Much of what Tony learns about his past and his future is revealed to him in dream sequences in which Anaya uses stream of consciousness and flashback techniques to allow Tony to recall his life and to reveal his confusion about his place in the world. In one dream he remembers back to his mother’s womb and to the time Ultima delivered him. In another he dreams of Lupito and the soul’s journey to the afterlife. He also envisions the death of Ultima in a dream. Ten dream sequences unravel throughout the novel, and they all relate to events in Tony’s life but distort the context. Like the myths, these dreams reveal to him how his personal experiences fit into the cosmos. They unravel like myths, and they help Tony make sense of the world around him.
Cuentos, or myths and legends of the people, largely influenced Anaya when he was a young boy. He was captivated by their mystical elements, and he uses these stories to add intensity and complexity to his plot. The Legend of the Golden Carp is a story about creation and reincarnation, and it teaches Tony a lesson in how to reconcile Catholicism with paganism. The Golden Carp is a god, similar in function to the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl and to Jesus. The Golden Carp, Quetzalcoatl, and Jesus all died to save the souls of their people, and they all had the power to protect or to punish. Tony learns about the carp about the same time he is learning about Catholic religion, and the legend helps build his faith without forcing him to forsake one philosophy for another. The Legend of the Golden Carp attests to the journey of the soul to the afterlife, and it confirms Tony’s recognition of spirit. Tony wants desperately to teach his friend Florence about the golden carp, “to give him something to believe in,” he says. But Florence drowns before he can do this. Tony sees, through Florence’s death, that the legend held true, and because of this, he gains a fuller understanding of God and spirit.
Mythology addresses basic questions we all have concerning our purpose in life and it offers explanations for the nature of God and how spirit moves our world. Anaya uses other myths and legends to make Tony cognizant of spirit. The stories and lore of the past help explain who we are, and thus they help Tony find himself. They also help define the mystical nature of the Latino culture. Anaya’s use of symbolism is another effective way he conveys the mystical nature of the Latino culture as well as the mystical qualities of the physical world. Ultima’s owl, for instance, has “a powerful, protective spirit,” like Ultima. It symbolizes her soul and thus has the ability to discern good from evil. The owl appears after Lupito’s death and he calms Tony when he is in agony and mourning for Lupito’s soul. The owl scares away the animals the night Ultima cures Tio Lucas. He also hoots in warning when Tenorio is after Ultima, and he gouges out Tenorio’s eye. The climax of the novel occurs with the death of Ultima’s owl. Tenorio eventually destroys the owl and by doing so, he kills her protective spirit. This foreshadows the death of Ultima.