About Bless Me, Ultima
Bless Me, Ultima is the first in a trilogy of novels that includes Heart of Aztlan and Tortuga. Bless Me, Ultima brings to literary life a search for personal identity in the context of the social changes experienced by Chicano/as in New Mexico during the 1940s, and is in some ways similar to Joseph Krumgold's . . .and now Miguel, which was published in the early 1950s, focusing on the life of a New Mexican teenage sheepherder. Anaya's story covers a two-year period at the close of World War II and centers on the experiences of a young, but serious boy who is attempting to make sense of the world around him and, at the same time, grappling with the opposing expectations of his parents. Anaya skillfully sets up a dialogue between Antonio and Ultima, the elderly healer who comes to live her remaining years with Antonio's family. It is to the wrinkled Ultima that Antonio turns to for advice as he tries to understand himself and the conflicts and contradictions around him.
The setting for the novel is the Pecos Valley in New Mexico. The valley is situated on the western edge of the Great Plains Province, which comprises the eastern third of the state. It is bounded on the west by the Southern Rockies and on the east by the bluffs of the Llano Estacado. The Llano is bounded on the east by the Canadian River and on the west by the Pecos River. The area is part of the Lower Sonoran zone of mesquite and black grama grass. Altitudes are below 4,500 feet, allowing for more grazing than do areas at higher elevations. The long, frost-free period, the fertile soil of the valley, and the high temperatures make the area an important agricultural zone. The flood plain of the valley is farmed and the plains of the Llano are grazed, with just enough water to permit both modes of production.
Bless Me, Ultima is a splendidly written novel that is at once tragic, pastoral, and apocalyptic. The novel begins with Ultima's violation of the maxim not to interfere with the destiny of any person. Her death at the end of the novel can be seen as a nemesis, or punishment. These events occur in the context of a rural people whose cultural relationship to nature is being greatly impacted by Western development. The folk response to massive social change is apocalyptic in terms of perception, and the novel is apocalyptic in that it promotes biculturalism as a synthesis of the conflict between cultures. The novel has excellent symmetry, good pace and action, and can be seen as a Chicano bildungsroman.
Bless Me, Ultima is not only regarded as a major contribution to the growing body of Chicano/a literature that emerged during the Chicano/a Movement (1965-75), but also is held as one of the works that set the canon for Chicano/a literature. Today, the novel is regarded as part of the emerging genre of cultural novels that explore the development of self and ethnic identity in a world of racism and antagonistic ethnic relations. The writings of Anaya, especially Bless Me, Ultima, have generated the largest response of interpretation and criticism of any work by Chicano/a authors.
Bless Me, Ultima can be analyzed at many levels from many angles. It is a rich novel that weaves social change, religion, psychological and cognitive maturation, cultural conflict, ethnic identity formation, and many other themes together into a coherent and believable story about a young boy. At one level, Bless Me, Ultima can be read as a romance novel that laments the passing of a societal period that is seen in the present through myth. It can also be read at the cultural nationalist level as resolving the historical conflict between the villages and providing a counter-position to the racist ideology of the United States. Finally, it can be seen as a fragment of an expressive Chicano/Mexicano culture that promotes storytelling and uses apocalypse as an ideological construct. Literary critics have found Bless Me, Ultima a fertile text for analysis. The names, figures, and objects of Antonio's world have yielded rich analyses of their symbolisms. In sum, the novel is a richly textured narrative that weaves many themes and sub-themes and allows for different interpretations.
Anaya's Use of Imagery. Anaya uses powerful images to evoke a multiplicity of responses from his readers. He draws readers into the story through prophetic dreams, idyllic scenes of harmony, episodes of spontaneous horseplay among children, scenes of mystical dynamism, and episodes of violence and death. Each of them is richly detailed and provides readers with a sense of closeness to the characters and to the forces of nature.
Oppositional Forces. Opposition is a technique widely used by Anaya in the novel to create conflict at many levels. Antonio's parents are opposed in their backgrounds and in their visions and aspirations; religions are opposed in their viewpoints and demands on the individual; cosmic forces are opposed in the forms of good and evil; and forms of nature are opposed in their dry and fertile manifestations. The novel contains psychological, social, cultural, and physical conflict. Indeed, conflict is pervasive in Antonio's life.
Tripartites. Anaya uses tripartites to structure the novel. Again and again, things occur in "threes." There are, for example, three cultures, three brothers, three Trementina sisters, three prophetic dreams, three revelations of Ultima's identity, three Comanche spirits, three interferences by Ultima in the destinies of others, and so on. While numerology is not a salient feature of the narrative, it is clear that numbers structure the plot.
The Question of Autobiography. Bless Me, Ultima can be categorized as a "quasi-autobiographical" novel in the sense that a mature, older "I" serves as narrator for the experiences of the younger "I." A mature Antonio is narrating his experiences as a young boy, but the experiences are conveyed through the childlike naiveté of a six- to eight-year-old boy.
At another level, like many other novelists, Anaya himself admits that he used his personal experiences and those of others in his childhood to construct the story. In another sense, then, the novel is quasi-biographical, but the reader is never privy to the distinction between the real and the fictional because Anaya presents it all as fictional. It really does not matter much which is real and which is non-real since what is worthy of note is that Anaya, like other writers, takes his own life as a rich repository of experiences from which he draws upon to construct his stories.
Chronology of Bless Me, Ultima
The following chronology is based on the events in the novel with the frame of reference being the explosion of the first atomic bomb near Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945. The events in the novel have been temporally set in accordance with that date.
May 1 — the death of Hitler is announced by the head of the provisional German
May 8 — V-E Day, the formal end of the war in Europe.
Ultima comes to live with the Márez family.
Lupito is killed near the river.
The first atomic bomb is tested on July 16, 1945, at Trinity, in the White Sands area near Alamogordo, New Mexico.
July 26 — Japan is given the Potsdam ultimatum of "unconditional surrender" by the Allies.
August 6 — The U.S. drops an atomic bomb on Hiroshima and, on August 9, another is dropped on Nagasaki.
August 15 — The Japanese surrender to the Allied forces.
The Márez family goes to El Puerto de los Lunas to help with the harvest.
Antonio starts school.
Antonio's brothers return from the war.
The Márez family is whole again.
Antonio's brothers get restless and plan to leave Guadalupe. León and Eugene leave for Las Vegas, New Mexico.
Antonio and Andrew walk together into town in the mornings.
The school term ends, and Antonio passes from the first to the third grade.
Samuel tells Antonio about the legend of the golden carp.
Antonio learns that Uncle Lucas has been bewitched and helps Ultima heal him.
The struggle between Ultima and Tenorio is set in motion.
Cico shows Antonio the golden carp.
Ultima continues to teach Antonio about herbs and roots.
One of Tenorio's daughters dies.
Tenorio and his men threaten Ultima at the Márez home.
The Márez family returns to El Puerto de los Lunas to help the Lunas with the harvest.
Antonio returns to school.
Narciso and Tenorio get into a fight at the Longhorn Saloon.
Antonio and his classmates perform the Christmas play at school.
Tenorio shoots and kills Narciso.
Two of Antonio's brothers return from Las Vegas.
Antonio returns to school after Christmas vacation.
Tenorio tells Antonio that he will kill Ultima.
Antonio begins catechism lessons.
Florence questions the existence of God and pushes Antonio to consider other viewpoints.
Antonio and his classmates make their first holy communion.
Antonio goes to Agua Negra with Ultima and Gabriel to help a friend with bewitchment problems.
Florence drowns at Blue Lake.
Antonio goes to El Puerto to spend the summer with his Luna relatives.
Antonio learns that another of Tenorio's daughters is dying.
Tenorio kills Ultima's owl, and Ultima dies.