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Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima is one of the best novels of initiation in the Chicano tradition. The novel presents a powerful story of a young boy moving toward adulthood; Antonio’s choices on that journey reveal the rich and diverse traditions of the Mexican Americans of the American Southwest. Ultima helps Antonio heal the split into which he is born, pulled as he is between the heritage of his father, who was a cowboy, and that of his mother, whose family members are farmers. This spiritual split between the Márez and Luna families, between the plains and the town, and between Ultima’s magical folk religion and Catholicism is the central conflict of Antonio’s childhood.
In the end, Antonio is not forced to choose between the two traditions of the horsemen and the farmers, but rather he blends them into a workable identity for himself. It also becomes clear, as a result of his association with Ultima and his use of words to influence the events of the novel, that he will use his gift for words, imagination, and learning to become not a priest but rather a writer. He achieves this fusion only through the aid of Ultima.
Ultima is a spiritual guide who teaches the young boy and directs him toward his future. Antonio will have to reach it himself, but Ultima points him in the right direction and protects him even after her death. Ultima not only helps Antonio reach adulthood but also teaches him a number of important lessons along the way—the healing arts of nature, for example, and the power of love. As Antonio says toward the end of his journey: “And that is what Ultima tried to teach me, that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart.”
When Antonio looks back on his youth toward the end of the novel, he realizes what he gained from the adults in his life. From his mother he learned how close people are to the earth. From his father and Ultima he learned that “the greater immortality is in the freedom of man, and that freedom is best nourished by the noble expanse of land and air and pure, white sky.” From these important lessons Antonio’s adult self emerges.
Ultima helps Antonio to achieve his own identity; at the end of the novel, he directs his mother to take his sisters to their room. “It was the first time I had ever spoken to my mother as a man; she nodded and obeyed.” Ultima also helps Antonio to heal the split in his own heritage; he can be a Catholic (as his mother wants) and a believer in the golden carp as well. Anaya’s novel is important in the way it uses the literary and folk traditions of the American Southwest. The religious symbolism of the novel can be understood only in the context of that cultural geography, and Anaya taps a rich vein of southwestern folklore and history.
Characterization is rather two-dimensional, although the major characters (particularly Ultima) have shadings: For example, is she a bruja(witch), or just a healer? This question receives a somewhat noncommittal answer when she demonstrates that she is not a witch by walking through a door marked with a cross; however, the cross, made of needles, falls apart as she does so. The characterization works in terms of the point of view of the novel, which is that of a naïve young boy growing up in rural New Mexico.
Much more complex are the symbolic aspects of the novel. Antonio’s dreams have a rich significance; they reflect and predict actions in the novel. They are, in the truest sense, revelations. Likewise, the literary symbolism of the novel—the importance of water, for example (the golden carp, the drowning) and of religious rituals (both Christian and native spiritual)—is complex and effective. A reading of the oppositions of the novel (Luna/Márez or moon/sea, female/male, agrarian/pastoral) points out its complexity and its final reconciliations. Anaya produced a novel of deep and subtle meaning, and one that reveals some of the rich literary traditions of the American Southwest.