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.

The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the NEA Big Read Reader Resources. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.

For their essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.

  1. "I felt more attached to Ultima than to my own mother. Ultima told me the stories and legends of my ancestors. From her I learned the glory and the tragedy of the history of my people, and I came to understand how that history stirred in my blood" (chapterDoce).
  2. Explain how Ultima contributes to Antonio's ability to understand an identity of many heritages. What does he learn from Ultima? What does she teach him that his own relatives cannot? What does he mean when he says that "the glory and the tragedy" of his people's history stir in his blood?
  3. Anaya has written:

    "The beliefs of my traditional New Mexican culture are grounded in the Catholic religion and Spanish folktales from the Iberian world. These beliefs are influenced by cultural borrowings from the Pueblo Indian way of life. This culture is the backdrop for the novel. It is the way of life of the Nuevos Mexicanos that inspires my creativity. But a novel is not written to explain a culture, it creates its own. I create stories, so the reader must separate realistic portrayals of the culture from fiction."

    Write an essay that discusses the ways this novel portrays a world of its own, one that borrows from real culture and history.

  4. In chapter Cuatro, Antonio says there was no saint he loved more than the Virgen de Guadalupe. In his attempt to explain why this icon is so important to him, he says: "God was not always forgiving. He made laws to follow and if you broke them you were punished. The Virgin always forgave.

    "God had power. He spoke and the thunder echoed through the skies.

    "The Virgin was full of a quiet, peaceful love....

    "But He was a giant man, and she was a woman. She could go to Him and ask Him to forgive you. Her voice was sweet and gentle and with the help of her Son they could persuade the powerful Father to change His mind."

    As you think about the male and female characters in the novel, how does this passage help explain the role that gender plays in Antonio's life?

  5. Write an essay in which you analyze and discuss the character of Ultima. What does she mean when she tells Antonio at the end of chapter Veintiuno that the owl is her spirit, her "bond to the time and harmony of the universe"? What does she seem to know that others do not know? What does she want for Antonio, and how does she help him cope with problems?
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