Rudolfo Anaya was born on October 30, 1937 in Pastura, New Mexico and he grew up in the nearby town of Santa Rosa. He left Santa Rosa when he was in the eighth grade and moved to Albuquerque where he attended high school, then continued his education at the University of New Mexico where he got his bachelor’s degree in 1963 and his master’s degree in 1968. Anaya began writing Bless Me, Ultima in 1963 while he was attending graduate school and working as a public school teacher in Albuquerque. Seven years later he finished the book. The novel received wide recognition and rave reviews. Bless Me, Ultima is largely autobiographical, as Anaya drew on the religious and political issues that shaped his experience as a Hispanic American living in the Southwest during World War II (1939-1945). His father was a vaquero (a sheep and cattle rancher) and his mother came from a farming family, but Anaya himself always aspired to write. From a young age he loved storytelling and was captivated with the myths and legends of his ancestors and of the land. When Bless Me, Ultima won him the prestigious Premio Quinto Sol literary award in 1971, he was able to quit teaching and concentrate solely on his writing. Later, however, he resumed teaching. He taught summer classes for the New Mexico Writers Workshop from 1977 to 1979, then in 1988 he became a professor and taught creative writing and Chicano literature at the University of New Mexico. Bless Me, Ultima won numerous awards and launched his career as one of the most influential Chicano writers of his time. His impressive collection of manuscripts is archived at the Zimmerman Museum at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
Bless Me, Ultima is a coming-of-age novel narrated by Tony Marez, a young boy living with his family in Guadalupe, New Mexico in the 1940s. Tony begins his story at the age of six when Ultima, a female curandera, moves in with him and his family. A curandera is a healer, highly respected in the Chicano culture for her ability to heal both physical and emotional ailments. Ultima heals Tony’s soul by opening his eyes to the “magic” around him. Tony is confused through much of the novel, unable to reconcile the conflicting philosophies he feels tugging at him from all directions. He feels he must find a way to reconcile the conflicting beliefs and ideologies of his mother and father, Chicano culture and American culture, and Catholicism and pagan mysticism.
The novel is set in the plains of New Mexico in the 1940s, during World War II. The first part of the book takes place around Tony’s home, a small house in Guadalupe, and the second part takes place in the town itself, where Tony learns to cope with the harsh realities of life. Guadalupe is a typical rural New Mexico town, embedded in Hispanic culture, its residents part Spanish and part Native American. Anaya uses the rich sense of history these people embrace to carry his themes. Anaya ties the clash between religious and social ideologies and the deep sense of spiritualism Native Americans embrace to a profound belief in the sacredness of the land. His vivid descriptions of the landscape carry his theme of earth magic. Ultima knows the secrets of the earth, and through her influence, Tony comes to appreciate them as well. “Her eyes swept the surrounding hills and through them I saw for the first time the wild beauty of our hills and the magic of the green river.” Tony says when he first meets Ultima, “The granules of sand at my feet and the sun and sky above me seemed to dissolve into one strange, complete being.”
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.
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.
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.
1. Why was Maria particularly bothered by her sons’ exhibiting what she considered inappropriate behavior around Ultima?
1. Using Ultima as an example, define the role of the shaman in Mexican American societies.
2. The Legend of the Golden Carp has similarities to the Mexican myth of Quetzalcoatl and to the Biblical myth of the deluge. Dissect the Legend of the Golden Carp and elaborate on the connections to one of the ancient stories that delivers the same message.
Anaya’s books attempt to answer some of life’s most perplexing questions: how we can understand the nature of God and how we can we find faith in a chaotic world. They also attempt to place these questions in perspective unique to the Chicano culture. Anaya deals with themes particularly similar to those in Bless Me, Ultima in the two novels that directly followed, Heart of Aztlan and Tortuga. Both of these books are coming of age novels centered around the Chicano experience in America, and both feature a young boy who faces trauma and turmoil but gains spiritual insight as he grows emotionally and learns about life and death. Heart of Aztlan deals with the problems of a Chicano worker living in America and Tortuga with the emotional pain of a young boy suffering from paralysis. In both of these novels Anaya incorporates mythic elements to help define the Chicano experience and shed light on the problem of finding faith in a confusing world.