Anaya covers themes in his novels that have had significance in his own life. But while Tony’s experiences mirror Anaya’s own experiences, they also typify the experiences of many Hispanics struggling to reconcile two cultures. Tony faces the challenge of reconciling his own Hispanic world with the anglicized world around him. Religion plays a large role in Tony’s life. The people of Mexico were pagans before the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs and converted them to Catholicism, but this did not erase the strong ties the people of Mexico had to pagan religion. As was the case with many Mexicans since the Conquest, Tony had to reconcile what appeared to be two vastly different religious philosophies in order to come to grips with his own spirituality. Tony’s mother Maria is devoted to Catholicism and his father Gabriel has little or no interest in religion at all. Ultima, who has perhaps more of an influence on Tony, has a spirituality rooted in pagan mysticism. She offers Tony a blend of both philosophies, and she reveals to him a power so strong that he cannot help but understand the true nature of God.
When Ultima comes to live with Tony and his family, she is given the utmost respect and welcomed into the family as one of their own. As is true in most traditional cultures, Mexican life centers around the family, and Tony does not stray from his extended family in his early childhood years. When he finally does leave the security of his home, he faces the stresses of living in an Anglo world, and he endures discrimination from his racist classmates who ridicule his Hispanic ways and who discount Ultima’s art of curanderismo as a form of witchcraft. Tony has been taught to take pride in his culture, yet his classmates attempt to shame him for embracing the very kinds of traditions his family hopes he will honor. Because Tony’s experiences mirror the experiences Anaya himself had as a child growing up in New Mexico, we realize the impact Anglo society had on Chicano culture. Tony manages to cling to his culture, largely because of Ultima’s influence. But his brothers who fought in World War II came to be critical of family traditions. Maria had difficulty accepting how the war affected Tony’s brothers, and was highly disturbed that they seemed to have lost the respect that she considered crucial to maintaining family honor.
Anaya’s novel creates a sensitivity toward people of traditional societies who find their culture and their belief systems undermined by Anglo prejudice. Chicanos living in the Southwest had to deal with racism, with World War II, and with violence. Anaya tackles issues unique to the Chicano experience, but he also tackles problems that can beset people of any culture. Tony faces the task many adolescents face in trying to make sense of the world around him and find his place in it. Anaya’s mythic anecdotes emphasizes the importance of history and culture in developing personal identity.