Twelve years after Spanish explorers landed on Mexican soil, the miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe occurred. In 1531, the dark-skinned mother of Jesus appeared several times to a peasant Indian man named Juan Diego, a Catholic convert. She asked to have a church built on the site. After Diego told a bishop what happened—only to be turned away—a colorful image of the Virgin was emblazoned on Diego's cloak to validate his story. This miracle led to the conversion of about nine million of Mexico's Indians to Catholicism. The Vatican recognized this miracle in 1745, and the image now hangs above the altar in the Basílica de Santa María de Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Like his protagonist Antonio Márez in Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya grew up in New Mexico under the shadow of World War II, which his brothers fought overseas. As a young boy in 1945, he would not have realized that, less than a day's ride away on horseback, government scientists in Los Alamos, New Mexico, had manufactured the atomic bomb that would bring the war in the Pacific to its horrific end.
Rural New Mexico in the mid-twentieth century had long been a land of Mexican and Native American tradition both lured by, and resistant to, civilization's advances. Hopi, Navajo, and Pueblo Indians had foraged and farmed there for centuries. When the Spanish arrived in 1540, they were newcomers. But the religion they believed, the laws they imposed, and the language they brought all took root.
The Rio Grande corridor is the bedrock of the Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache Indians, a spiritual setting that informs Anaya's fiction. As Anaya has said, "Into that came the Spaniards and the Mexicans with the Catholic religion; later, Anglo America comes in. So you have a fascinating place where these cultures are mixing, learning from each other, and quite often in conflict." The body of Spanish and Mexican folklore, called cuentos, passed orally from generation to generation, contains the basis of New Mexican values and beliefs. Through Ultima and Antonio, Anaya has created his own story that is as much old as new.