Rudolfo Anaya’s best-selling Bless Me, Ultima centers on a young boy, Antonio, growing up in the 1940s in a Mexican-American family in semi-rural New Mexico. As the novel opens, he is about to start school but is already beginning to feel the burden of responsibility and a loss of innocence as he negotiates his parents’ contrasting expectations for him: his deeply religious mother hopes that he will become a priest; his father dreams of the open plains and wants to move the entire family to California but becomes distant and turns to drink when he sees this dream frustrated. Though the youngest of six, Antonio is unable to turn to his siblings for support to resolve these tensions or at least alleviate the weight of so much hope and disillusionment. His three much older brothers are off fighting in the Pacific Theatre of World War II, and when they return at the war’s end soon make it clear that they are not going to hang around to live out their parents’ desires; his two sisters, though closer to his age, are little more than ciphers and barely feature in the first half of the book.
Of all those living in his house, Antonio is closest to the only one to whom he is not related, an older woman named Ultima (referred to with respect as “la Grande”) who has a reputation as a curandera, a healer or benign witch. Antonio turns to her with his questions about the magic-infused world around him that he is beginning to explore. She takes him along as she gathers herbs for her medicinal concoctions, and even recruits him when she goes to a nearby village to remove a curse that has been laid on Antonio’s uncle. Ultima tells him “the stories and legends of my ancestors” and it is from her that he learns “the glory and the tragedy of the history of my people” (123). But it is not (yet) clear who or what that people are: the disagreements between Antonio’s mother and father are merely the symptom of wider fractures that divide the community. Antonio’s uncertain search for his own identity and independence mirrors a broader struggle waged by the people as a whole.
So far at least, that sense of a coherent “people” rarely comes into focus. It is the often acrimonious divisions that are more evident: between young and old, between farmers and vaqueros, between the Church and indigenous folk beliefs, and ultimately between good and evil. Though there is plenty of talk of custom and ceremony, and despite his shock in starting school and coming into contact with the institutions of the Anglophone state, it is striking that at this stage young Antonio seems to have little sense of his identity as a Mexican-American or Chicano. This may well change, but for now this is a Chicano novel that hardly features “Chicanos” as such.
Indeed, if we imagine Mexican-American culture to be characterized by a tension or conflict between “Mexican” and (US) “American,” by a proximity to or incarnation of the US/Mexican Border, here this split is far from being the determining factor in young Antonio’s life. In many ways, the first half of the novel might as well be set south of the border, in Mexico itself. Instead, the first key cultural tension is that between a Hispanic Catholicism represented by Antonio’s mother and the loosely indigenous-derived folk beliefs associated with both Ultima and Antonio’s friends Samuel and Cico. Cico takes him to a local river to see carp whose presence is explained in terms of a legend in which the gods turn an unfaithful people into fish, which is why the carp cannot be eaten: “It is a sin to catch them,” Samuel has explained. “It is a worse offense to eat them. They are part of the people” (80). But this seems to be a pre-Hispanic people, whose story long precedes the coming of the Spanish Church. And when told that one of the gods was then in turn also transformed into a fish, the golden carp, Antonio is shaken: “If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross? The Virgin? Was my mother praying to the wrong God?” (81). Destined by his mother to be a priest, and yet also picked out by Ultima as helper and confidant, Antonio feels torn between two sets of beliefs, but neither have much if any connection to the Anglo culture that remains at best at the very far horizon of his consciousness, like the semi-mythical notion of the California to which his father want to take them.
The second major tension that structures Antonio’s growing self-consciousness is that between his father’s restlessness as a man of open spaces, the llanos and oceans, and his mother’s attraction to domesticity and rootedness, as a daughter of farmers and denizen of the valleys. This split is encoded in his name, given as Antonio Márez y Luna: On the one hand the patronymic Márez, designating people of the seas (mares); on the other hand the matronymic Luna, signalling a people guided by the seasons and the phases of the moon. But this is a division that is internal to Hispanic colonization, between the conquistador spirit of “men as restless as the seas they sailed and as free as the land they conquered” (6) and the desire for stability and permanence of “the first colonizers [. . .] who carried the charter from the Mexican government to settle the valley” (52). It may be that the external opposition between Hispanic and Anglo ultimately supersedes this conflict and hispanidad will come to signify a more consistent and united identity. But that encounter with the outside is still some way in the future, and for the time being this is the world Antonio lives in and, beyond distant rumors of World Wars and the like, it is more or less all he knows.