On his first day of school, Antonio wakes with a sick feeling in his stomach; his parents are bickering about his future, and it is only after he hears Ultima enter the kitchen that he can rouse himself. Breakfast is clouded by Gabriel's insistence that Antonio is a Márez and María's fierce claim that he is a Luna, reminding her husband that long ago, when Ultima offered the "objects of life" to Antonio, the baby chose a pen and paper. Seemingly, Antonio is destined to be a scholar. Gabriel reluctantly agrees, nostalgically recalling happier times — before there was education, or fences, or railroads, or roads — when there was only the vast, windy plains of the llano.
Leaving for school and leaving his parents and Ultima behind is difficult; Antonio feels as though he will never see them again. Impulsively he dashes down the pebbled goat path toward the bridge and, half-way across, is challenged to a race by a small, thin boy, called the Vitamin Kid. For a moment in the school yard, he feels lost in a sea of noisy children, but by noon, he has discovered with great pride that he can write his name. However, when Miss Maestas takes him to the front of the room and introduces him, speaking in English, the other children laugh. Antonio winces, feeling alone and alien. Later, the children laugh at the Mexican food that his mother prepared for his lunch. Behind the school building, Antonio finds a few other students who don't understand English, who feel like outcasts because they also are Mexican. In silence, they fight the loneliness that gnaws at their souls.
Going to school is a major turning point in Antonio's life. He feels much anxiety about the impending separation from his mother, and he seems to have secretly hoped that magic would save him from the separation. At the moment when he is to leave home, Ultima blesses him and the girls, and he feels swept away by a whirlwind of ideas concerning evil but reassures himself by remembering how to ward them off. He seems to perceive the llano as a demonic wasteland. As he leaves, he looks back upon his parents and knows intuitively that they will never be the same; something has changed in his life and cannot be undone. Antonio perceives this next step in life in terms of good and evil. He associates good with the security of home and the warmth of his mother, and evil with the llano, the outside world.
As the tension between good and evil intensifies for Antonio, the river and the bridge increase in their symbolic importance. Initially, the river separates Antonio's house from the town and its evil people, but as he deepens his understanding, he realizes that the river both binds and divides. It is both a creative and a destructive force. In the end, the river will symbolize the irreversible passage of time and the human journey toward a final destination. Here, the bridge symbolizes Antonio's maturation, his transition from childhood to adulthood, and his shift from innocence to understanding. It is also the link between his Spanish-speaking world and that of the English-speaking townspeople.
The focus on family honor emphasizes the values of the culture. People are only as good as their family. The roles of the parents have become clearer, with the mother being the homemaker and the primary caretaker of the children. The conflict between the parents, while reflective of the conflict between men and women (that is, domination/subordination), is primarily caused by their characters (a vaquero and a farmer) rather than by their sex roles. Symbolically, masculine and feminine values are portrayed through the personalities. Ultima's character is emerging as an androgynous character, suggesting, perhaps, a solution to traditional gender conflict.
Antonio's walk to school gives the reader a sense of the route and of the people who will be part of that walk. The race across the bridge with the Vitamin Kid signifies a new period in Antonio's life. This new period is increasingly multidimensional as he develops new friends and new mentors. Antonio is preoccupied with his destiny as he leaves his mother's side to enter the outside world of school. Entry into the school is itself a tumultuous, chaotic event. Now cultural conflict between Mexican Americans and Anglo Americans becomes a new reality for him, one that leaves him feeling different and lonely.
Anaya unobtrusively points to the acculturation and assimilation processes that now begin to have a greater impact on Antonio. We are alerted to the cultural tensions over language when Gabriel expresses disgust at the use of English by his daughters. At school, "Anthony" is what the teacher writes in her book, but "Tony" becomes his official name in that strange outside world where lonely Chicano children haunt the rear of the school building. This loneliness is intertwined with his separation from his mother.
¡Ay Dios, otro día! Oh God, another day!
Llano Estacado the Staked Plains, located in eastern New Mexico and West Texas.
En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo, y el Espíritu Santo In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
¡Madre de Dios! Mother of God!