Myth plays a very prominent role in Bless Me, Ultima, both providing cultural background of the community described and directly helping Antonio in his individual development. The myth of the golden carp is certainly the most significant myth used in the novel, particularly because it helps to elucidate Antonio’s increasing anxiety and eventual acceptance of the differing religious beliefs that he encounters. The book also contains more minor myths that serve the function of simply giving the reader a glimpse of Mexican-American culture. One example of this is Ultima’s training in magic and beliefs in the harmony of the world. These myths and many other elements of the novel can be traced directly to the Aztec mythology that informs Mexican-American culture. An analysis of the myths Anaya uses becomes even more interesting when considering their origins in Aztec legend.
The myth of the golden carp finds its origins in a creation myth from Aztec culture, which was carried down to the Mexican communities of the present day. According to Aztec legend, there were four ages of the world or “suns” before the present world, each of which was destroyed by an individual apocalypse. The four ages were called “Tiger Sun,” “Wind Sun,” “Rain Sun,” and “Water Sun.” Although the progressive order of these worlds varies in different primary sources, the description of the “Water Sun” or “Atonatiuh” remains generally the same. According to this legend, the world was flooded with mighty waters, and all of the people were transformed into fish. A man and his wife survived the flood in a boat and became the parents of a new generation of people that would populate the fifth age of the world. The presence of this couple in the legend clearly relates to the Biblical story of Noah’s Arc, but the similarities with Samuel’s story of the golden carp are also undeniable.
Other elements in Anaya’s novel also relate closely to Aztec mythology about the present age of the world. The fifth age of the world is known as “Nahui-Ollin,” meaning “balance,” and is ruled over by the gods Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca. The significance of balance in the world of the novel cannot be understated. Throughout Antonio’s life, he attempts to create a balance between his religious beliefs, his family expectations, and the hopes of his mother and father. By the end of the novel, Antonio is able to reconcile all of the differences that he encounters and create a harmonious set of beliefs to guide his path in life. Moreover, Ultima herself asserts the importance of balance in their world as she lay dying. Because she and Tenorio upset the harmony of the world through their actions, both of their deaths were necessary in order to regain the natural balance. Ultima lived her life with the knowledge that balance must be maintained. Whenever she was unable to maintain the balance, she still chose to help others with the knowledge that her life would be sacrificed. Not only does Anaya highlight this belief in balance in Ultima’s character, he emphasizes it as a constant theme throughout the book.
Anaya also incorporates the prophesied apocalypse of this fifth world into his novel. In one of Antonio’s nightmares, he watches as a huge chasm in the ground swallows up his town and destroys all of the sinners. According to Aztec beliefs, the fifth age of the world would eventually face destruction from a massive earthquake, just as Antonio foresees in his dream. At the end of his dream, Antonio sees the golden carp giving birth to a new world and a new sun. This cycle of destruction, rebirth, and regeneration mirrors the process of creation that is described by the Aztec myth. For each of the ages, destruction was soon followed by the creation of a new world and a new sun, a chance for the world to regenerate and try again.
The figures of Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca also appear indirectly in the themes of the book that relate to this fifth age. Quetzalcoatl, characterized as a combination of a bird and a serpent, was believed to be the god of the priests, as well as the god of learning and knowledge. He was also associated with farming, as the giver of maize, and with the cycle of life and death. Tezcatlipoca, on the other hand, was seen as the opposite of Quetzalcoatl in many ways. One of four Tezcatlipocas, the black Tezcatlipoca was associated with the night winds, hurricanes, the earth, strife, and night. Quetzalcoatl and Tezcatlipoca were constantly at odds. In fact, the destruction of each age was thought to be a result of their fighting: Tezcatlipoca ruled over the first age until Quetzacoatl destroyed it, Quetzacoatl ruled over the second age until Tezcatlipoca destroyed it, and so on.
The rivalry between these two gods, who jointly rule over the fifth age, has many similarities to the conflict between the Marez and the Lunas described in the novel. Quetzalcoatl is clearly associated with the Lunas because of his affiliations with farming, priests, and knowledge. The Lunas prize these qualities above all others and hope that Antonio will become a man of learning and a farmer priest. Tezcatlipoca is less clearly related to the Marez family, but the god’s association with wind, the earth, and turmoil does link him to the wild vaqueros of Gabriel’s family with their penchant for wandering all over the world. In addition, Tezcatlipoca’s competition with Quetzalcoatl over the ownership of the world is comparative to the rift that develops between the Lunas and Marez over who will “rule” Antonio’s future. By the end of the book, however, the conflict between the two families is largely overcome; Gabriel Marez admits that the time of the vaqueros is ending and that Antonio should choose his own path by taking the best qualities of both backgrounds. In the same way, the decision for Tezcatlipoca and Quetzalcoatl to rule over the world in a partnership seems to demonstrate an acceptance of a shared responsibility and a return to balance.
Anaya’s decision to incorporate Aztec myths to such an extent in his novel demonstrates the significant role that these myths still play in Mexican culture. Throughout the novel, Antonio struggles to reconcile all of the clashing beliefs that he encounters, and one of the most difficult rifts is between the American culture he experiences at school and the Mexican culture that he experiences at home. By infusing his novel with this Aztec cultural history, Anaya gives his readers more insight into Chicano culture and adds more depth and history to the characters and conflicts that he describes in his writing.