NEA Big Read
Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima

by Rudolfo Anaya

A novel is not written to explain a culture, it creates its own.

Introduction to the Book

The summer before Antonio Juan Márez y Luna turns seven years old, an old woman comes to live with his family in Guadalupe, New Mexico. This woman—called La Grande or Ultima—is a curandera, a traditional healer feared by many and mysterious to all. With her knowledge of medicinal plants and adoration for the llano (open plains), she uses her magic to aid the community.

Because she served as his midwife, Ultima has a special connection to Antonio. As she teaches him, their bond deepens. Antonio witnesses several tragic events that profoundly shake his understanding of his history and his future. After the murder of Lupito, a soldier recently returned from World War II, Antonio begins to consider sin, death, and the afterlife in earnest.

Among the many conflicts Antonio seeks to resolve, the tension between his parents ranks foremost. A devout Catholic, María Luna Márez is the daughter of farmers, and she desperately wants Antonio to become a priest. But his father, Gabriel Márez, is a former vaquero, or cowboy, whose wandering spirit has not settled despite marriage and six children. Gabriel's deepest dream has not come true—to move his family to California's vineyard country.

Antonio's dreams often foreshadow the future and feature his three older brothers, just demobilized from World War II. These surreal dreams also reflect his existential questions: Why is there evil in the world? Why does God sometimes seem to punish the good? Where will I go after death? How can I know the truth? Believing that his first Communion will answer these questions, Antonio studies his catechism and proves an able scholar. Through his dreams and his challenges—including a mob beating from his schoolmates, the death of a close friend, and his brothers' waywardness—Ultima and her owl remain a watchful, benevolent presence.

Bless Me, Ultima is a coming-of-age novel about a young boy's loss of innocence and approach to maturity. But it also deals with tradition and education, faith and doubt, and good and evil. And if Antonio doesn't find an absolute truth in his search, he still comes to believe with his father that "sometimes it takes a lifetime to acquire understanding, because in the end understanding simply means having a sympathy for people."

Major Characters in the Book

Antonio Juan Márez y Luna
The novel's narrator is an imaginative boy about to turn seven years old. Torn between the Mexican-Catholic heritage and the daily miracles of the natural world, he struggles to gain maturity and reconcile all the different blessings envisioned for him.

Antonio's Family

Gabriel Márez
Antonio's father is a former vaquero (cowboy) who dreams of moving his family to California.

María Luna Márez
Antonio's mother is a devout Catholic from a family of farmers who wants her youngest son, Antonio, to bring honor to the family by becoming a priest.

León, Eugene, and Andrew
Antonio's older brothers have been fighting in World War II. Their return to New Mexico renews Gabriel's dream of a new life.

Antonio's Circle

Also known as La Grande, the elderly curandera (healer) joins the Márez family during her final days. Many in the town believe she is a bruja (witch), but she uses her herbal cures for good.

Samuel and Cico
Although they are only two years older than Antonio, Samuel and Cico serve as wise mentors. Samuel tells Antonio the legend of the Golden Carp the day Antonio finishes first grade; Cico takes Antonio to see the magical fish the next summer.

Horse, Bones, Red, the Vitamin Kid, and Abel
This gang comprises the boys with whom Antonio plays, fights, and ultimately falls out.

The villain of the novel blames Ultima for the deaths of his two young daughters. When he vows revenge and attempts to kill Ultima, Ultima's owl blinds him in one eye.

The town drunk and a gifted gardener, he bravely tries to stop Tenorio from murdering Ultima. After Antonio witnesses Tenorio's triumph over Narciso under the juniper tree, Antonio's doubts about God deepen.

How Bless Me, Ultima Came to Be Written

"When I started writing Bless Me, Ultima, I was writing Antonio's story. This boy grows up in a small town, like my hometown, and deals with things that I did—fishing, school, church, and listening to the stories of the people from the community. One night when I was writing late at night, Ultima appeared to me—let me put it that way. She stood at the door and she asked me what I was doing, and I said I was writing a story. And she said that she had to be in the story. And when I asked her name she said, 'Ultima.' And that's when the novel came alive."

—Excerpted from Rudolfo Anaya's interview with Dan Stone

Miracles and Magic in Bless Me, Ultima

No one in Bless Me, Ultima doubts the existence of mystery and magic. Miracles, signs, and symbols form a rich part of the New Mexican Catholic culture of Anaya's world, a unique setting where, for four-hundred years, Catholicism has thrived alongside Indian Pueblo religions. Much of Antonio's struggle stems from his desire to understand the "correct" source of these miracles: the Catholic church, or the curandera.

Catholicism offers Antonio a prescribed way of seeing the world. He diligently learns his Catechism, believing that revelation will come once the body of Christ enters him during his first Communion (Eucharist). He loves the Virgin of Guadalupe—the patron saint of his small New Mexican town—because she represents forgiveness. A devout Catholic woman, Antonio's mother María pushes him toward the priesthood.

Ultima never contradicts María, but her ways as a traditional healer are different. As Antonio says, "Ultima was a curandera, a woman who knew the herbs and remedies of the ancients, a miracle-worker who could heal the sick.... And because a curandera had this power she was misunderstood and often suspected of practicing witchcraft herself."

These two perspectives—the church and the curandera—are often in conflict in the novel. Catholicism praises the Virgin Mary, yet she is mocked in Antonio's school Christmas play. The town denigrates Ultima as a bruja (witch), but when the priest cannot heal, some townspeople beg her to use her power.

Ultima tells Antonio not what to believe, but how to make choices. Like his father, she wants Antonio to think for himself. By the end of the novel, as Rudolfo Anaya has said, "Antonio looks into nature deep enough to see that God is in nature, not just the church."

Legends in Bless Me, Ultima

The Weeping Woman
The origin of the legend of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman) has been part of Southwestern culture since the days of the conquistadors. Tales vary, but all report that this beautiful, frightening spirit—with long black hair and a white gown—belongs to a cursed mother searching rivers and lakes for her children, whom she has drowned. Parents have used this story to teach their children, telling them the merciless La Llorona would drag them to a watery grave if they stay out late at night. In Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio has a terrible nightmare: "It is la llorona, my brothers cried in fear, the old witch who cries along the river banks and seeks the blood of boys and men to drink!"

The Legend of the Golden Carp
Anaya created this story, which draws from Christian, Aztec, and Pueblo mythology. The young Antonio first hears about the carp from his friends Samuel and Cico. Similar to the Old Testament's Noah and the flood, the tale warns that unless the people stop sinning, the carp will cause a flood to purge their evil. Antonio believes the story, but he cannot reconcile it with his Catholicism. After first hearing it, he says that "the roots of everything I had ever believed in seemed shaken." Later, when he sees the carp, he is dazzled by its beauty and wonders if a new religion can blend both the Golden Carp and Catholicism.

Herbal Remedies in Bless Me, Ultima

"For Ultima, even the plants had a spirit."

A small shrub that grows 4-6 feet high in the Southwest, juniper is used to cure headaches, influenza, nausea, and spider bites. Indians also burned juniper wood for feasting and ceremonial fires.

"Place many juniper branches on the platform... Have Antonio cut them, he understands the power in the tree."

Yerba del manso
Manso can be translated to mean calm or quiet. This herb can cure burns, colic in babies, and even rheumatism.

"Of all the plants we gathered none was endowed with so much magic as the yerba del manso."

This herb is also used to heal sore throats and bronchitis.

"We gathered plenty because this was not only a cure for coughs and fever but a spice my mother used for beans and meat."

Sometimes regarded as a good-luck charm, this herb grows best in the mountains of New Mexico and Colorado. Along with its healing power, it can keep poisonous snakes away.

"It is like la yerba del manso, a cure for everything."

"I was happy with Ultima. We walked together in the llano and along the river banks to gather herbs and roots for her medicines... She taught me to listen to the mystery of the groaning earth and to feel complete in the fulfillment of its time. My soul grew under her careful guidance."
—Antonio in Bless Me, Ultima

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