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.
Though Bless Me, Ultima is largely autobiographical, it reflects the more general experience of Chicanos living in the American Southwest. Like many of these people, Tony struggles to maintain ties to his cultural heritage while at the same time assimilate his ideologies into the American experience. Ultima is powerful, in tune with the pulses of the earth, and knowledgeable of the earth spirit. She becomes the boy’s spiritual guide, helping him make sense of the world by teaching him about the folklore and folk remedies that have been known to his ancestors for centuries. The bond Tony shares with Ultima strengthens as the novel progresses. It is this wise curandera who helps him put life in perspective, and it is she who helps him use the traditions of his past to mold his present self and to carve a promising future. Like Ultima, Tony has extraordinary powers of perception, and with her help, he manages to keep his faith alive through hardship, discrimination, sadness, and emotional pain. Ultima teaches Tony what he needs to know to face life’s troubles courageously; that spirit exists everywhere, and that he too can tap into the earth’s power and learn to recognize it. Ultima reveals to Tony the spiritual world that exists all around him, and in doing so, she teaches him about love and hatred, life and death, and she helps him reconcile the differences between opposing worlds.