The novel opens with the adult Antonio Marez describing the events that occurred when he was six years old. For Antonio, his development begins not with his birth or with his first days of school, but with the arrival of Ultima, the curandera who moves in with his family the summer before his seventh birthday. It is with Ultima’s arrival that Antonio is first exposed to the magic of the world and the beauty and power of the llano.
The night before Ultima is due to arrive, Antonio lies awake in bed, listening to his parents talk about Ultima. Both of his parents speak of her with a great deal of reverence and awe. Antonio’s father respects her because she has been an important figure in his home village of Las Pasturas and shares his love of the llano. Antonio’s mother is even more attached to her because Ultima helped her in childbirth and was her companion during her lonely years on the llano. Antonio’s mother is concerned that Ultima must live alone on the llano during her old age and urges her husband to bring the curandera to live with them.
She is particularly empathetic to Ultima’s life on the llano because she was born to farmers and was not happy in the world of the vaqueros to which her husband belongs. While Gabriel Marez was happy as a cowboy, living off of the land, Antonio’s mother missed the religion and stability of town and the farm. Eventually Maria convinced Gabriel to move to the town of Guadalupe for the sake of their children’s education, but Gabriel still has not adjusted to the new life and misses his days as a vaquero. Although Maria is happy, Gabriel has lost the respect of his former compadres and spends his weekends drinking and dreaming of a free life in California.
After Maria and Gabriel argue briefly about their former days on the llano (Maria emphasizes that they were “hard days,” and Gabriel responds that they were “good days”), Gabriel informs his wife that he has already sent word for Ultima to leave the llano and come to live with their family. Gabriel is concerned about Ultima’s influence on the children because of her power to lift curses and knowledge of herbs and plants and ancient magic, but Maria alleviates his fear.
Antonio is intrigued by these brief descriptions of Ultima and, falling asleep, immediately begins to dream about his birth at Ultima’s hands. In his dream, Antonio sees himself drawn out from his mother by Ultima and then observes as the conflict sides of his family argue over his destiny. The Lunas, the family of Antonio’s mother, wish Antonio to become a priest and a farmer. His uncles and grandfather mark his forehead with earth so that he will be connected to the ground. The Marez vaqueros, the family of Antonio’s father, barge in and immediately refute the Lunas’ claim on Antonio. Antonio, they argue, will be a vaquero who wanders the llano on horseback. The tensions between the two families begin to heighten until Ultima asserts that only she will know Antonio’s destiny and path for life.
Antonio awakes from this dream with the sound of his father’s truck and desperately wants to see Ultima and the village of Las Pasturas for himself. Although he tries to dress quickly, he is unable to catch the truck before his father leaves, and he must wait patiently for Ultima to arrive. As he is surveying the landscape, Antonio notices the schoolhouse near the church and immediately voices anxiety about going to school in the fall. To rid himself of his anxieties, Antonio swiftly completes his chores and then eats a breakfast of atole and tortillas with his mother and two sisters, Theresa and Deborah.
Maria Marez coaches Antonio and his two sisters on the proper way to address Ultima when she arrives. She must be addressed as La Grande, Antonio’s mother asserts, and then reminds her children of the great honor that they should feel at sharing house with such an esteemed figure. As Maria prepares for Ultima’s arrival, Antonio asks her about the circumstances of his birth, wondering if his dream was a reflection of reality. Maria confirms the truth of Antonio’s dream, acknowledging that the Lunas and the Marez fought ferociously over Antonio’s destiny until Ultima took charge. As Maria begins to enumerate of the many negative qualities of the Marez, Antonio reflects on the fact that his dream was reality and becomes even more anxious to meet Ultima face-to-face.
While he waits, Antonio runs to see if his friend Jason is home. He is not: his mother sadly explains in Spanish that Jason is visiting his Indian, a figure of whom Jason’s father severely disapproves. Disappointed, Antonio returns home, and shortly later, Ultima arrives. Theresa and Deborah make their introductions exactly as Antonio’s mother had requested, saying clearly, “Buenos dias le de Dios, Grande.” When Antonio faces Ultima, however, he is transfixed by her eyes and feels the power of a whirlwind wash around him when he takes her hand. Unable to say his mother’s coached introduction, he calls Ultima by her first name. Antonio’s mother tries to chide him, but Ultima quickly intercedes, explaining that she has a special bond with Antonio because he is the last of the Marez children that she helped to birth.
Antonio also notices that Ultima is accompanied by an owl that sits near the house. Although Deborah and Theresa are frightened of the owl, Antonio is strangely comforted by its presence and dreams of the Virgin of Guadalupe being lifted into heaven by the owl.
This opening chapter immediately sets up one of the main conflicts of the novel: the conflict between the Luna family and the Marez family. While Antonio’s mother desperately wants him to follow in the footsteps of his Luna ancestors and become a priest, Antonio’s father would prefer that he becomes a vaquero and lead a free life on the llano. Antonio’s anxiety and resistance to change is demonstrated by his nervousness at attending school in the upcoming months. Not only does he not wish to be separated from his mother, he is anxious about what the future holds for him and what destiny he is expected to pursue.
This conflict is characterized in Antonio’s dream where he actually sees the two sides of his family fighting over his destiny. Even though Antonio is only six years old, he already feels the pressure of these conflicting desires and does not know how to deal with both familial expectations. The schism between his own desires and that of the family for him foreshadows a battle that will plague him all his life. The only comfort to Antonio is Ultima’s presence at his birth and her declaration that she is the only person who will truly know Antonio’s future path. As such, Antonio looks forward to her arrival at their house because of the insight that she might give him into his future.
This chapter also outlines the first introduction of Ultima as a significant character in the novel and the dichotomy that exists between pagan beliefs and Catholicism. In New Mexican culture, Christianity is tied closely to the pagan beliefs and myths that defined the native communities before the arrival of the Spanish colonists. Although Ultima is a curandera with the knowledge of herbs and plants, she is also a Catholic who adheres to Catholic holidays and expectations. Yet, her Catholicism does not overshadow or even necessarily equal the scope of her other power, a fact which is highlighted in the mob scene at the end of Chapter 12.
Both of Antonio’s parents respect Ultima, but Antonio’s father is still wary of her position as a curandera and the power that is said to go with it. His concern that she might have a negative influence on their children goes hand-in-hand with his appreciation for her from the perspective of a vaquero. Antonio’s mother, on the other hand, is devoutly Catholic, but chooses to overlook the pagan elements of Ultima’s life to view her as a close friend. In both cases, Christianity and pagan beliefs are not mutually exclusive but somehow coexist in the culture of Guadalupe.
Antonio’s immediate trust of Ultima also demonstrates this uneasy balance. If Ultima were evil or an antagonist against Catholicism, Antonio would not be able to feel so comfortable in her presence. Moreover, even though he knows that owls are usually the symbol of a bruja, or witch, Antonio somehow senses that Ultima’s owl is different. Although religion cannot explain Ultima’s powers, Antonio and his family are still able to acknowledge and embrace her as both a curandera and a Catholic.