Book Review: Bless Me Ultima

Editor’s Note:  We’re growing quite a collection of book reviews here at the Jeffersonian, and Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima is a popular choice all-around (reading, writing and reading reviews of).  Here is our newest take on the New Mexico classic.

by Maya Z.:
In Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, a young boy named Antonio Márez y Luna, narrates his life after his protector and mentor, Ultima begins living with his family in Guadalupe, New Mexico in the 1940s. In Anaya’s first novel his own life becomes the model for expressing the complex process of growing up Chicano in the American Southwest.

Conflict plays a primary role in the novel. Anaya uses these conflicts to examine the influence of culture on identity. Many characters in the book are limited by their cultural prejudices and never learn to look beyond their own assumptions. For example, the townspeople condemn Narciso for being a drunk and refuse to acknowledge that his traumatic experience in the war might play a part in his psychological state. Through Ultima, Anaya  voices a call to avoid the limitations inherent in abiding by one culture, one religion, or one creed, and instead, encourages Antonio to embrace all of the cultural influences in his life to become a better person. In the end, Anaya suggests that a person can draw from several cultural traditions to forge a more complex and adaptable identity. Bless Me, Ultima explores the difficulty of accommodating conflicting cultural traditions. Antonio is so eager to find a single answer to the questions that haunt him because he has been influenced by many conflicting cultures. One major conflict involves his parents. His mother wishes for him to become a priest, while his vaquero father wishes for him to ride the llano. Each parent has deeply rooted cultural beliefs.  It is these conflicts that helped to shape young Antonio in to who he was to become.

An emphasis on thinking independently about moral decisions is seen thorough out Bless Me, Ultima. Antonio’s progress toward moral independence shows his maturity and development throughout the novel. Antonio’s struggle to reconcile the complexity of his experience with his religion leads him to conclude that he must make his own decisions. He becomes increasingly frustrated by the failure of the church to explain the questions he finds most important about morality and human experience. Working as his guide, Ultima teaches him that the most difficult questions about life can never be answered entirely by a single religion or cultural tradition. By doing this, Anaya shows the reader that one must think for themselves and arrive at their own conclusions.

Bless Me, Ultima is largely about faith, and about the importance of having faith and the inevitability of, at some point, losing it. It is about the promise of finding it again. The Legend of the Golden Carp renews Antonio’s faith, and he comes to realize that these legends do not conflict with Catholic orientation 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 good drives Anaya’s plot. The reader knows that Ultima’s power is good, but that the Trementina sisters have a power just as as strong. Anaya displays how good and evil exist side by side in the world in this way.

Anaya treats the theme of life and death as a duality in the world rather than two forces in opposition. He uses the death scenes to contrast the violence of life in Guadalupe with the serenity of nature, but he also uses them to confirm Antonio’s recognition of soul. Antonio becomes taken up with the flight of the soul. Antonio questions God throughout the novel, but by the end he has gained a clear understanding of soul. 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.

It is hard for one to compare Bless Me, Ultima to other works of the same type. Anaya’s novel is one of the most notable and celebrated books in Hispanic-American literature today Despite many criticisms of Bless Me, Ultima, this novel still remains a classic.  Because of its dual impact,  it appeals to people of all ages, and ethnicities. It clearly defines Chicano culture as founded on family, tradition and the power of myth. Anaya gives his audience a sense of the deep literary heritage of Hispanics in the United States. Bless Me, Ultima serves as a window into Hispanic Literature, and it is because of this, that Bless Me, Ultima is known as a timeless A-list book.

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