National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima

by Rudolfo Anaya

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


The Life and Times of Rudolfo Anaya

1930s
Franklin Delano Roosevelt elected U.S. president, 1932.
Rudolfo Anaya born October 30 in Pastura, New Mexico, 1937.

1940s
Japanese forces bomb Pearl Harbor; America enters World War II, 1941.
Anaya's brothers fight in World War II.
Scientists test the atomic bomb in New Mexico, which the U.S. then drops over Japan, ending World War II, 1945.

1950s
Dwight D. Eisenhower inaugurated U.S. president, 1953, cementing a period of economic prosperity.
Anaya becomes temporarily paralyzed after a diving accident, 1953.

1960s
César Chávez organizes a band of striking California fruit pickers, leading to a five-year grape boycott, 1966.
Anaya graduates from the University of New Mexico with a BA in English, 1963, and marries Patricia Lawless, 1966.

1970s
Rally in Los Angeles protests high Latino casualties in Vietnam War; three killed, including Los Angeles Times reporter Ruben Salazar, 1970.
Anaya's first novel, Bless Me, Ultima, is published, 1972.
Anaya receives an NEA Literature Fellowship, 1979.

1980s
Immigration Reform and Control Act institutes sanctions for hiring the undocumented, strengthens border patrol enforcement, 1986.
Anaya travels to China, 1984, and later publishes his travel journal, A Chicano in China, 1986.

1990s
César Chávez dies, 1993.
Anaya releases Zia Summer, his first Sonny Baca mystery, 1995.

2000s
Anaya's book-length poem Elegy on the Death of César Chávez is published, 2000.
Pope John Paul II canonizes Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin as the first Indian saint of the Americas, 2002.
Anaya receives the National Medal of Arts in 2002.
Anaya's wife, Patricia, dies, January 2010.

Anaya's New Mexico

Like his protagonist Antonio Márez in Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya grew up in New Mexico under the shadow of World War II, which his brothers fought overseas. As a young boy in 1945, he would not have realized that, less than a day's ride away on horseback, government scientists in Los Alamos, New Mexico, had manufactured the atomic bomb that would bring the war in the Pacific to its horrific end.

Rural New Mexico in the mid-twentieth century had long been a land of Mexican and Native American tradition both lured by, and resistant to, civilization's advances. Hopi, Navajo, and Pueblo Indians had foraged and farmed there for centuries. When the Spanish arrived in 1540, they were newcomers. But the religion they believed, the laws they imposed, and the language they brought all took root.

The Rio Grande corridor is the bedrock of the Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache Indians, a spiritual setting that informs Anaya's fiction. As Anaya has said, "Into that came the Spaniards and the Mexicans with the Catholic religion; later, Anglo America comes in. So you have a fascinating place where these cultures are mixing, learning from each other, and quite often in conflict." The body of Spanish and Mexican folklore, called cuentos, passed orally from generation to generation, contains the basis of New Mexican values and beliefs. Through Ultima and Antonio, Anaya has created his own story that is as much old as new.

Miracles and Magic in Bless Me, Ultima

No one in Bless Me, Ultima doubts the existence of mystery and magic. Miracles, signs, and symbols form a rich part of the New Mexican Catholic culture of Anaya's world, a unique setting where, for four-hundred years, Catholicism has thrived alongside Indian Pueblo religions. Much of Antonio's struggle stems from his desire to understand the "correct" source of these miracles-the Catholic church, or the curandera.

Catholicism offers Antonio a prescribed way of seeing the world. He diligently learns his Catechism, believing that revelation will come once the body of Christ enters him during his first Communion (Eucharist). He loves the Virgin of Guadalupe-the patron saint of his small New Mexican town-because she represents forgiveness. A devout Catholic woman, Antonio's mother María pushes him toward the priesthood.

Ultima never contradicts María, but her ways as a traditional healer are different. As Antonio says, "Ultima was a curandera, a woman who knew the herbs and remedies of the ancients, a miracle-worker who could heal the sick.... And because a curandera had this power she was misunderstood and often suspected of practicing witchcraft herself."

These two perspectives—the church and the curandera—are often in conflict in the novel. Catholicism praises the Virgin Mary, yet she is mocked in Antonio's school Christmas play. The town denigrates Ultima as a bruja (witch), but when the priest cannot heal, some townspeople beg her to use her power.

Ultima tells Antonio not what to believe, but how to make choices. Like his father, she wants Antonio to think for himself. By the end of the novel, as Rudolfo Anaya has said, "Antonio looks into nature deep enough to see that God is in nature, not just the church."

The Virgin of Guadalupe (Patron Saint of Mexico)

Twelve years after Spanish explorers landed on Mexican soil, the miracle of the Virgin of Guadalupe occurred. In 1531, the dark-skinned mother of Jesus appeared several times to a peasant Indian man named Juan Diego, a Catholic convert. She asked to have a church built on the site. After Diego told a bishop what happened—only to be turned away—a colorful image of the Virgin was emblazoned on Diego's cloak to validate his story. This miracle led to the conversion of about nine million of Mexico's Indians to Catholicism. The Vatican recognized this miracle in 1745, and the image now hangs above the altar in the Basílica de Santa María de Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Legends in the Novel

The Weeping Woman
The origin of the legend of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman) has been part of Southwestern culture since the days of the conquistadors. Tales vary, but all report that this beautiful, frightening spirit—with long black hair and a white gown—belongs to a cursed mother searching rivers and lakes for her children, whom she has drowned. Parents have used this story to teach their children, telling them the merciless La Llorona would drag them to a watery grave if they stay out late at night. In Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio has a terrible nightmare: "It is la llorona, my brothers cried in fear, the old witch who cries along the river banks and seeks the blood of boys and men to drink!"

The Legend of the Golden Carp
Anaya created this story, which draws from Christian, Aztec, and Pueblo mythology. The young Antonio first hears about the carp from his friends Samuel and Cico. Similar to the Old Testament's Noah and the flood, the tale warns that unless the people stop sinning, the carp will cause a flood to purge their evil. Antonio believes the story, but he cannot reconcile it with his Catholicism. After first hearing it, he says that "the roots of everything I had ever believed in seemed shaken." Later, when he sees the carp, he is dazzled by its beauty and wonders if a new religion can blend both the Golden Carp and Catholicism.

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