Bless Me, Ultima I

anaya_ultimaRudolfo 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.

Réquiem por un campesino español


If Francisco Ayala’s La cabeza del cordero skirts the question of causes–and indeed, perhaps, of causality itself–preferring to see the civil war as an absurd irruption of violence that comes almost from nowhere, Ramón Sender’s Réquiem for un campesino español is, by contrast, all about origins. So much so, indeed, that his book, too, ends up stopping short of addressing the war directly.

The story is told in flashback and counterpoint. A priest, Mosén Millán, is preparing to give the requiem mass for a young man–Paco el del Molino–who was killed a year previously. The church is empty save for an altar boy who flits around, humming or singing almost under his breath the ballad that has apparently already converted del Molino into a popular hero. Meanwhile, the priest thinks back over the intersections between Paco’s life and his own, as the church is a constant presence in everyone’s lives in this small village, from baptism to wedding and funeral. But never more so than in this case, as we gradually learn, and the story of Paco del Molino becomes the story of Millán himself. No wonder the book bore his name as its title when originally published, for it is less about the downfall of the young campesino than it is about the failures of the church.

Paco el del Molino had been an altar boy in his time, and one day accompanied Millán on a pastoral visit to a gravely ill man in need of the last rites. But in Paco’s eyes, at least, it turns out that the man needed far more than this: for the visit takes the priest and his assistant to a scene of extreme poverty, where the people live in caves, with little more than rags to their name. Asking Millán about why such misery should exist and what might be done about it, Paco gets decidedly short shrift: “That’s how life is, and God has made it so for his own reasons” (38). For the boy, this isn’t good enough.

But the times they are changing, and these changes affect even the most remote of villages. Some years later, elections are called and Paco is at the forefront of a group of councilors determined to fix some age-old injustices. They refuse to pay the absentee landlord for the right to graze their animals on his land. “What men have made, men can unmake,” he takes the liberty of telling the landlord’s majordomo (75). The entire social hierarchy, from the monarchy down, seems to be tottering as men and women like Paco start to question the unwritten customs that perpetuate gross inequality. The village is abuzz.

The reaction is swift, sharp, and ruthless. Hired thugs come from the city and a massacre ensues. Only Paco has the sense or quick-wittedness to make good his escape and go into hiding. But this is where the long, intertwined history between the priest and his former acolyte, between the church and the people, reaches its tragic dénouement. For it is Millán who discovers the location of the rebel’s hideout, and gives it up to those in his pursuit. He even is persuaded to speak to del Molino in person, to convince him to hand himself in. He does so on condition that the fugitive will be given a fair trial, but he must know as well as anyone that such promises from the landlords’ men are worthless. Sure enough, before long the priest is forced to witness as they take the young man off for summary execution. And his response to Paco’s pleas now are as inadequate as his attitude to the cave-dwellers was before: “Yes, my son. You are all innocent. But what can I do?” (101). His “son” dies with the name of his spiritual father on his lips: “He turned me in… Mosén Millán, Mosén Millán” (104).

A year later, waiting for the mass to start, in a church empty of all but the altar boy and his ballad plus (belatedly) representatives of the very men who put Paco to death, the priest has plenty of time to consider his betrayal.

As an allegory of the war as a whole, Sender’s tale is reductive and one-sided. For one thing, this is a conflict without any actual fighting: Paco gets a couple of rounds off at his pursuers, but leaves them with no more than the lightest of injuries. The people are the purest of victims; their oppressors, the purest of victimizers. Yet strangely the church is allowed the virtue of at least embarrassment and regret for its failure to protect its flock. Which is why it is better to stress that this is a story of origins, a description of deep injustice and the sanctioned violence that kept it in place. No wonder people would go on to fight (in fact) tenaciously for the Republican side, inspired in part by the ballads telling of folk heroes such as del Molino. But in the end this novella is no more revealing than such a ballad, with its caricature villains and easy moral lessons. Surely the war deserves more than this.

See also: War; Spanish Civil War novels.


a Western BuddhistThe Wednesday quotation, part XI: Slavoj Zizek on the fetishistic mode of ideology.

“Western Buddhism” [. . .] perfectly fits the fetishist mode of ideology in our allegedly “post-ideological” era, as opposed to its traditional symptomal mode, in which the ideological lie that structures our perception of reality is threatened by symptoms qua “returns of the repressed,” cracks in the fabric of the ideological lie. Fetish is effectively a kind of envers of the symptom. That is to say, symptom is the exception which disturbs the surface of the false appearance, the point at which the repressed truth erupts, while fetish is the embodiment of the Lie which enables us to sustain the unbearable truth. [. . .] In this sense, a fetish can play a very constructive role of allowing us to cope with the harsh reality: fetishists are not dreamers lost in their private worlds, they are thorough “realists,” able to accept the way things are – since they have their fetish to which they can cling in order to defuse the full impact of reality. (Slavoj Zizek, <a href="; target=”_blank”>”The Prospects of Radical Politics Today”. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies 5.1 [January, 2008])