Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima

Infobox Book |
name = "Bless Me, Ultima"

image_caption = Cover of the April 1994 printing
author = Rudolfo Anaya
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = USA
language = English
series =
subject =
genre = Chicano
publisher =
pub_date = 1972
media_type =
pages = 262
isbn = ISBN 0-446-60025-3
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Bless Me, Ultima" is a novel by Rudolfo Anaya, published in 1972. It is included in the list of most commonly challenged books in the U.S. It is also important for helping Chicano literature (and therefore Latino/a American literature more generally) gain academic respect as an important and non-derivative type of American literature.

Plot summary

Set in the small town of Guadalupe, New Mexico during World War II, this novel follows the story of Antonio Márez, a young boy who meets a "curandera" named Ultima. The main plotline involves Ultima's struggle to stop the witchcraft of the three daughters of Tenorio Trementina, the main villain. In the story Antonio, who is witness to several deaths, is forced to deal with religious and moral issues.

As Antonio grows up, he finds that he must choose between the two opposing families from which he came: the Márez; wild and untamed vaqueros from Antonio's father's side, and the Lunas; quiet, religious farmers from whom his mother descended. His father wants to help Antonio make his own choice about his future. His mother's dream is for him to become a Catholic priest, but over the course of the novel Antonio becomes disillusioned with the faith and through Ultima learns of the broad awareness and possibilities of other gods. Much of the novel is spent with Antonio trying to reconcile Native American religion with traditional Roman Catholicism as well as the Lunas with the Márez.

In this story Antonio asks questions concerning evil, justice and the nature of God. He witnesses many deaths, which force him to mature and face the reality of life. Ultimately, the Catholic Church, dominated by female imagery, by concentrating on the Virgin Mary and a vengeful Father God, on ritual and superficiality, is unable to answer Antonio's questions. There is an unawareness throughout the novel of any Biblical concept of Christianity.Realizing that the Roman Catholic Church represents the female values of his mother, Antonio cannot bring himself to accept the lawlessness, violence and unthinking sensuality which his father and older brothers symbolize. Instead through his relationship with Ultima, he discovers a oneness with nature, with no value judgments.


Antonio Márez - The young protagonist of Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio is six, almost seven years old at the beginning of the novel. Antonio is serious, thoughtful, and prone to moral questioning, and his experiences force him to confront difficult issues that blur the lines between right and wrong. He turns to both pagan and Christian ideologies for guidance, but he doubts both traditions. With Ultima’s help, Antonio makes the transition from childhood to adolescence and begins to make his own decision and to accept responsibility for their consequences.

Gabriel and María Márez - Antonio’s parents, whose frequently conflicting views make it difficult for Antonio to accept either of their belief systems. María, the devoutly Catholic daughter of a farmer, wants Antonio to follow her Luna family tradition by becoming a priest. Gabriel is the son of vaqueros, or cowboys, and he prefers that Antonio follow the Márez tradition of restless wandering across the llano, or plains. Both parents love and revere Ultima.

Ultima - An elderly curandera, a healer endowed with the spiritual power of her ancestors. Ultima is a complex and odd character. Ultima’s power is often misunderstood by the community. Many people refer to her as a bruja, or evil witch. Even Antonio is confused about the moral nature of Ultima’s power—no one knows if she is truly a witch. Ultima is a firm believer in tolerance and understanding, however, and she teaches Antonio that different belief systems can offer equally valid ways of understanding the world.

Narciso - The town drunk. Narciso is good friends with Gabriel because they both share a deep and passionate love for the llano. Narciso demonstrates a strong appreciation for the richness of the earth—his garden is a lush masterpiece full of sweet vegetables and fruits. Narciso respects and loves Ultima deeply. Tenorio kills him because he supports Ultima.

Tenorio Trementina and his three daughters - Tenorio is a malicious saloon-keeper and barber in El Puerto. His three daughters perform a black mass and place a curse on Lucas Luna. Tenorio detests Ultima because she lifts the curse on Lucas. Soon after she does so, one of Tenorio’s daughters dies. Hot-tempered and vengeful, Tenorio spends the rest of the novel plotting Ultima’s death, which he finally achieves by killing her owl familiar, her spiritual guardian.

Cico - One of Antonio’s closer friends. Unlike most of Antonio’s friends, he is quiet and respectful. Cico exposes Antonio to yet another belief system when he takes Antonio to see the golden carp, a pagan god who lives in the river.

Florence - One of Antonio’s friends. Florence does not believe in God, he attends catechism to be with his friends. Florence’s active, vocal questioning of Catholic orthodoxy is partly a result of his own difficult past; both of Florence’s parents are dead, and his sisters have become prostitutes. Florence shows Antonio that the Catholic Church is not perfect and that religion can fail.

Antonio’s friends: Abel, Bones, Ernie, Horse, Lloyd, Red, and the Vitamin Kid - An exuberant group of boys who frequently curse and fight. Horse loves to wrestle, but everyone fears Bones more because he is reckless and perhaps even crazy. Ernie is a braggart who frequently teases Antonio. The Vitamin Kid is the fastest runner in Guadalupe. Red is a Protestant, so he is often teased by the other boys. Lloyd enjoys reminding everyone that they can be sued for even the most minor offenses. Abel, the smallest boy in the group, frequently urinates in inappropriate places.

Lupito - A war veteran who has been mentally affected by the war. After Lupito murders Chávez’s brother, the local sheriff, in one of his deranged moments, Lupito is killed by a mob in front of young Antonio. Lupito’s death provides the catalyst for Antonio’s serious moral and religious questioning.

Andrew, Eugene, and León Márez - Antonio’s brothers. For most of Antonio’s childhood, his brothers are fighting in World War II. When they return home, they suffer post-traumatic stress as a result of the war. Restless and depressed, they all eventually leave home to pursue independent lives, crushing Gabriel’s dream of moving his family to California.

Deborah and Theresa Márez - Antonio’s older sisters. Most of the time, they play with dolls and speak English, a language Antonio does not begin to learn until he attends school.

Antonio’s uncles: Juan, Lucas, Mateo, and Pedro Luna - María’s brothers are farmers. They struggle with Gabriel to lay a claim to Antonio’s future. They want him to become a farmer or a priest, but Gabriel wants Antonio to be a vaquero in the Márez tradition. Antonio’s uncles are quiet and gentle, and they plant their crops by the cycle of the moon.

Father Byrnes - A Catholic priest who gives catechism lessons to Antonio and his friends. He is a stern priest with hypocritical and unfair policies. He punishes Florence for the smallest offenses because Florence challenges the Catholic orthodoxy, but he fails to notice, and perhaps even ignores, the misbehavior of the other boys. Rather than teach the children to understand God, he prefers to teach them to fear God.

Chávez - Chávez is the father of Antonio’s friend Jasón. He leads a mob to find Lupito after Lupito kills Chávez’s brother, the local sheriff. He forbids Jasón to visit an Indian who lives near the town, but Jasón disobeys him.

Jasón Chávez - One of Antonio’s friends. He disobeys his father when he continues to visit an Indian who lives near the town.

Jasón Chávez’s Indian - A friend of Jasón’s who is disliked by Jasón’s father. Cico tells Antonio that the story of the golden carp originally comes from the Indian.

Prudencio Luna - The father of María and her brothers. He is a quiet man who prefers not to become involved in other peoples’ conflicts. When Tenorio declares an all out war against Ultima, he does not want his sons to get involved, even though Ultima saved Lucas’s life.

Miss Maestas - Antonio’s first-grade teacher. Although Antonio does not speak English well, Miss Maestas recognizes his bright spark of intelligence. Under her tutelage, Antonio unlocks the secrets of words. She promotes him to the third grade at the end of the year.

Rosie - The woman who runs the local brothel. Antonio has a deep fear of the brothel because it represents sin. He is devastated when he finds out that his brother Andrew frequents it.

Samuel - One of Antonio’s friends. He is also the Vitamin Kid’s brother. Unlike most of Antonio’s friends, Samuel is gentle and quiet. He tells Antonio about the golden carp.

Téllez - One of Gabriel’s friends. He challenges Tenorio when Tenorio speaks badly of Ultima. Not long afterward, a curse is laid on his home. Ultima agrees to lift the curse, explaining that Téllez’s grandfather once hanged three Comanche Indians for raiding his flocks. Ultima performs a Comanche funeral ceremony on Téllez’s land, and ghosts cease to haunt his home.

Ultima’s teacher - Ultima’s teacher was also known as el hombre volador, or “the flying man.” He gave her the owl that became her spirit familiar, her guardian. He told her to do good works with her powers but to avoid interfering with a person’s destiny. The invocation of his name inspires awe and respect among the people who have heard about his legendary powers.

In Popular Culture

"Bless Me, Ultima" was chosen as the novel for the literature section for the 2008-2009 competition of the United States Academic Decathalon.

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