Bless Me, Ultima

by Rudolfo Anaya

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Discussion Topic

The significance of the Golden Carp and its connection to Ultima in "Bless Me, Ultima."

Summary:

The Golden Carp in Bless Me, Ultima symbolizes an alternative spiritual belief system and represents a form of indigenous wisdom. Its connection to Ultima lies in her role as a curandera, or healer, who embodies a blend of mystical and cultural traditions, including the indigenous spirituality that the Golden Carp signifies.

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What is the significance of the Golden Carp in Bless Me, Ultima?

In Bless Me Ultima,nthe Golden Carp is a pagan deity that Antonio learns about during his crisis of faith. The Golden Carp is symbolically representative of pagan religions that existed in North America before the Spanish colonization. While Antonio is deeply entrenched in the Catholic faith, he is rocked by the failure of his religion to answer his questions, and in his time of doubt, he is confronted with the reality of the Golden Carp and how it represents the part of him that is not Spanish but Native American.

While the Carp is first introduced to Antonio as a story, it becomes a reality when he sees it in the river. Antonio realizes that the Carp, like Ultima’s magic, fills a void that his religion cannot, and he begins to question the validity of the Catholic God. Eventually, after going through nearly every struggle in the story, including a lackluster first communion, Antonio realizes that he can create harmony between all the convergent parts of his life.

The following quote is from chapter Vientidos:

"Take the llano and the river valley, the moon and the sea, God and the golden carp—and make something new," I said to myself. That is what Ultima meant by building strength from life. "Papa," I asked, "can a new religion be made?"

Antonio concludes that where one faith or one idea fails, another comes to fill in the gap. There is the possibility of something new that links all the different parts of Antonio’s life—the Roman Catholic side, but also the Golden Carp. Just like how Antonio is a mix of many different backgrounds, he dreams that there can be a religion that mixes what all the others offer.

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What is the significance of the Golden Carp in Bless Me, Ultima?

The Golden Carp symbolizes the indigenous faiths that Antonio struggles to connect himself to. Many of the adults that Antonio knows maintain this connection in many ways, but others, like Antonio's mother, try to pull him into the faith of the Catholic Church instead.

When Antonio goes to see the carp with his friend, he learns the tale of the old god that saved the humans even though they betrayed their creator and ate the carp that was forbidden to them. The people in this story were saved but turned into carp, and the god that saved them turned himself into a large, golden carp to stay with them.

This story has its own echoes of Christianity weaving in as well, because it is said that the golden carp will flood the river if humans transgress again, which is reminiscent of the Noah's Arc story. This mixing of stories over time is also symbolic of the struggle between cultures and of how Antonio will have to choose between, as well as mix, the spiritual tools that he is given in order to find what fits for him.

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What is the significance of the Golden Carp in Bless Me, Ultima?

In Tony's already confused world of magic versus religion, the Golden Carp signifies yet one more source for his doubts about Christianity. Cico introduces Tony to the Golden Carp, a pagan god who is a symbol of forgiveness, unlike the Christian God who Tony believes is cruel and unforgiving.  The carp is beautiful and huge, a true source of awe. At the realization that, contrary to Christian belief, there are other gods, Tony begins to question who his mother is truly praying to- who is Jesus, who is the Virgen de Guadalupe?

Tony's doubts about Christianity further deepen when he makes his First Holy Communion, a religious rite of passage in Catholicism where children eat God's body in the form of a wafer. Antonio expects to hear the voice of God at the moment the takes the Eucharist into his body. He expects that this will be a monumental event and that everything will be clear to him after that. After nothing happens, Tony is utterly disappointed. He wonders why he can see the carp and not God.

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What is the significance of the Golden Carp in Bless Me, Ultima?

It is clear that the golden carp in this excellent novel stands for a pagan religion, offering another possibility to make sense of our existence and another explanation for the world. When Samuel first tells Antonio about the golden carp in Chapter Nine, the way that the golden carp stands for an alternative belief to Christianity is obvious. Note how Samuel explains the existence of the golden carp:

"When the gods had turned the people into carp, the one kind god who loved the people grew very sad. The river was full of dangers to the new fish. So he went to the other gods and told them he chose to be turned into a carp and swim in teh river where he could take care of his people. The gods agreed. But because he was a god they made him very big and coloured him the colour of gold. And they made him the lord of all the waters of the valley."

Antonio is bemused by the idea of a "new god," which disturbs the beliefs of Antonio and makes him wonder about who Jesus was and if his mother was praying to "the wrong God." An important theme of this great novel is the way in which the clash of cultures is represented through the presentation of different belief systems and religions. Antonio is able to piece together his own identity by incorporating bits from both the pagan religion that the golden carp stands for, and Christianity.

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In "Bless Me, Ultima," what do Ultima and the Golden Carp have in common?

Ultima is a medicine woman whose cures contain elements of Catholicism and Native American mysticism. Although Tony and his family see her as a benign healer, some in the community are afraid of Ultima because of her powers and seek to destroy her. She becomes a mentor to Tony, helping him interpret his dreams and negotiate the dangerous terrain of his quest for self knowledge. She also teaches Tony about the powers of the earth, and through these lessons, Tony begins to question traditional religion.

Like Ultima, the Golden Carp is also a benign being with magical powers who serves as an instrument for Tony's curiosity and quest for self-awareness. The carp is also at risk of destruction by those who do not understand it. When he learns of the carp, Tony asks, “If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross? The Virgin? Was my mother praying to the wrong God?” Disappointed with the Christian God’s silence after his first communion, Tony looks to this pagan god and to Ultima’s magic to find explanations for the evil he has found in the world.

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