Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. California: TQS Publication, 1972. 262 pp.
Reviewed by Jackie Fletcher.
In Rudolpho Anaya’s novel Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio Marez is six years old when he reconnects to the woman who delivered him as a baby. Ultima is considered a witch by many of the townspeople in Guadalupe, New Mexico, but Marez learns that she is in fact a miraculous healer who takes care of herself as well as of the members of his family. With the help of some of his friends and Ultima, Marez slowly begins to question his Catholic upbringing; yet he is unsure of where to look for an alternative spirituality: Marez’s mother wants him to become a priest, but his doubts about the church, life and death, and God trouble his mind constantly. Marez eventually realizes that people cannot rely on God alone to solve all of life’s problems. Ultima, however, encourages him to understand that it is the strength of one’s heart that allows one to overcome the trials of life.
Bless Me, Ultima is set during World War II and focused on the topic of spirituality. It is a coming-of-age novel that challenges the reader’s mind and allows it to wander with Marez through the majesty of the llano to the Guadalupe community that he finds himself entangled in. After witnessing the murders of two men, Marez seeks for answers beyond what he has been taught, which leads him to appreciate the local myths of the golden carp, and the miraculous healing powers of Ultima. While he still desires to become a priest, Antonio realizes that truth can be found in more than one place.
The themes of the book are very diverse. Apart from religion and spirituality, Anaya evokes local mythology and addresses questions of identity with an open-mindedness that allows the reader to evaluate his/her own beliefs about the role of myths and the formation of identity: “If I had not seen the golden carp perhaps I would not have believed . . . But I had seen too much today to doubt” (116). Marez is unsure of who he is, and how much he is like his parents and irresponsible brothers. All he really knows of himself is that he can relate to the land: “Perhaps the llano was like me, as I grew the innocence was gone, and so too the land changed” (168).
Anaya incorporates dreams into the novel to help the reader visualize Marez’s angst. In one such dream, Anaya forces Marez to express his angst to his arguing parents as the golden carp has drowned the sinners of Guadalupe: “Oh please tell me which is the water that runs through my veins, I moaned” (120). It is this same dream that finally gives peace to Marez’s wandering mind, as Ultima forces him to stand and acknowledge the circle that ties all of life together, regardless of which water runs through one’s veins (121).
Anaya’s writing is poetic and full of life. His brief uses of Spanish help the reader become more involved in the story and to identify Marez’s feeling of being lost and/or stuck between two cultures or truths. Bless Me, Ultima is told from the perspective of Marez, which at first seems as though it could be limiting. However, despite the hero’s young age, readers can be enthralled with Anaya’s ability to capture Marez’s genuine thoughts and fears.
While the novel has a lot to say about religion and myths, it says surprisingly little about ethnicity. Anaya, who has been considered a great contributor to Chicano literature, does not address racism in this book. Further, with the exception of a few short sections of Spanish, the book is written in English thus depriving the reader of a true cultural experience. It may thus be a stretch to classify the novel as authentic Chicano literature—and to discuss in a cultural literature class. Regardless, Bless Me, Ultima stands out as an exceptionally enthralling novel that tackles questions of identity and religion with a lyricism that can hardly be surpassed. This is why reading the book can make for a touching personal experience, but canonizing it as a cultural work seems out of the question.