The novel opens with a mature Antonio narrating and recalling that period of his youth when Ultima, an old folk healer and midwife, came to live with his family. The night before Ultima arrives, Antonio dreams about the night of his birth, hearing again the loud, angry arguing between his mother's brothers and his father's relatives. His mother, María, is from a family of farmers living in El Puerto de los Lunas, and his father, Gabriel, is from a family of plains cattlemen in Las Pasturas. His mother's people revere the earth; they are rooted to it and depend on its crops. His father's family are restless and nomadic, inclined to be rootless and adventurous. Within Antonio flows the blood of two vastly different lifestyles. Which one will claim his soul? Antonio perceives that only Ultima, the woman who delivered him, knows the secret to his destiny.
After his father rides away to fetch Ultima, Antonio is saddened to think that soon he will begin school and will be separated from his mother, who is insisting that he and his sisters exhibit model behavior and great respect when Ultima arrives — especially Antonio, for he is destined, she says, to become a priest — a vocation that makes Antonio anxious and uncomfortable.
Upon Ultima's arrival, Antonio impulsively calls her by name — instead of "la Grande" — but Ultima insists that the boy means no disrespect, and she implies that she and Antonio share a special bond. Ultima brings her owl with her — a most unique owl, for it hoots only in a soft, songlike way, lulling the Márez family to sleep that night.
The novel begins with a mature Antonio serving as a raconteur, or storyteller, recalling his youth. Anaya uses the quasi-autobiographical voice to capture the perceptual and intellectual limits of a young boy. The narrative voice is neither that of a retrospective, older Antonio nor that of the young, naive Antonio. It seems to be located somewhere between the two. The young Antonio is the protagonist, for whom the plot is lived reality. Childlike naiveté, curiosity, and spontaneity are used by Anaya to set the pace and direction of the narrative. Additionally, Anaya's diction and style contribute to the purpose of approximating the world of childlike perception and understanding.
Through the world of Antonio, Anaya skillfully describes the culture of the characters in the novel, their diversity in lifestyles, and the mores and norms that govern their lives. The religious emphasis captures the Catholic influence in their lives, as well as that of indigenous mysticism.
Symbolically, Gabriel Márez and the vaquero lifestyle represent the adventurous spirit of the Spaniards. Their wandering ways are marked by the free spirit that loves the wide expanse of land (or oceans). María Luna and her family represent the mystical rapport with the earth that is attributed to the Chicano/a indigenous indio heritage. At the same time, however, the culture is represented as an amalgam of European and Mexican influences, and their conflicts and contradictions are embodied in the lives of the characters. Gabriel, for instance, represents the lifestyle of the Spaniard but has the viewpoint of the indigene. Maria, on the other hand, represents the lifestyle of the Pueblo but has the religious viewpoint of the Spaniard (Catholicism).
The arrival of Ultima signals the start of a new period in the life of Antonio. This new period starts out in peace and harmony, with Antonio learning about the beauty of the environment. From Ultima he learns about the beauty of the plains, the power of the river, and the harmony between the plains, the river, and the sky.
Antonio's first epiphany occurs during his first summer with Ultima. She teaches him to feel the pulse of the earth and its beauty. Time stands still for him, and he feels a universal harmony in his existence. The fusion of past, present, and future is seen by some literary critics to have an affinity with Aztec cosmology, but Anaya has said that he did not study indigenous cosmologies as preparation for writing this novel. Perhaps, as claimed by literary followers of Jung, novelists sometimes unconsciously articulate symbols that represent archetypes from the collective unconscious. In this case, Anaya is consciously exploring the Chicano/a collective unconscious.
The chapter ends with Antonio dreaming of Ultima's owl, which he unconsciously identifies with la Virgen de Guadalupe, the saint of the land, whom he perceives as the embodiment of mercy and compassion. His association of the owl with the Virgen affirms his trust in Ultima's goodness. In local folklore, however, the owl is more often associated with "dark witches," signifying its evil nature. Anaya has deliberately broken with tradition and has offered an alternative meaning for a traditional symbol as a means of getting readers to contemplate other views.
Ultima the last one, or the ultimate.
Está sola . . . ya no queda gente en el pueblito de Las Pasturas. She is alone, and there are not many people left in the village of Las Pasturas.
vaquero a cowboy.
big rancheros ranchers with large haciendas.
llano plains; in this case, the Staked Plains in eastern New Mexico.
Qué lástima. What a pity.
llaneros plainsmen; plainspeople.
crudo hung over from drinking alcoholic beverages.
Ave María Purisima a religious exclamation referring to the Blessed Virgin Mary; it is sometimes uttered when hoping to ward off evil spirits.
Es verdad. It's true.
la Grande the elder, used respectfully.
adobe large bricks made of mud and straw.
el puerto de los Lunas the refuge of the Luna family; a gateway; figuratively, it can mean a "gateway to the moon."
curandera a folk healer.
chapas chaps, as in cowboy chaps.
molino a mill; in this case, a feed mill.
No está aquí. He's not here.
Dónde está? Where is he?
¡Madre de Dios . . . ! Mother of God . . . !; a religious exclamation.
Buenos días le de Dios. God grant you good days; a greeting among New Mexican Chicano/as.
Pase . . . pase. Come in . . . come in.
Nuestra casa es su casa. Our home is your home.
cuentos stories told as part of folklore.