Summary and Analysis
Ultima quickly settles into the family's workday routine but takes sufficient time to teach Antonio about the herbs and roots she uses for her medicines; she also tells him that his spirit shares in the spirit of all things — including that of the river. Until now, Antonio has been afraid of the soul of the river.
One Saturday night, a drunken war veteran, Lupito, kills the sheriff, and Gabriel joins the sheriff's posse at the river. Antonio secretly follows his father and hides in some brush, where he sees the wild-eyed Lupito, holding a pistol and crouching close to the river bank. The deranged veteran screams a warning about Japanese soldiers when he realizes that the men have discovered him. The sheriff's brother says Lupito should be shot, that he is an animal; Antonio's father says that they should use reason, not force. Lupito rises, fires his pistol into the air to draw their fire — and is killed. Terrified, Antonio watches Lupito die, gasping and asking for Antonio's blessing.
At home, Ultima calms the frightened boy. Later, in a dream, he announces to his three older brothers, who are fighting far away in World War II, and who boast of their Márez blood, that it is necessary that he, seemingly only a Luna, like their mother, join them as they leave to build a castle on the other side of the River of the Carp; only he can "lift the waters of the muddy river in blessing" for their new home.
Suddenly, Antonio hears a lonely, chilling, unearthly howl, and his brothers cry out that it is the dreaded witch of the river — la llorona — seeking Antonio's soul. Then they cry that it is Lupito — wailing, as his soul washes downstream, still seeking Antonio's blessing. Antonio defies his brother's fears and, swinging a dark priestly robe across his shoulders, commands the river to allow his brothers to cross and build anew.
Next morning before mass, Antonio's soul is filled with questions that seemingly have no answers. How can his father take communion when he has been an accessory to Lupito's death? Is he, Antonio, indeed destined to become a priest, a key figure in the peasant-farmer lifestyle of the Lunas? Why does his father value his Márez hopes and dreams more highly than his mother's Luna ideals? Why do some people say that Ultima is without sin, while others whisper that she is a witch? Confused about his mother's and father's antithetical concepts of worth, and confused about evil, the existence of God, and forgiveness, Antonio joins a group of rowdy boys who are gathered outside the church.
The killing of Lupito is the major event in Antonio's life that sets in motion his preoccupation with sin and punishment. He is concerned about the salvation of Lupito's soul and the absolution of Gabriel and Narciso for their participation in the death of Lupito. Thrust into the role of priest by Lupito, Antonio becomes more and more obsessed with the trajectory of his destiny.
Religion is an important facet of Antonio's world. The church has been a powerful force in the lives of Chicano/as, and Anaya captures this dimension in the life of the Márez family. María, like many other Chicanas, maintains an altar at home. She and her family pray regularly before the altar, and their daily greetings and expressions are filled with religious references and sentiments. The centrality of the Church in the lives of the Márez family members and the surrounding communities is symbolized by its visible steeple and its tolling bells. Villagers' lives are organized and structured by the Church.
Antonio's dream that night reflects the importance of his brothers in his struggle for increased understanding. His brothers see him as a farmer-priest and call upon him to save them. Interestingly, it is the power of the river, primal and earthly, rather than the power of Catholicism that enables him to help them. This reflects his recent initiation, with Ultima as his mentor, into a spiritual relationship with nature.
Here, Anaya introduces la llorona as an important motif of ambivalence that, like the river, calls to Antonio and makes him fearful. Throughout the remainder of the novel, the wailing call of la llorona mixes with the owl's cry, the wind's mourning, and the church bell's tolling to both lure Antonio and to alert him to danger. La llorona is a mythic figure in Chicano/a and Mexican folklore. Many versions of the myth exist, but all tend to be used as a device to socialize children, who are warned not to stray from or disobey their parents lest la llorona get them.
María and Gabriel hold conflicting views of human development. María thinks of growing up as a loss of innocence, whereas Gabriel views it as developing strength and self-worth. For María, Antonio is saved if he becomes a priest. For Gabriel, whose views have much affinity with those of Ultima, growing up is a fact of life, and it is not good that anyone should meddle in another's destiny.
In these early chapters, Anaya uses many Chicano/a riddles and sayings to depict the local culture. Anaya's intimate familiarity with and command of the local culture enhances his depiction of the family and infuses the novel with costumbrismo. The riddles and sayings merge with realistic characters to give them vivid, believable personalities. As the novel develops, the dialogue among the kids reflects their spontaneity, restlessness, bluntness, and sometimes vulgar behavior.
¡Andale, hombre, andale! Come on, man, come on!
farol a lantern.
la llorona the weeping woman; a mythical character alleged to have drowned her children, and not having been allowed into heaven, she is destined to search the river for their souls.
Lo mató, lo mató. He killed him, he killed him.
¿Pero qué dices, hombre? What are you saying, man?
sala a parlor; living room.
¡Un momento! One moment!
Ya vengo. I'm coming.
Ya las campanas de la iglesia están doblando . . . Already the church bells are tolling.
Por la sangre de Lupito, todos debemos rogar . . . For the blood of Lupito, we all should beg.
Que Dios la saque de pena y la lleve a descansar . . . That God lift her punishment [or pain] and let her rest.
Hechicera, bruja sorceress, witch.
Es una mujer con un diente, que llama a toda la gente. It's a woman with one tooth, who calls all the people; this is a riddle whose answer is: the church bell.
Arrímense vivos y difuntos / Aquí estamos todos juntos . . . Gather round living and deceased / Here we are all together.
chingada the screwed one; the reference is to Doña Marina, the Indian girl who served as mistress and translator to the conqueror of Mexíco, Hernán Cortes.
cabrón a pimp, pander, cuckold; someone who takes advantage of the weaknesses of others.
Hi-jo-lah! code for "hijo de la chingada," or son of the screwed one; an exclamation.
¡Ah la veca! code, or slang, referring to the penis.