In Bless Me, Ultima Rudolfo Anaya tells a classic coming of age story by interweaving ancient world symbolism, particularly nature archetypes, with the ritualistic traditions of the Catholic Church in a New Mexico village near the end of World War II. These symbols connect to each other with such historic strength that together they give depth to a tale that becomes not only Antonio Marez’s story of growing up in the Southwest in 1944 but also one that reaches back to the beginning of time and becomes universally an archetypal motif for humanity.
The Sun and the Moon
Although all of the characters contribute to the cohesiveness of the novel, the story belongs to Antonio, who is seven years old when the story opens, and Ultima, the curandera who was present at Antonio’s birth and who has now come to live with his family in her remaining years. While Antonio, or Tony, has two older sisters at home, he also has three brothers who have been serving their country overseas in the war and return home. Tony’s father is a Marez, a man whose traditions cling to the earth, the llano, the large grassy, almost treeless plain where a man can ride his horse and enjoy the camaraderie of his wandering friends, seeking freedom in this open country. His wife is a Luna, a family of farmers who love the rich soil by the river, roots, and the tradition of living by the moon’s cycles. The sun and the moon have come together, but is it a sacred marriage of heaven and earth?
Influence of the Feminine Principle
Tony’s father wants him to take up the Marez ways, but his mother prays every day that Tony will become a farmer-priest and continue the path set by the Luna family. His mother, Maria Luna, embodies the feminine principle associated with her name, holding onto the power of cyclic time, and her source of strength comes from that lunar Queen of Heaven, the Virgin de Guadalupe, whose statue she kneels before every day. The Virgin is the Moon Goddess, the weaver and spinner of the thread of destiny, and it is she whom Maria implores for her son’s destiny in the Catholic Church. It is no coincidence that Saint Anthony is the patron saint of poor people, for Maria Luna prays that her son Tony’s destiny will also be worthy of sainthood, a priest beyond praise. The matriarchal influence that surrounds Tony grows even stronger when Ultima arrives.
Questioning the Matriarchal World
Antonio develops a bond with Ultima the moment she enters their house, addressing her by her first name rather than the respectful Grande, and his mother scolds him for this breach. But Ultima recognizes this connection between them and takes Tony with her every day to gather the plants and herbs she will use in her cures. He learns from her as she speaks gently to the plants she takes, explaining to them why she must take their roots from the earth. She teaches him that all of nature has a spiritual life, a presence. While Tony thrives in this matriarchal world of his mother, the Virgin de Guadalupe, and Ultima, he begins to question the spiritual beliefs of his mother as well as those of Ultima, torn between which one is the true belief, and then he discovers the spiritual presence of the golden carp from his friend Samuel.
The Golden Carp
It is bad luck to fish for the big carp that summer floods wash downstream. Like the big fish fighting their way back upstream to regain their abode and not be trapped, Tony struggles for his own evolution of the spirit. Samuel tells Tony the story of an ancient god who loved the people of the earth so much he turned them into carp instead of killing them for their sins. As the story evolves into a parallel of his own Catholicism, he learns that the god who loved the people turned himself into a fish, the golden carp, so he could take care of his people. Tony is confused about who is right-God, the Virgin, or the golden carp.
As Tony witnesses Ultima healing his family with her magic cures, he wonders if she is also stronger than the church and her saints. When Maria’s brother Lucas suddenly becomes very ill, feared to have been cursed by one of Tenorio Trementina’s daughters for stumbling onto her witchcraft, the family asks Ultima to use her power as a curandera to heal him. Medicine and the Catholic Church have not been successful. They accept Ultima’s condition: When anybody tampers with fate, a chain of events is set into motion over which they will not have control. They must be willing to accept this reality. They do and the grandfather pays Ultima $40 in silver-silver typifying once more the lunar feminine principle, to cure his son Lucas.
Good Is Stronger Than Evil
Ultima’s requests for supplies and quiet are met, but she also requires Tony’s assistance because, he says, his first name is Juan-John as in Saint John and John the Baptist-whose name means graced by God. Tony watches her rituals, the bathing of his dying uncle, the burning of incense, the ingesting of the potion of herbs, and the long hours of waiting. He knows he is in the midst of evil but he is not afraid. Ultima calms his fears, “Good is always stronger than evil. The smallest bit of good can stand against all the powers of evil in the world and it will emerge triumphant.” Tony will strengthen the good she can do because he is graced by God, a concept that is in alignment with his Catholicism.
Before Ultima forces the cure down Lucas’s throat, she sculpts three dolls from her magic oils and fresh black clay. She dresses them and lets Lucas breathe on them, and then she dips three pins in oil and sticks them into the dolls. Tony does not fully understand what Ultima has done until later when two of the Trementina daughters die. He is confused by her power that seems to be one with and yet greater than God’s.
Narciso, Dionysian Life and Death
Tony’s friend Samuel tells Cico about the golden carp. When Samuel leaves to herd sheep with his father, Cico takes Tony to see the coming of the golden carp, but on their way, they stop at the house of Narciso, a Dionysian figure who gets drunk in the spring and plants at night in the moonlight. When he is away and the two boys slip into his hidden garden, Tony understands what Cico means when he says, “The garden is like Narciso-it is drunk.” Tony is awestricken by the fruitfulness of this garden nurtured in moonlight, but in fear or perhaps superstition he will not partake of the bounty.
Narciso tries to warn Ultima of Tenorio’s intention to kill her in retribution for the alleged curse she has put on his second daughter who is dying. Tony, returning home in the snow from rehearsing the school Christmas pageant, secretly follows him. When Tony’s brother Andrew cannot break away from Rosie’s house of ill repute to help, the aging Narciso must go himself and Tony continues to follow him. Tenorio shoots Narciso, who lies dying under the juniper tree. Even though Tony is confused about his role in the Catholic Church, he makes the sign of the cross over Narciso and takes his confession, acting as the priest his family expects him to become. Succumbing to pneumonia, Tony dreams of the omnipresence of evil in his village as everything in it dies a violent death and is burned while the golden carp swallows all and glows as brilliant as a new sun.
Emptiness: Where Is God?
It is now time for Tony to study his catechism with the other boys at the church in preparation for his first communion, yet he still wonders if the golden carp is more powerful than the God of his Catholic Church. He wonders if the Virgin Mary or the golden carp rules in God’s absence. On Easter Sunday as Tony takes the wafer for the first time, he prays for answers to his question: why is there evil and death and torture? He feels only emptiness. He thinks, “The God I so eagerly sought was not there,” and he later confides to his teacher that growing up is not easy. He tells her, “Ultima says a man’s destiny must unfold itself like a flower.”
Again Tony is witness to Ultima’s power to cure as she performs rituals to lift a curse from Tony’s father’s friend Tellez. That night Tony still has received no communication from God. He asks, what really is God’s power? Cico tells him he must choose between the God of the church and the golden carp. As they watch the majesty of the God-like carp swimming in the creek, they decide that their friend Florence, one who could not take his first communion because he would not confess his nonexistent sins, has earned the right to witness the golden carp for himself. When they go to find him, however, they discover he has drowned in a swimming accident below the Blue Lake.
Tony dreams again, and in this dream everything he believes in dies-even Ultima and the golden carp. Distraught, he is sent to his uncles in Los Puerto to learn about farming. Before he goes, Ultima says, “Life is filled with sadness when a boy grows to be a man.” Tony asks his father if a new religion could be made. Tony’s father Gabriel Marez explains to his son that understanding does not come from God. It comes from experiencing life, and it takes a lifetime to acquire this understanding. He realizes Tony’s confusion about religion and healing, in particular, and he tells him that Ultima has no fear because “she has sympathy for people, so complete that she can touch their souls and cure them.” Tony grows stronger that summer from everything that has happened to him.
Ultima and the Owl: The Blessing of Antonio
But Tenorio’s second daughter dies and in his insanity, he first tries to kill Tony, who escapes him, and then goes to Guadalupe to find and kill Ultima. Instead Tenorio shoots the owl and, as he points the rifle at Tony, Pedro, who is Tony’s uncle, kills him with his pistol. Ultima, whose life is connected to the life of the owl, is dying. She whispers to Tony that she is like the owl, “winging its way to a new place, a new time.” Before she dies, he asks for her blessing. “Her hand touched my forehead and her last words were, ‘I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful, Antonio. 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 buries the owl under the juniper tree in the moonlight, symbol of his mother’s family. He covers the owl with the earth of the llano, the home and symbol of his father. Whether or not Tony has the maturity to comprehend the totality of the blessings as well as the evil accompanying his rites of passage, he nevertheless has been touched deeply by the feminine archetypes of the moon, the three fates, the river and the fish, the owl and the juniper, and the cyclic changes around him so that he will recall Ultima’s advice with greater understanding and wisdom as he grows into a man: “Take life’s experiences and build strength from them, not weakness.”