NEA Big Read
Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima

by Rudolfo Anaya

A novel is not written to explain a culture, it creates its own.

Rudolfo Anaya, 1992 (Copyright Marion Ettlinger)

Josephine Reed: Now, The Big Read.

Cheech Marin reads from Bless Me, Ultima...

Ultima came to stay with us the summer I was almost seven. When she came the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth. The magical time of childhood stood still, and the pulse of the living earth pressed its mystery into my living blood. She took my hand, and the silent magic power she possessed made beauty from the raw, sun-baked llano, the green river valley, and the blue bowl which was the white sun's home. My bare feet felt the throbbing earth and my body trembled with excitement. Time stood still, and it shared with me all that had been and all that was to come...

Reed: That's Cheech Marin reading from Rudolfo Anaya's book Bless Me, Ultima. Welcome to The Big Read. The Big Read is a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. I'm Josephine Reed.

The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature, and encourages each American to discover the transformative joys of literature. Here's your host, poet, and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dana Gioia.

Gioia: Today, we'll explore Rudolfo Anaya's luminous coming age and novel, Bless Me, Ultima.

Rudolfo Anaya: This story's about a woman who is a healer, a traditional healer in New Mexico. It's a story about culture, it's a story about tradition, it's a story about a woman who represents all the essences of Hispanic culture of New Mexico.

Diane Thiel: While it's a story that is very much rooted in place and Antonio's story and all the folktales of the Mexican heritage and that of New Mexico, it's also a story that any reader can relate to because of the idea of these different forces in your life that you're struggling with to find out what your true identity is.

Tony Hillerman: I think what Rudy Anaya really told his audience was what Spanish American culture is about or was about and still is, for that matter, in this part of the world when he was growing up. He does a beautiful job of it, I think.

Gioia: Rudolfo Anaya's 1972 novel, Bless Me, Ultima, is set during World War II in a fictional town of Las Patoras, New Mexico.

Santa Fe artist, Charles Carrillo.

Charles Carrillo: The setting is a rural Hispanic village in eastern New Mexico, and the llano or the Llano Estecado is the area in eastern New Mexico, which is full of stepped country. We in New Mexico know of northern New Mexico which is mountainous and we know of the llano part of New Mexico which is the prairie, the open flatlands.

Cheech Marin reads from Bless Me, Ultima...

The llano was beautiful in the early morning, beautiful before the summer sun of August burned it dry. The mesquite bushes were green and even the dagger yucca was stately as it pushed up the green stem that blossomed with white bell flowers. Jackrabbits bolted from shady thickets at the approach of the truck and bounded away into the rolling hills spotted with dark juniper trees. The sun grew very white and warm in the clear azure sky.

Anaya: If you get a map of New Mexico and go to the eastern part to a little town named Santa Rosa—I was fortunate to grow up there, that is my hometown and probably the best childhood I could have had.

Gioia: Author of Bless Me, Ultima, Rudulfo Anaya.

Anaya: I spent summers playing along the river. The neighbor kids, we used to play football, baseball. We lived outside of town, so I had to cross the river and mix it up with the town kids. I could grow up wild in the summer, playing along the river and come fall, and trudge into school and get civilized.

Gioia: Tony Hillerman lives in New Mexico and sets many of his mystery novels there. But his childhood was spent in a tiny town in Oklahoma that reminded him of Las Pasturas, the setting of Bless Me, Ultima.

Hillerman: You knew everybody and everybody knew you, no secrets. Always claimed it had 50 people. My older sister, who's now 85, says, “Tony, you always exaggerated. It had 40,” and then she named all 40, too. (laughs) Anyway, I could understand his boyhood very well. He made a beautiful picture of it.

Gioia: Poet Diane Thiel, teaches literature at the University of New Mexico.

Thiel: The young boy, Antonio, is about seven years old and Ultima, who is a curandera comes to live with his family and she has had a very important impact in his life. He knows that she was present at his birth and that she holds somehow the secret to what his future will be. So the story kind of chronicles his getting older year by year and telling the tales of this small town that he's living in, which is kind of midway between where his father grew up and where his mother grew up in New Mexico.

Anaya: Bless Me, Ultima is autobiographical in the sense that I used my hometown, the Pecos River, Highway 66, the church, the school, the little villages and ranches around the town.

Gioia: Rudolfo Anaya.

Anaya: I have three older brothers. During World War II, they went off, very young at 17, 18. They volunteered, all three of them. This becomes kind of a theme in Bless Me, Ultima. The three brothers who are away at war, come back to this small town and look around and there's nothing here for us and they move on.

Thiel: The father has a kind of wish for himself, I think, and he's always had this dream to go to California and start a new life and he has a kind of wandering soul and that's the way the Márez family is always described, as wanderers. Antonio has three older brothers who were part of this father's dream, but the father feels that he has lost them in some way.

Gioia: Writer, Ishmael Reed.

Ishmael Reed: The three brothers returned from war and they're restless, not only because they have the blood of the conquistadors, as they say, because they had this sense of wandering in their genes. But they just are not going to follow the old ways. They insult their parents, they talk out of turn. Eventually, the brothers go to Las Vegas and wander around the country and there is a hint that they get in trouble. So war changes things.

Gioia: Antonio is the youngest of six children. While the absence of his older brothers becomes an increasing source of tension at home, Antonio's parents argue over the future of their 7 year-old son.

Thiel: In some ways, the father sees this son as his last resort. So that throughout the book there's that pressure from the father who's always saying but you are a Márez, you are a Márez.

Gioia: Margarite Fernandez Olmos wrote a critical study of Rudulfo Anaya.

Margarite Fernandez Olmos: His mother and father came from two very different backgrounds. His father was a cowboy, his father was a vaquero. His mother's family were farmers. They were people who settled the land and his family had deep roots in that area of New Mexico.

Gioia: Rudolfo Anaya.

Anaya: Antonio, the main character of the book, also has to deal with the conflict that the parents seem to impose on him. The mother says our way of life is changing. You've got to have an education and one way to get that education would be to become a priest, and the father says ah, I want him to be like me, a cowboy, a vaquero and that way of life also was dying in the 40s and 50s.

Thiel: Throughout the book, there is that tug from both sides.

Gioia: Diane Thiel.

Thiel: It's interesting that it occurred from the very moment of his birth. That the father wanted to claim him and the mother wanted to claim him and then only Ultima really knew what his life would hold for him.

Cheech Marin reads from Bless Me, Ultima...

“Ultima,” I asked, “Why are they so strange and quiet and why are my father's people so loud and wild?”

She answered, “It is the blood of the Lunas to be quiet, for only a quiet man can learn the secrets of the earth that are necessary for planting—They are quiet like the moon—And it is the blood of the Márez to be wild, like the ocean from which they take their name, and the spaces of the llano that have become their home.”

I waited, then said, “Now we have come to live near the river, and yet near the llano. I love them both, and yet I am of neither. I wonder which life I will choose.”

“Ay, hijito,” she chuckled. “Do not trouble yourself with those thoughts. You have plenty of time to find yourself—”

“But I am growing.” I said, “Everyday I grow older—”

“True,” she replied softly. She understood that I have grew I would have to choose to be my mother's priest or my father's son.

Gioia: Rudolfo Anaya.

Anaya: We call the Rio Grande corridor here in New Mexico, is also a very spiritual corridor. It has the bedrock of the Pueblo Indians, Navajo, Apache. Into that come the Spaniards and the Mexicans with their Catholic religion. Later on Anglo America comes in. And so you have a fascinating kind of laboratory, a kind of place where these cultures are mixing, learning from each other, and quite often in conflict.

Gioia: Charles Chorillo.

Chorillo: It's a fabric, if you think of New Mexican peoples being the threads of a fabric and the fabric is woven of aspects of different cultural elements, but what they did have in common is where they all learned to speak a language, which was Spanish, and they all became Catholics.

Gioia: Ishmael Reed.

Reed: You've got all these different cultures working at one time but there's change, there's looking forward but still the old beliefs linger. I think that's the point of this book: is that no matter how some religion, like what you call the major religions try to sweep the world, globalize the world with their ideas, the old ways still persist.

Gioia: Many of those old ways and old stories are woven into Rudolfo Anaya's work.

Anaya: What came into New Mexico with the Spaniards and the Mexicans was a body of folklore, of what we call kuentos, folktales; I mean hundreds and hundreds of folktales. For all those hundreds of years when there was no TV or radio, people told stories and those kuentos, those folktales, were just passed on generation after generation. They contain the ... really the basis of our belief system and, in many ways, our values.

Cheech Marin reads from Bless Me, Ultima...

The people from Las Pasturas always had stories to tell about the places where they had worked. Sometimes they talked about picking cotton in east Texas and about running whiskey into the cotton fields of dry counties. Sometimes they talked about picking broom corn and as they talked and laughed I could see the rolls of green broom corn and I could smell the sweet scent it left in their sweaty work clothes. Or they would speak about the potato fields of Colorado, and the tragedy that befell them there. They left a son in the dark earth of Colorado, crushed into the tilled earth by a spilled tractor and then, even the grown men cried, but it was all right to cry, because it was fitting to grieve the death of a son.

But always the talk would return to the stories of the old days in las pasturas. Always the talk turned to life on the llano. The first pioneers were sheepherders. Then they imported herds of cattle from Mexico and became vaqueros. They became horsemen, caballeros, men whose daily life was wrapped up in the ritual of horsemanship. They were the first cowboys in the wild and desolate land, which they took from the Indians.

Then the railroad came. The barbwire came. The songs, the corridos became sad, and the meeting of the people from Texas with my forefathers were full of blood, murder and tragedy. The people were uprooted. They looked around one day and found themselves closed in. The freedom of land and sky they had known was gone. These people could not live without freedom and so they packed up and moved west. They became migrants.

Gioia: You are listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today, we are discussing Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya.

The old woman who comes to live with the Márez family in Bless Me, Ultima is a curandera.

Maclovia B. Sanchez Zamora: A curandera is someone that has a gift of healing. They learn from older people that have been doing it forever. In my biological mother's family, there was a curandera that is probably where I get this.

Gioia: Maclovia B. Zamora works as an herbalist at the B-Rupee drugstore in Albuquerque.

Zamora: And we'll go through, through here. We actually have 400 or maybe less, but they're all useable. There's quite a few that we bring from home or that we pick and grow and some of those are, like the rosehips that are here, they are almost the size of a little apple and we have here some oregano. Of course, oregano is wonderful for, for the lungs and for coughs and anything that has to do with the cold. And the mimosa is something to relax with. Mimosa is a blossom and it relaxes you, you know, like in the south areas. I would like to have a mimosa tea in a tiny little cup. And trementina, of course, is pine sap.

Gioia: Every year Maclovia hosts a group of curanderas who come up from Mexico to offer their services to the community. The curanderas have a wide range of talents that include massage, herbal remedies, spiritual cleansings, and even chiropractics.

Anaya: When I was growing up, the curanderas were people who helped when there was a baby to be delivered or maybe somebody broke an arm, fell off a horse, couldn't get to a doctor. They had herbs from the countryside. They did a lot of praying, prayer is very important.

Zamora: (Translating) "I ask God permission in these moments."

Gioia: Maclovia Zamora translates this historic recording of Filipa Sanchez, a curandera from Cuernavaca, Mexico. Here she gives a Catholic blessing before a healing session.

Zamora: “Give me the words, adequate words, that I can help them that come for help." Now she takes away all the bad in God's name. "Everything is in Your Name, with harmony and peace with love so that this person will get well.”

Gioia: Charles Carrillo.

Carrillo: Ultima, which means the last one, she's kind of opposite la bruja, la bruja translates as a witch. In order to be a successful curandera, a person needed to know what kind of magic or potions or powers that brujas has had so that you could counter them and the only way you knew that was to be as close to a bruja as you could be, but beyond the good side.

Gioia: Diane Thiel.

Thiel: Ultima has been, throughout the book, performing various kinds of exorcisms, I suppose would be a word for it, dealing with this one individual and his three daughters—Tenorio—who are carrying out evil practices and the father of the daughters has vowed revenge.

Cheech Marin reads from Bless Me, Ultima...

“Are you afraid?" she asked in turn. She put her bowl aside and stared into my eyes.

“No,” I said. “Why?”

“I don't know,” I said.

“I will tell you why,” she smiled. “It is because good is always stronger than evil. Always remember that, Antonio. The smallest bit of good can stand against all the powers of evil in the world and it will emerge triumphant. There is no need to fear men like Tenorio.”

I nodded. “And his daughters?”

“They are women who long ago turned away God,” she answered, “and so they spend their time reading the Black Book and practicing their evil deeds on poor unsuspecting people. Instead of working, they spend their nights holding their black masses and dancing for the devil in the darkness of the river. But they are amateurs, Antonio.” Ultima shook her head slowly, “they have no power like the power of a good curandera. In a few days, they will be wishing they had never sold their souls to the devil—”

[...] The power of the doctors and the power of the church had failed to cure my uncle. Now everyone depended on Ultima's magic. Was it possible that there was more power in Ultima's magic than in the priest?

Anaya: When I started writing Bless Me, Ultima, I was writing Antonio's story. This boy growing up in a small town like my hometown and dealing with things that I did, you know, fishing and school and church and listening to the stories of the people from the community.

One night when I was writing late at night, Ultima appeared to me; let me put it that way. She stood at the door and she asked me what I was doing, and I said I was writing a story, and she said that she had to be in the story and when I asked to her name she said, Ultima, and that's when the novel came alive. Ultima's a guide for Antonio. So she's the one that's gonna open his eyes and take him into this spiritual world, this world of nature.

Gioia: The culture of New Mexico is infused with Catholicism, from the icons in private homes to the public art and literature of the region. There was a constant presence of the images, beliefs, and stories of the Roman Catholic faith.

NEA Heritage Fellow, Charles Carrillo is a santero, a carver and painter of sacred images.

Carrillo: In New Mexican experience, everything people did was based upon some kind of Catholic belief. There was a saint for everything. I mean, there was saint for toothaches. There was a saint for, you know, people who had a limp. There was a saint for lost objects. If you lost something, you always were bending Saint Anthony's ear someplace. Saint Anthony of Padua. There was a saint for everything. And so it structured people's lives and basically Ultima is kind of the collective memory of every saint that you need something for. She's a saint of the New Mexican experience. She has the answers.

Anaya: My mother had told me the story of the Mexican man, Diego, who had seen La Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico. She had appeared to him and spoken to him and she had given him a sign. She had made the roses grow in a barren rocky hill. A hill much likes ours and so I dreamed that I too would meet the virgin. I expected to see her around every corner I turned.

Gioia: While the young Antonio grows in his Catholic faith, he also experiences others spiritual forces that lead him struggling with unanswered questions.

Diane Thiel.

Thiel: Simultaneously, there is this other potency in his life and that's described very beautifully in terms of this golden carp that is a kind of god-like figure in many ways, and trying to find a way to reconcile both that religion of the church and then the religion of the land and the natural world.

Fernandez Olmos: I do not know if one could say that this book presents a different alternative religion, perhaps it does.

Gioia: Margarite Fernandez Olmos.

Fernandez Olmos: He respects all these different religions, but he goes back to those of his ancestors. His ancestors include, of course, the Spaniards and others. But, he tends toward his Native American tradition.

Gioia: Rudolfo Anaya first published Bless Me, Ultima with a small press in Berkley, California after a winning a literary award. The book quickly became associated with the Chicano civil rights movement in the 1960s and '70s. The novel was not only a landmark book for the Latino community in the American Southwest; Bless Me Ultima has also found a committed international audience.

Charles Carrillo.

Carrillo: Rudolfo's success was to tell a story that touched the hearts of not only New Mexicans, but it touched the hearts of people all over the world because I think he was talking about change. It's a universal experience of: we have a traditional culture and how do you still live in that traditional culture, but how do you become an American, too?

You know, you can live the American dream and you can still hold on to your traditions is basically what he is saying, and I think it was the first novel written by a Hispano that said that.

Gioia: Tony Hillerman.

Hillerman: It gives people whose forbearers are from Germany and Ireland and Cambodia some feeling for the cultural background of the people whose great, great, great grandfathers came from Spain. And I think that's important in the United States. We need to start understanding each other better.

Gioia: Margarite Fernandez Olmos.

Fernandez Olmos: When you read Bless Me Ultima, you discover a whole magical world of the Chicano that we were not exposed to before. So, this is the kind of work that would help us to understand the people who are growing to be our neighbors more and more.

Gioia: Ishmael Reed.

Reed: It shows the culture at its best, and at its worst. You've got the witches here, but you also have curandera. You have nobility, you have cowardice. You have people who are responsible, people who are irresponsible. I mean, you get all types. Get inside of the family experience of the characters in this novel, this Chicano family and some of the tensions there and how they treat things. I mean, there are some things that you can learn here, like the way elder people are treated in the extended family and how that works in this culture is something that people should learn. I mean, also sympathize with how they deal with change and understand why people behave the way they do.

This book ranks next to some of the great novels in the American tradition.

Gioia: Rudolfo Anaya.

Anaya: When I found Ultima or when she found me, I realized that the story was going to be more than a rights of passage novel. It had to go deeper. It had to go into the world of legend and mythology and symbolism, and I had to take that journey, and it was not going to be overnight.

Cheech Marin reads from Bless Me, Ultima...

I dropped to my knees.

“Bless me, Ultima—”

Her hand touched my forehead and her last words were, “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 evening when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills. I shall be with you—”

Anaya: There is so much beauty in people—the people especially that I knew as a child. The ranchers that would come in and visit with my dad told fantastic stories and I would sit there and listen. The town drunk was a hero to me. Sometimes, we'd sit around the dinner table or in summers, we'd go out and make a little fire near the house and tell stories and all of that. The whole idea of that oral tradition sparks the imagination.

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and the Library Services. It was written and produced by Dan Stone.

Readings from Bless Me, Ultima were by Cheech Marin. Historic Mexican Corridos used with permission of Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. Religious masses sung by the Choral Society of Washington and used courtesy of Knoxos. Original music by Clint Hoover and Pat Donohue.

Passages from Bless Me, Ultima, copyright 1972 were used with permission of Rudolfo Anaya and Susan Berholtz Literary Services.

Special thanks to Jeff Heart, Adam Kampe, Ericka Koss, and to our contributors: Rudolfo Anaya, Charles Carrillo, Tony Hillerman, Margarite Olmos, Ishmael Reed, Diane Thiel, and Maclovia Zamora.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

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