In Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio leaves his childhood behind and seeks to reconcile his conflicting cultural and religious identities. Although Antonio is only six years old at the start of the narrative, he already possesses a keenly questioning mind, a great deal of moral curiosity, and a solemn appreciation for the seriousness of life. Some of his traits are typical of children his age, such as his anxiety at leaving his mother to start school. In other ways, Antonio is extraordinary. He is much more serious than other children, particularly compared to his rowdy and vulgar group of young friends. He is also acutely sensitive to his ambiguous place in the world, as he is trapped between two competing cultural visions. His father is a vaquero who wants Antonio to ride the llano and appreciate the open prairie; his mother is a daughter of farmers who wants Antonio to become a priest. Antonio is deeply troubled about his own uncertain destiny, but Ultima, a folk healer, guides him in his efforts to understand the world.
After Antonio witnesses the death of Lupito, one of the town’s residents, his moral searching becomes even more intense, as he suddenly plunges into a crisis of faith. He becomes unsure for the first time about the validity of the Catholic faith. His intense desire to know the truth, one of the major components of his character, leads him into a spiral of questioning and uncertainty regarding sin, innocence, death, the afterlife, forgiveness, and the nature of God. For the rest of the novel, Antonio develops from childhood to maturity, as Ultima teaches him to make his own moral choices, to live in harmony with nature, to draw from all the traditions available to him, and to refrain from judging others when their beliefs differ from his own.
Ultima’s guidance leads Antonio to resolve many of the conflicts within and around him. He realizes that he can determine his future and that he alone will decide what he becomes. Though the novel is narrated by the adult Antonio looking back over his childhood, we never learn what Antonio does decide to do with his life, whether he becomes a priest, a vaquero or something entirely different. Ultima remarks sadly to María that Antonio’s destiny is to become “a man of learning,” and in the most general sense, this idea is probably more important than the question of Antonio’s career. Antonio is a man of learning because he understands that his experiences are lessons about life and because he knows that he must take life’s lessons to heart, even when they are difficult, painful, or disappointing.
The old healer Ultima lives and teaches the moral system that the novel espouses. Antonio’s relationship with Ultima is the most important bond in the novel. Ultima acts as Antonio’s mentor and helps him cope with his anxieties and uncertainties. Ultima claims a spiritual connection to Antonio that manifests its power in Chapter 1, when Antonio dreams of Ultima burying his afterbirth to keep his destiny secret from the arguing families of his parents. By presenting herself as the keeper of his destiny, Ultima immediately establishes a central role in Antonio’s psyche. Ultima uses her unique position of influence with benevolence, preferring to teach Antonio to think for himself rather than indoctrinating him with her own sense of morality.
Like Antonio, Ultima is grounded in both the indigenous and Catholic traditions. She understands that life and spirituality can be viewed in many different and equally valid ways. Although the Catholic church does not recognize her mystical powers, Ultima respects the wisdom of the Catholic faith and attends mass regularly. Her appreciation for multiple faiths and perspectives bolsters her conviction that each person must make independent moral decisions, rather than blindly trust any single authority. Ultima tries to instill in Antonio the same tolerance, independence, and open-mindedness that define her faith and outlook. This view compels Ultima to treat Antonio with understanding and respect, even when he is a small and obedient child. Rather than force Antonio to help her with Lucas’s exorcism, for instance, Ultima clearly explains what is at stake and allows Antonio to make his own decision. At the end of the novel, on her deathbed, Ultima treats Antonio as her spiritual heir, asking him to bury the owl that has symbolized her life force throughout the book. Though Ultima dies, her spirit and her influence will guide Antonio throughout his life.
At first glance, Gabriel appears to be a washed-up old vaquero, or cowboy, who lives in a state of nostalgic regret on a patch of barren land. Gabriel works a demeaning job, drinks himself into a stupor on a weekly basis, and frequently fights with his wife. But as the novel progresses, the depth and dignity of Gabriel’s relationship with the llano becomes clear. Even though he lives in a state of regret, he does so only out of his genuine fondness for the vaquero way of life. His choice to live on barren rather than fertile land results from his desire to be near the llano. His barren surroundings also support the idea that his family lives on the threshold of civilization and isolation.
The family’s in-between state causes a great deal of conflict between Gabriel and his wife, María, a Catholic who would like to live in a civilized town. For the sake of María and his family, Gabriel leaves the llano, moves to town, and begins to attend church. Gabriel continually demonstrates maturity, equanimity, and self-sacrifice in this vein as the story progresses. María tries to force Antonio to follow her family’s tradition and become a priest, but Gabriel does not coax him to follow his background and become a vaquero. Instead, Gabriel wants Antonio to become a vaquero only if he chooses that lifestyle. At the conclusion of the novel, Gabriel volunteers to put aside the conflict with the Lunas and help Antonio make his own choice about his future. Like Antonio himself, Gabriel has a serious and inquisitive mind. He has suffered hardship and bad luck, but he continues to strive to do the right thing and to help the people he loves.