National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima

by Rudolfo Anaya

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


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 Novel

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

Ultima

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.

Tenorio

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.

Narciso

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

Herbal Remedies

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

Juniper

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."

Oregano

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."

Oshá

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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