De Dos Mundos

Reflections of a divided self in Bless Me, Ultima.

De Dos Mundos

Bless Me, Ultima, the 1972 classic by Chicano writer Rudolfo Anaya, is a literary shapeshifter. As a bildungsroman, it follows Antonio Juan Márez y Luna (Tony) through the most menacing and rewarding period of his young life. As a work of magical realism, it blends Anaya’s mythmaking with the already rich syncretic traditions of New Mexico in the post-WWII era. As a domestic drama, the novel outlines the uneasy history between Tony’s extended families — the Márezes and the Lunas — whose contrasting lifestyles clash after the marriage of Tony’s parents. And as an exploration of the collective unconscious, Bless Me, Ultima imbues Jung’s archetypes with a distinctive Chicano twist.  

The hinge that connects these moving parts is Ultima, a curandera (an elder and medicine woman) who comes to live with Tony’s family shortly before he begins school. She teaches him to harvest plants, cure the spiritually infirm, and feel the divine presence in all things. It’s a confusing time for Tony, who’s contemplating right and wrong after witnessing a mentally unstable veteran being shot to death. For the first time, Tony is noticing how the adults around him fall short of their professed morals.   

Ultima’s arrival also coincides with the boy’s formal initiation in the Roman Catholic Church. At 6, he can intuit a difference between his devout mother’s frequent recitation of the rosary and Ultima’s incense rituals. Yet, of the many conflicts in the story, it’s Tony’s having to choose between his father’s and mother’s way of life that most consumes him.

Of proud “Spanish conquistador” heritage, the Márez clan came to the New World and swapped ships for horses, heeding their restless blood and making their way as cowboys on the llano, or plains. Secular-minded and volatile, Tony’s father, Gabriel, feels the chirr of westward expansion and resents his wife for making him settle in one place.

Maria Luna, conversely, is from a family of farmers whose village was originally settled by a priest. Quiet and dependable, the Lunas stay close to the earth and never stray far from where they were born. As strong Roman Catholics, they avoid too much drink and diversion, instead pouring themselves into cultivating the land and identifying culturally with Mexico over America or Spain.

Tony’s three elder brothers have chosen the Márez path, leaving the family and trekking west. For this reason, the Lunas view Tony as their last chance, imploring him to continue their way of life, preferably as a farmer-priest.

But how can he embrace the ministry when he feels the presence of the river more than the presence of the Holy Spirit? And why is it that some of the wisest and kindest people he knows aren’t part of the church at all, instead finding their peace and purpose in nature?

The reader never definitively learns which route Tony chooses — only Ultima knows his fate — but his preoccupation with the link between knowledge and innocence, and his frequent pondering of the nature of time and change, hint at his being called to philosophy and writing, like the author himself. This adds another tick to the list of subgenres Anaya attempts here, imbuing the work with a jolt of autofiction.

Is it too much for one book? Strangely, no. Anaya deploys the “structure of feeling” to telegraph the complex history of his mosaic culture — the distinct Indigenous groups who mixed with Spanish settlers in northern Mexico, a region that would later be seized by the United States.

Even for a writer, words sometimes aren’t enough. Rather than depend exclusively on dramatization and exposition to translate the sociological density of Nuevo Mexico, Anaya constructs his story to be as multifaceted as his characters’ origins. For the reader, trying to absorb this material amid the many details and silences of the narrative is akin to what Tony feels as he searches — and, boy, does he search — for the key to his destiny.

When Tony asks Ultima what he should believe, she answers, “I cannot tell you what to believe. Your father and your mother can tell you because you are their blood…”

What could offer the child a reprieve would be an open discussion of his family’s mixed Indigenous heritage — the one thing the Márezes and Lunas have in common. But on that subject, his parents remain reticent. And although “Indians” are not denigrated in the book, they are cast as the Other. It’s a lapse that never gets confronted in the story and so hovers over every line all the more. In its historical accuracy, this repudiation of (in Jungian terms) “racial memory” punches above its weight to showcase Tony’s uncertainty: He understands something has been pushed into the shadows but can’t figure out what it is.

Tony has visions, the most powerful not arriving until the middle of the book. His parents are shouting invectives at each other, imploring him to choose between them. His father tells Tony that he will never be able to reconcile the moon water of his mother’s people with the salt water of the Márez descendants. That’s when Ultima delivers the most powerful line of the novel, reminding Tony that the waters are one. “You have been seeing only parts,” she says. 

Please share your experience reading Bless Me, Ultima in the comments below. You can join Dorothy in next reading Anna Karenina, which will be the subject of her column on August 19th, 2024.

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