The life of young Antonio Márez, like our own lives, is a multidimensional, booming, buzzing world — laced with constraints and opportunities, absolutes and relativisms, structures and freedoms, harmonies and conflicts, unities and divisions, consistencies and traditions, love and hate, good and evil. The primary structural feature of the novel is conflict — in the form of competing modes of understanding between farmers and cowboys, priests and healers, children and adults. War, too, is prominent in the novel. World War II is a distant ogre to whom U.S. citizens sacrifice their sons, and even if some of these sons returned, they were often poisoned with ''war sickness.'' Indeed, there are tiny wars going on throughout the novel. One rages within Antonio, another among the students at school, and still another between the students and their teacher.
Antonio is caught between the competing lifestyles of his paternal and maternal families, and this conflict is embedded in the broader tension between Chicano/a and American cultures. His quest to understand takes him from a naive, innocent view of the world to one of increased knowledge and self-understanding. In the end, he learns that new outcomes can be formed from one's past and that one should accept and gain strength from life rather than succumb to despair. Anaya seems to be saying that adversity and suffering can be productive and beautiful by making us stronger, wiser, and more sympathetic persons.
Anaya uses dream sequences to highlight the inner conflicts that push Antonio to understand the world around him. The dreams emphasize Antonio's acute intuitive sense, the conflictive understandings he has of the world around him, and his own deep fears. They are windows into Antonio's unconscious world as he matures and deepens his understanding. The dreams foreshadow many of the major events in Antonio's life.
Moments of profound revelation on the part of Antonio parallel the epiphanies felt by Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Indeed, Anaya himself writes about "epiphany in landscape," that profound sense of place that humans have with their environments — in particular, the relationship that Chicano/as have with the earth. The first epiphany occurs when Ultima opens Antonio's eyes to the beauty of the llano and the magic of the river valley. For the first time, Antonio feels the pulse of the earth and the unity between it and the various life forms, and he dissolves himself "into one strange, complete being."
The novel is written in a simple style that demonstrates the perceptive images of Anaya's understanding of the rural culture of Chicano/as in eastern New Mexico in the 1940s. It is bilingual in that it is interspersed with Spanish phrases and terms, but it lacks the fluid code-switching found in everyday life.
The autobiographical ethos of the novel has been recognized by many critical reviewers, and Anaya himself has been very explicit on this matter. The trilogy comprised of Bless Me, Ultima, Heart of Aztlan, and Tortuga has been acknowledged by Anaya as somewhat autobiographical in the sense that he uses the memories of his experiences as sources for his writings. His mother was from the Puerto de Luna valley, where Billy the Kid, el Bilito, attended Mexican dances and wrestled in the streets with his Mexican-American friends. Anaya's father was a vaquero who knew the hard work of the large ranchos on the plains. More affinities between the life of Antonio and that of Rudolfo can be traced, but the novel is not truly autobiographical, nor is it intended as such. Rather, it is a cultural novel that explores the ancestral heritage of Chicano/as and its relevance for their lives in the present. Much like Rodolfo Gonzales' epic poem, Yo Soy Joaquin, this novel frames an ethnic identity that resonates strongly with the Chicano/a readership in the United States. Other important Chicano/a literary works that address similar issues include Jose Antonio Villareal's Pocho, Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street (written from the perspective of a young girl), Richard Rodriguez' Hunger of Memory, and Mary Helen Ponce's Hoyt Street: An Autobiography.