Bless Me, Ultima focuses young boy's spiritual transformation amidst cultural and societal changes in the American Southwest during World War II. Anaya's work aims to reflect the uniqueness of the Chicano experience in the context of modernization in New Mexico—a place bearing the memory of European and indigenous cultures in contact spanning nearly half a millennium. The relationship between Anaya's protagonist, Antonio and his spiritual guide, Ultima, unfolds in an enchanted landscape that accommodates cultural, religious, moral and epistemological contradictions: Márez vs. Luna, the Golden Carp vs. the Christian God, good vs. evil, Ultima's way of knowing vs. the Church's or the school's way of knowing.
"These contradictions reflect political conquest and colonization that in the first instance put the Hispano-European ways of thinking, believing, and doing in the power position relative to those of the indigenous peoples." (188) New Mexico experienced a second wave of European influence—this time English speaking—which was definitively marked by U.S. victory in the war between the United States and Mexico that ended with The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. According to Richard Griswold del Castillo, "The treaty established a pattern of political and military inequality between the two countries, and this lopsided relationship has stalked Mexican-U.S relations ever since."
Hispanos emigrated from Mexico to what was then one of the outermost frontiers of New Spain after Coronado in 1540 led 1100 men and 1600 pack and food animals northward in search of the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola.[c]
Thereafter, 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, reconquered New Mexico. This time colonizers were able to coexist with the Pueblo Indians. The Spanish established many communities in which Catholicism and the Spanish language 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 America in 1912. The mixed cultural influences and a long history of intermarriage among the Hispanos and the indigenous peoples (i.e.,the mestizaje) remained largely intact throughout rural New Mexico well into the 20th century. The colonization of New Mexico by Spanish colonists resulted, therefore, in a combination of indigenous myths with Catholicism. As the Hispano community's beliefs and ways of doing things interacted with those of the Native Americans a cultural pattern where indigenous myth maintained importance alongside Catholic doctrine evolved.
As modernization spread across the United States with completion of the transcontinental railway in the 1860s and establishment of the Rural Electrification Administration in the 1930s, isolated rural communities were changed forever. The Second World War in the 1940s also wrought change as young men were sent to far off places and returned to their homeland bearing the vestiges of violent, traumatic experiences and exposure to a cosmopolitan world.
Because of the horrors that Antonio's brothers experienced in the war, none of them are able to integrate themselves back into the quiet life of Guadalupe; Antonio describes them as “dying giants” because they can no longer cope with the life that they left behind when they went to war. Their decision to leave Guadalupe is indirectly linked to their experiences in the war. The impact of modernization and war, therefore, did not exclude the Hispanos and indigenous peoples of New Mexico as the boundaries of their previously insular communities were crossed by these external technological and cultural influences.
Anaya dramatizes the pressures of change in the New Mexican peoples' response to the detonation of the first atomic test bomb near Alamogordo, New Mexico July 16, 1945 as apocalyptic:
' The atomic bomb,' they whispered, ' a ball of white heat beyond the imagination, beyond hell--' And they pointed south, beyond the green valley of El Puerto.' Man was not made to know so much,' the old ladies cried in hushed, hoarse voices, ' they compete with God, they disturb the seasons, they seek to know more than God Himself. In the end that knowledge they seek will destroy us all--.' (Anaya, p. 183) as quoted in Tonn
Tonn reminds us that both the narrated time and the moment of the Novel's first appearance were periods of transition. The United States in the decades of the 1960s and 70's underwent a series of deep societal changes which some scholars deem as apocalyptic to U.S. society as the detonation of the Atomic bomb was to the New Mexican peoples in 1945. Berger(2000:388),cited in Keyword:Apocalypse, outlines two additional areas of post war apocalyptic representation after (1) nuclear war, and (2)the Holocaust. They are (3) apocalypses of liberation (feminist, African American, postcolonial) and (4) what is loosely called "postmodernity".
Anaya's writing of Bless, Me Ultima coincided with one of the principal upheavals of the move toward liberation, the Civil Rights movement including the Chicano farm labor movement lead by Cesar Chavez. Tonn points out that events surrounding the struggle for civil rights, the Vietnam War, the assassinations of John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, urban disturbances such as Watts and Detroit posed deep-seated "challenges to the dominant self-image of United States Society. . . ." "[. . .]leading to fundamental shifts in societal values and mores."
Tonn and Robert Cantú challenge the received consensus on the purpose of the novel and its relation to its past historical reality.
Development of an American Mestizaje, Antonio's Boon
After the Mexican Revolution of 1910, the state officially constructed a Mexican national identity policy on the proposition that Mexicans are the product of a creative mixing of Indians and Europeans—that is, about a fusing together of cultures. This doctrine is expressed in official rhetoric, mythology and public ceremonial. In practice, however, the emphasis on culture gets conflated with the biological mixing of races, mestizaje in Spanish. The Revolution's goals included returning to Mexico's indigenous peoples their dignity as full-fledged citizens by relieving them from a history of exploitation, providing them with material progress and social justice. In return for this, Mexican Indians would give up their old customs, speak Spanish and join the mainstream of national life, defined as mestizo, the biological issue of mixed-race parentage. Thus, the Mexican "Mestizaje" has come to represent a policy of cultural assimilation.
A number of Anaya critics and at least one Chicana novelist view his young protagonist's path to adolescence as a spiritual search for a personal identity. The result embodies the synergistic integration of both the cultural and biological aspects of his indigenous and European inheritances as the creation of something new. Antonio's successful quest provides the world with a new model of cultural identity —a new American Mestizaje for the American Mestizo known as the Chicano. This model repudiates assimilation to the mainstream culture, but embraces acceptance of our historical selves through creative adaptation to the changing world around us.
Margarite Fernandez Olmos comments on the novel's pioneering position in the Chicano literary tradition: "Bless Me, Ultima blazed a path within the Chicano literary tradition in the [genre] novels of identity in which the main characters must redefine themselves within the larger society from the vantage point of their own distinct ethnicity." (17) Others, such as Denise Chavez (Face of an Angel,1994) support Olmos' position. In an interview with Margot Kelly, Chavez concludes, "Anaya maintains that the kind of protagonist who will be able to become free is a person of synthesis, a person who is able to draw . . .on our Spanish roots and our native indigenous roots and become a new person, become that Mestizo with a unique perspective." In general, Amy Barrias' analyses of representative coming-of-age Chicano and American Indian texts, including Bless Me, Ultima allows her to conclude that because American Indian and Chicano(a) writers find very little in dominant culture on which to build an identity, they have turned inward to create their own texts of rediscovery. (16)
Michael Fink uses a wider lens to suggest that Anaya's seminal novel is a contribution to identity and memory politics that provides us with "a set of strategies of transcultural survival . . .[in which] former collective identities are eventually transformed into new hybrid identities of difference." (6-7)
Anaya uses strategies that employ the need for a mentor, and the return to ancient spiritual roots encompassing belief in magic, mysticism, and the shaman's trance. Fernandez Olmos remarks on mentorship: "In Bless Me, Ultima the figure of Ultima . . . is crucial. As young Antonio's guide and mentor, her teachings not only bring him into contact with a mystical, primordial world but also with a culture ——his own Hispanic/Indian culture—— that he must learn to appreciate if he is ever to truly understand himself and his place within society." (17) Amy Barrias cites the novel as a prime example of the use of magical intervention as the mediator, which enables Antonio to "emerge from his conflicts with a blended sense of identity. [He takes] the best each culture has to offer to form a new perspective."(iv)
Cynthia Darche Park focuses on the shaman 's initiation [d] as the spiritual experience that allows Antonio's transcendental integration of the conflicts with which he is struggling:
Through all that has transpired between them Antonio is ready near the end of his journey with Ultima to descend into the vast underworld, the great void of the unconscious where there are no divisions --neither of body and soul, nor time and space, nor matter and spirit. (194)
Anaya as mythmaker: Apocalypse as Revelation, The Hero's Journey,
The mythos of any community is the bearer of something which exceeds its own frontiers; it is the bearer of other possible worlds…It is in this horizon of the ‘possible’ that we discover the universal dimensions of symbolic and poetic language.
- Paul Ricoeur
Robert Cantú suggests that apocalypse as revelation is the ideological construct that best explains the novel's structure and purpose. His reconstructive analysis shows how Antonio, as narrator, solves and resolves his troubling metaphysical questions through a series of revelations mediated by Ultima and her otherworldly connections. As more and more is revealed to Tony, a transcendent reality is disclosed which is both temporal, insofar as it envisages eschatological salvation; and spatial, insofar as it involves another, supernatural world.
An ideology is a set of ideas that constitute one's goals, expectations, and actions. An ideology can be thought of as a comprehensive vision, as a way of looking at things (compare worldview), as in several philosophical tendencies (see Political ideologies), or a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society to all members of this society (a "received consciousness" or product of socialization).
Spiritual guidance and protection
Myth and magic as healing
Because healing is Ultima's mission, Antonio's relationship with her includes accompanying her to gather the curative herbs she knows about through tradition and spiritual revelation. With her Antonio visits the sick and begins to grasp a connection between healing and nature even though he never receives an explicit scientific or grounded explanation for how she foretells future occurrences, heals the infirm, combats witches through casting spells, or when and why she decides not to intervene. Ultima's indigenous and experiential pedagogy allows Antonio to intuit that her approach to healing includes a sense of who the afflicted person is, what s/he believes, knowledge of the healing powers of her herbs, and the limits of her power. He learns through assisting Ultima in the cure of his uncle that healing requires making himself vulnerable to sickness and to the spiritual as well as physical needs of the sick. With Antonio, Ultima's relationship as healer is also one of teacher. Cynthia Park considers the relationship between those two roles, and abstracts a set of life-giving principles that form the basis for Ultima's way of knowing.