The orange of the golden carp appeared at the edge of the pond. . . . We watched in silence at the beauty and grandeur of the great fish. Out of the corners of my eyes I saw Cico hold his hand to his breast as the golden carp glided by. Then with a switch of his powerful tail the golden carp disappeared into the shadowy water under the thicket.
This quotation from Chapter 11 is Antonio’s description of his first sighting of the golden carp. The quotation is important because it represents Antonio’s most significant confrontation with a non-Christian faith. Stylistically, it is also an important example of how Anaya adapts his prose style to the emotional and psychological contexts of his characters’ situations. The golden carp is a natural, pagan deity compared to the Christian God Antonio is used to worshipping.
Anaya depicts the carp in a poetic style that emphasizes its awe-inspiring beauty, rather than focus immediately on the crisis of faith that the carp causes for Antonio. The language Anaya uses to describe the carp is simple, elemental, and powerful. Anaya chooses to have the narrator describe the carp rather than have Antonio tell us about it. This distance conveys the reverence that the carp inspires in the boys, who observe the carp in transfixed silence. Cico even puts his hand on his heart, a subtle gesture that conveys the depth of feeling that the carp inspires in the boys.
God! Why did Lupito die? Why do you allow the evil of the Trementinas? Why did you allow Narciso to be murdered when he was doing good? . . . A thousand questions pushed through my mind, but the Voice within me did not answer. . . . The mass was ending, the fleeting mystery was already vanishing.
This quotation from Chapter 19 depicts Antonio’s first Communion. The ceremony contrasts sharply with Antonio’s experience with the golden carp in Chapter 11. When Antonio sees the carp, he witnesses something elemental, magical, and miraculous without much effort and without immediately understanding its intellectual consequences. At his first Communion, Antonio attempts to experience a similar epiphany, but he tries so hard and is so full of questions and anxiety that nothing happens, and he is left disappointed. Antonio’s immediate, aggressive questioning of God, which begins as soon as he swallows the Communion wafer, is indicative of the impact of his moral quandaries—he is so anxious to discover the answers to his questions that he attempts to shout God down from heaven to ask him. His failure to find God is a further indication of the limitations of Catholicism, or indeed of any single religious system, to provide the answers to all of life’s questions. Antonio must learn to draw his own conclusions and to think for himself. He must learn to live in a world in which Catholicism and the golden carp can coexist, and he must grow to impart knowledge and enlightenment from all the spiritual forces in his life.
The tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart.
This sentence sums up the major thematic claim of Bless Me, Ultima—through all of life’s injustices and hardships, the power of the human heart prevails. Antonio has this realization in Chapter 22, when he realizes what Ultima has been trying to teach him all along. Antonio can experience the suffering of his friends and family and the string of tragic deaths that he witnesses, and still persevere and thrive. This quotation also resolves the tension between innocence and experience that arises from the moment that María first claims that it is a sin to grow up. Innocence is fleeting, but the “magical strength” of the heart is not. This “magical strength,” and not innocence, is the ultimate source of human goodness and hope.
I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful, Antonio. Always have the strength to live. Love life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evenings when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills. I shall be with you—
Ultima’s final blessing to Antonio in Chapter 22 clarifies Bless Me, Ultima’s moral standpoint. Ultima’s explicit association of her spirit with nature as she refers to the gentle wind, the singing owls, and the evenings, indicates her spiritual conviction about the connections that bind all living things. Her statement also gives Antonio a framework with which to understand her death by offering a sequence of physical objects that he can see as symbols of her life and through which he can continue to feel her presence. Antonio will be without Ultima and will have to make his own choices without her guidance from now on, but she makes it clear in this blessing that her spirit will endure with him and that the lessons she has taught him will still serve him well even after she dies.
In two days we would celebrate the mass of the dead, and after mass we would take her body to the cemetery in Las Pasturas for burial. But all that would only be the ceremony that was prescribed by custom. Ultima was really buried here. Tonight.
As Antonio buries Ultima’s owl in Chapter 22, he decides that he is really burying Ultima as well. Antonio’s statement emphasizes the conflict between the practices of Catholicism and indigenous mysticism. The Catholic burial offers one view of death, and the mystical burial of the owl presents another. Now, instead of feeling that he has to choose between the two, Antonio accepts both views positively. He can look forward to “the ceremony that was prescribed by custom” without feeling as though he is betraying God by believing that the burial of the owl is more spiritually significant than a Catholic ceremony. He can draw from each tradition and, as Ultima has taught him, become a stronger, better person as a result.