Bless Me, Ultima is a coming-of-age novel that centers on Tony’s quest for personal and cultural identity. Perhaps the most prominent theme is that of Tony’s emerging spiritualism, which becomes an essential part of both his personal and cultural self. Anaya entrusts Tony’s spiritualism to Ultima, a wise healer, or curandera, who comes to live with Tony and his family. Upon meeting Ultima, Tony is overwhelmed by her powers. Suddenly the world comes alive for him, and we come to understand that Ultima will be the one to pave the path to Tony’s manhood.
Tony knew Ultima before she arrived, because he too has spiritual powers that he would soon learn how to tap. He is perceptive, and he had dreamt of Ultima and of her presence at his own birth. Revelation through dreams is one of the ways Anaya illustrates Tony’s metamorphosis. According to tradition, curanderas often attend laboring mothers, and Ultima had attended Tony’s mother during the birth of her children. In further keeping with tradition, she had buried the placenta after Tony’s birth, and with it the key to his destiny.
Ultima has always been with Tony in spirit, even before she comes to live with his family. She is not related to them, but the family welcomes her as one of their own. They call her Grande, meaning “large” which signifies the profound respect they feel for her. Ultima is a small woman in size, but she appears larger than life. Tony says “there was a nobility to her walk that lent a grace to the small figure.” It seemed to him as if she were part of the landscape, one with the spirit of the earth. He says that when he imitated her walk, he was no longer lost in the enormous landscape of hills and sky. “[He] was a very important part of the teeming life of the llano and the river.“ Ultima is confident, and she seems to possess an inner peace; she commands respect and she emanates power. Many people in the Chicano culture know the powers of curanderismo and consider them magical. But Tony can feel the magic. He is captivated by Ultima, and he speaks of the “clear bright power in her eyes [that] held [him] spellbound.” When he first shakes hands with Ultima he says that he “felt the power of a whirlwind sweep around [him].”
Ultima knows the secrets of the earth, and we know that Ultima will help Tony feel complete and reconcile his conflicting emotions. A strange, spiritual bond links Tony to Ultima, and Tony says that he “felt more attached to [her] than to his own mother.” Ultima and Tony both have powers of perception that others do not. Tony is learning to recognize the spirit in nature, so Ultima becomes both his protector and guide. Not only does she help him recognize the spirit, but she tells him stories and legends of his people, and she gives him a sense of place and an appreciation of his history and culture. When Ultima takes Tony under her wing, he spends hours listening to her stories and soaking in her knowledge. We know that her influence on him is so strong that he too will be able to feel the spirit of the earth, just as she does.
One of the major themes that emerges in Bless Me, Ultima is that of spirituality and healing. Ultima is a kind of shaman, a spiritual guide that helps Tony come to an understanding of God and nature and helps him use that understanding to recognize spirit in his world. The presence of shaman-like figures as mentors and guides is an important part of many traditional ideologies and Anaya makes it an integral theme in his works. Anaya entrusts many of his protagonists to spiritual guides, and Tony flourishes in the presence of his. Ultima has always been with Tony in spirit, and when she physically moves in with his family she helps him find the answers that he has been seeking. She helps him sort out his confusion. In many traditional cultures, folk healing is tied to a belief in the sacredness of nature. Curanderismo is an ancient system of Mexican American folk healing; it relies on the use of rituals and the power of herbs that arise from the land. Curanderas reputedly can heal both body and soul. To Tony it seems that they know earth magic. Anaya tells us that “for Ultima, even the plants had a spirit,” and everything in nature is a manifestation of life force. Ultima teaches Tony a respect for nature. She teaches him that spirit exists everywhere, and that his spirit “[shares] in the spirit of all things.”
Tony has a natural affinity for the land, but the conflicting views of his parents make it difficult for him to sort through his confusion. Should he be a rancher or a farmer? Should he roam the land like his father or remain grounded like his mother? Can he believe in the power of the Virgin and in the Golden Carp at the same time? For much of the novel, Tony feels he must choose between the nomadic lifestyle of his father and the agricultural lifestyle of his mother. His mother and father could not be more different. His mother is a devout Catholic and his father is anti-religion. His father makes fun of priests, but his mother wants him to become one. The differences between Tony’s parents represent some of the major contrasts in the novel, and Ultima gives Tony the ability to sort them out. Tony’s struggle with his religious faith becomes the novel’s primary focus, and we come to realize he will find that faith once he learns to understand the spiritual world of Ultima.
What Tony comes to realize through his relationship with Ultima is that spirit drives our existence. Christianity and pagan mysticism do not have to be in conflict, but rather they both attest to power in the world. Tony’s fascination with the land and the myths of the land emerge as a confirmation of God’s power. Traditional ideologies explained all forces of nature as evidence of such power. People of traditional cultures believed that the gods manifested themselves in the natural phenomena of our world. Tony speaks of the dust devils carrying the spirit of the devil. He speaks of being able to feel the soul of the river. His father and mother allude to the “spirit” of the sea and the moon. The major influences in Tony’s life seem to have their base in ancient myths and symbols. His father’s name, Marez, means sea, and his people are restless like the sea. They descended from Spanish Conquistadors and they are not content to remain settled, but they long to roam the open plains. His mother’s name, Luna, means moon, and her people descended from the Pueblo farmers who settle in one place and plant by the moonlight. Antonio has blood from both these peoples, so he struggles to reconcile native and conqueror, land and sea, Catholic and pagan.
In light of these conflicts, Tony has a difficult time coming of age. Anaya helps his protagonist along by incorporating into his story historical legends that parallel biblical teachings. Cuentos are full of witchcraft and mysticism, and Tony is preoccupied with magic. He believes in brujas (witches), and in the power of Ultima. He sees what such power can do when the Trementina sisters use their “magic” to strike Tio Lucas ill and when Ultima uses her magic to help him. Anaya puts this “magic” in focus by using myths and legends to explain nature’s forces. He concentrates primarily on the Legend of the Golden Carp. The river in the town is full of carp, and Tony learns from his friend that a golden carp swims the river as a manifestation of a pagan god.
If gods can appear as magic carp, then surely spirit exists everywhere. Only Cico, Ultima, Tony, the Indian, and Narciso can see the Golden Carp, presumably because these are the people who recognize earth magic. But Tony questions God throughout the novel, so Anaya relates more legends to answer his questions. The Golden Carp warned the people that the “land cannot take the weight of the sins and will sink.” He has the ability to punish sinners by filling the town with water and drowning all who live there. We find this same theme in myths of the Deluge in cultures all over the world.
Bless Me, Ultima is largely about faith; about the importance of having faith and the inevitability of, at some time, losing it. It is about the promise of finding it again. The Legend of the Golden Carp attests to power in the world. It renews Tony’s faith, and he comes to realize that pagan legends do not conflict with Catholic ideology but in fact make sense of it. He also learns that duality exists everywhere. The water in the river can cleanse and heal but can also destroy. God can both punish and provide. The theme of evil versus goodness drives Anaya’s plot. The Trementina sisters, three daughters of Tenorio, practice black magic and strike Tio Lucas ill. Then Ultima cures him. But two of Tenorio’s daughters die, and this sets off a series of events that leads to Ultima’s death. When the Trementina sisters die as a result of Ultima’s “magic,” Tenorio accuses her of being a witch and he vows to kill her. He submits Ultima to a test, making her walk through a doorway with needles pinned to the door frame in the shape of a cross, believing that witches or anyone with evil powers could never move through the doorway. Ultima walks through the doorway and passes the test. But only Tony knows that the needles they had pinned to the door frame fell down afterward. We know that Ultima’s power is good but that the Trementina sisters seem to have a power equally as strong. Goodness and evil exist side by side in the world, and Tony is gradually learning to blur the line between black and white.
Tony’s life in Guadalupe proves to test his strength and to challenge his ability to recognize spirit. He must grow up quickly as he faces turmoil in his family and discrimination from his classmates, and as he witnesses the effects of war and the death of several townspeople. Tony experiences the death of five people during the course of the novel; first his father’s brother and town sheriff; then Lupito, the crazed World War II veteran who shot the sheriff; then Narciso, his father’s drinking buddy; then Florence, Tony’s friend and a non-believer. Ultima is the fifth. Death is a major theme in the novel, and perhaps alludes to Tony’s death of innocence. Anaya treats the theme of life and death as another duality in the world rather than two forces in opposition.
Anaya uses the death scenes to contrast the violence of life in Guadalupe with the serenity of nature, but he also uses them to confirm Tony’s recognition of soul. Tony becomes preoccupied with the flight of the soul. He is concerned about what will happen to Lupito’s soul because he died before he could confess his mortal sin of killing the sheriff, and he is concerned about what will happen to Florence’s soul because he failed to understand God before he died. Tony questions God throughout the novel, but by the end he has gained a clear understanding of soul. When Ultima dies, he knows that he will continue to feel her spirit. Ultima tells him on her deathbed, “Love life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evenings when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills. I shall be with you…” Tony can accept Ultima’s death with strength because he has learned to recognize spirit. He knows that goodness and evil exist side by side, and in recognizing this, life and death become simply two sides of the same coin. “What Ultima tried to teach me,” Tony says “[is] that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart.” By the end of the novel Tony is just nine years old, but he has gained the insight that many grown people never have.