Bless Me, Ultima is a semi-autobiographical novel based on the New Mexican community of Rudolfo Anaya’s childhood. Anaya used his memory of his town, the Pecos River, Highway 66, the church, the school, and the surrounding villages and ranches as the inspiration for their depiction in his novel. Anaya also created clear similarities between the characters in the book and the characters in his childhood. Antonio’s parents are based loosely on Anaya’s parents: his father was a vaquero who was raised on the llano, and his mother grew up in a community of Catholic farmers. Anaya’s brothers were fighting in World War II for most of his childhood in the same way that Antonio’s three older brothers are fighting overseas in the novel. Moreover, similar to Antonio’s family and their treatment of Ultima in the novel, Anaya’s family was extremely respectful of the role played by the curandera in their community, reconciling the importance of folk medicine with their Catholic faith.
In addition to its ties to Anaya’s personal experiences and background, Bless Me, Ultima also relates to the larger historical and cultural issues surrounding New Mexico. A Spanish colony beginning in 1695, New Mexico was initially colonized for the purpose of converting the native Pueblo Indians. The Spanish built permanent communities for the Indians along the Rio Grande and introduced domesticated animals to the area, all while striving for religious conversion of the native communities. The Spanish recruited the native people to build mission churches in each of the new villages, but the Pueblo Indians finally rebelled in 1680 and drove the Spanish out of their land.
In 1692, the Spanish, led by Don Diego de Vargas, conquered New Mexico once more. This time, however, the colonizers were able to coexist successfully with the Pueblo Indians and established many communities in which Catholicism and Spanish language was combined with the culture and myths of the Pueblo Indians. New Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821 and eventually achieved independent statehood in the United States of American in 1910. However, the blended culture of the Spanish and the Pueblo Indians remained largely intact in small New Mexican villages for the first half of the 20th century.
In Bless Me, Ultima, this amalgamation of cultures is extremely apparent: the descendants of the Pueblo Indians still live according to a unique faith drawn from ancient native beliefs and Catholic doctrine and continue to farm the land as their livelihood. Moreover, Spanish remains the primary language, with Antonio only learning English after he begins to go to school.
During the 1960s and 1970s, at the time that Anaya began to write Bless Me, Ultima, the Mexican American population was finally beginning to flourish as an individual artistic community. In this period, known as the Chicano Movement, poetry, literature, music, and theater began to become integral parts of Mexican American culture, independent from the general culture of the United States. This movement was seen as a way to improve the economic and social lives of the Mexican American community while simultaneously rooting it in its own history and creativity. Because Anaya was one of the first authors to promote this unique culture in his novels, he is recognized by many to be the “father" of Chicano literature.