Bless Me Ultima; photo by PBS

Graduate Jackie Starr on Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

November 11, 2020

Note: Sept. 15 to Oct. 15 is National Hispanic Heritage Month which is why Starr chose to review this book. Wonderwork welcomes submissions from CU Denver faculty, students, staff, and alumni. Simply recommend one book, podcast, movie, etc. that deserves more attention. Our ultimate goal is to promote a more diverse and inclusive book and media culture. Nominate your favorite Wonderwork by emailing or posting on social media with #CUDenverwonderwork.

I read Bless Me, Ultima when it was published in 1972. A first novel, it was written by Rudolfo Anaya, a Mexican American born in the small town of Pastura, New Mexico in 1937. Anaya earned his BA from the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, in 1963 in English and American Literature and two Master’s Degrees—one In English in 1968 and the second in Guidance and Counseling in 1972. Anaya began writing Bless Me Ultima while studying for his two master’s degrees. He never took a course in creative writing. He died on June 28, 2020, after having published novels, essays, children books, poetry, and plays.

My interest in the book arose from two classes I had as a student at Brandeis University. The first was a study of The Bildungsroman, which explored coming-of-age literature from Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes to The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann. The Bildungsroman has been described as the story of the growing up of a sensitive person who looks for answers to his questions through different experiences. Usually, the plot depicts a conflict between the protagonist and values of society.

The second course, America as a Civilization, was based on a book of the same name by Professor Max Lerner. This book is often referred to as having given rise to the whole genre of American Studies. According to Lerner, his book approaches America “in terms of its nature as a richly pluralistic society.”

Chicano Literature Classic

Upon the publication of Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya was hailed as “one of the nation’s foremost Chicano literary artists” (The Denver Post). During the 1960s, the term “Chicano” was widely used. It referred to Spanish-speaking people who either came to the United States from Mexico or whose predecessors did.

collage of Bless Me, Ultima book covers
Various book covers of Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Bless Me, Ultima chronicles the spiritual and social growth of a young boy, Antonio Márez y Luna, as the society in which he is raised is changing from a peaceful rural economy to an urban one that contributes to family disruption, disenchantment with the church, and increased violence. Magical realism and belief in other gods overlay these disruptions and help Antonio form enduring spiritual values.

Intersection of Catholicism and Magical Realism

Antonio is the six-year-old son of parents who represent two strains of Chicano culture: the stable farmers (the Lunas are Antonio’s mother’s people); and the vaqueros, the restless horsemen who rode the llano, the open plains of Eastern New Mexico, herding cattle and sheep. Antonio’s father, Gabriel Márez, is a descendant of the people of the llano. Ultima, who comes to live with the family, represents the Native American beliefs in spirit animals and the holiness of the land combined with the Mexican tradition of the curandera. Catholicism and magical realism clash in the story.

Antonio is one of six children: he has three older brothers who are fighting in World War II, and two sisters closer to his age. Antonio’s family stands apart from the town in which they live: their house is high on a hill, separated from the community of Guadalupe. They are neither rural nor urban. Antonio’s mother is a religious Catholic, who cooks, keeps house, and prays for the welfare of family members. His father, Gabriel, is a restless spirit, who works with a crew on the highway and longs for the old days when he rode free on the llano, which is now drought-stricken and fenced in. Antonio is torn between the vision of his mother, who would like him to become a priest, and his father, who wants to move to California and start a new life when his sons return from the war.

Ultima is invited to live with the Márez family in her old age. She is a curandera, a woman who cures physical and mental illnesses with herbs and chants and visions. She becomes Antonio’s spiritual teacher, schooling him in the ways of nature and teaching him to revere the land as the mother of all good things.

Antonio is the book’s narrator. He is just starting school when the book begins. He has many challenges: he has to learn English, become accepted as one of the students, start catechism lessons, and navigate between the tensions of the Márez family and the Lunas. He is an innocent soul, an ardent believer in the teachings of the church who is thrown into experiences that make him question God’s motives and ask why there is good and evil. He witnesses two murders, the drowning of one of his closest friends and the violence of an evil man, Tenorio, whose daughters are thought to be brujas (witches).

Ultima as Mysterious Healer

He is present when Ultima performs three mysterious acts: one that cures his dying uncle, one that causes an owl to rip out one of Tenorio’s eyes, and an act the cures a house and family of curses.

Antonio’s voice varies from that of a child his age, as when he relates the comic scene of the kids in his class performing the school’s Christmas play, to that of a grown man, relating the dreams he has that portend dire events and have mystical elements. The most lyrical passages in the book are those that describe the natural world. They are spoken by Antonio, Gabriel, and Ultima. Ultima’s last blessing to Antonio is universal in its message: “I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful, Antonio. Always have the strength to live. Love life and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evenings when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills. I shall be with you.”

This novel, like other important Bildungsroman, will be read for years to come because it poses eternal questions that men ask. Yet its setting in New Mexico and realistic depiction of the Chicano community provides timely insight into the thirty-seven million U.S. residents who identify as having full or partial Mexican ancestry.

Jackie Starr graduated from the University of Colorado Denver, the Graduate School of Public Affairs, in 1981 with a Master’s Degree in Urban Affairs. She lives in Aurora with her two dogs and forty-year-old red-eared slider turtle.