first holy communion!

The character of Florence adds to Tony’s confusion about religion. Florence, a friend of Tony’s, does not believe in God and asks probing questions to which Tony has no answers. When Florence asks, “You mean I can . . . do a million bad things and then when I’m about to die I just go to confession and make communion, and I go to heaven,” Tony answers “Yes,” but thinks “No, it didn’t seem fair, but it could happen. This was another question for which I wanted an answer.” Tony prays that he will be given the answers when he takes his first communion, but again he is disappointed: “A thousand questions pushed through my mind, but the Voice within me did not answer. There was only silence.” Faced with this...

(The entire section is 4,986 words.)