Writing as an adult, Antonio Márez recounts events that occur when he was six years old. Ultima, an elderly curandera, or healer, comes to live with his family. The night before Ultima’s arrival, Antonio lies in his bed in the little attic above his mother’s kitchen. He hears his parents talking about Ultima. His father, Gabriel, says that Ultima is old, and though she has served the people as a healer her entire life, she has now been reduced to living alone out on the llano, the great New Mexico grassland near Antonio’s home. Antonio knows that his father is a vaquero, a cowboy, and loves the wildness of the llano, while his mother, María, is from the Luna family, who are all farmers, and prefers civilization. Long ago, María convinced Gabriel to move to the town of Guadalupe so that their children could have an education, and Gabriel still misses the life on the open plains of the llano.
Antonio is happy that his parents have decided to take Ultima into their home and to provide for her. As he drifts off into sleep, he has a dream in which he floats over the hills of the llano to the village of Las Pasturas and toward the window of a lighted hut. There, a woman is in labor, and Antonio recognizes that he is witnessing his own birth. After the baby Antonio is born, his mother’s brothers arrive and declare that he will be a Luna and perhaps become a priest. His father’s brothers declare that he will continue their tradition of restless wandering on the llano. Each family wishes to dispose of the afterbirth according to their family traditions: the Lunas seek to bury it in the earth, while the vaqueros seek to burn it and scatter the ashes across the open plains. Ultima halts the ensuing disagreement by stating that she will bury the afterbirth herself. She declares that only she will know Antonio’s destiny.
Antonio is anxious the next morning. He knows that he will soon begin school, and he is nervous at the thought of leaving his mother. He talks with his mother about his birth; she confirms that Ultima helped at her bedside, and she urges her children to treat Ultima with respect when the elderly woman arrives. She then strongly implies that she wants Antonio to become a priest. Troubled, Antonio decides to visit his friend Jasón but finds that he is not home. Antonio surmises that Jasón has defied his father’s wishes by going to visit an Indian who lives alone in the hills. Antonio returns home to work in the garden.
Later that day, Gabriel arrives with Ultima. When Antonio shakes Ultima’s hand, he senses the power of a whirlwind pass around him. He calls her by her given name instead of the customary salutation, Grande, and Ultima says that she knew when he was born that she would one day be close to him. Ultima’s owl takes up residence near Antonio’s home. Although owls are said to be a disguise taken by brujas, or witches, Antonio dreams that the owl carries the Virgin of Guadalupe and all the babes of Limbo to heaven.
From the beginning of the novel, Anaya links Antonio’s anxieties about change in his life to the culture in which he lives. Ultima’s entrance into Antonio’s life marks a stressful time of change for Antonio. Anaya emphasizes Antonio’s position on the threshold of change by portraying his nervousness about beginning school, separating from his mother, and facing his uncertain future. Because of the conflicted nature of his parents’ marriage, Antonio is essentially caught between two competing cultures, each of which carries its own set of expectations and assumptions. The vaquero lifestyle favored by his father emphasizes the values of independence, freedom, and mobility, all of which are manifest in the vaqueros’ love of the llano. The Luna family lifestyle favored by Antonio’s mother, on the other hand, emphasizes stability, productivity, and family, which manifest themselves in the Lunas’ desire to fence the llano and build towns. Even though Antonio is only six years old, his future already hangs between these two contrasting alternatives, and Antonio’s dream about his birth reveals the anxiety this pressure causes him. Ultima’s declaration that she is the one who knows Antonio’s destiny foreshadows Ultima’s role as Antonio’s guide in the process of reconciling his heritages and building a future out of both.
Ultima’s role as a curandera demonstrates the extent to which Chicano culture is a mixture of multiple, and often conflicting, influences. Curanderismo is the practice of folk medicine, a healing art heavily influenced by the knowledge and ancient religions of indigenous peoples. Curanderismo is associated with the treatment of both physical and supernatural illnesses. When Spanish Catholics arrived in the New World, they regarded curanderismo as a form of witchcraft and often killed those who practiced it. However, over the course of time, the intermixing between Spaniards and native people produced a mixed religious culture. In Antonio’s small town, curanderismo exists side by side with Catholicism and often in harmony with it. Anaya also illustrates this blend of religious belief in the portrayal of Antonio’s mother, María, who is a devout Catholic and yet respects and even reveres Ultima’s powers.
Antonio’s inherent trust of the old woman underscores Anaya’s implication that the Catholic Church cannot explain certain kinds of power, especially Ultima’s. The practitioners of curanderismo are still regarded with suspicion by many, a distrust that reveals a lingering conflict between European and indigenous religious practices. Antonio’s trust in her goodness reveals that Antonio is on his way to independent decision-making, because he can reconcile conflicting belief systems.
Antonio’s feeling of conflict results from the demands placed upon him to reconcile his parents’ radically different heritages. His attempt to do so forms the main discussion of the novel. María and her family have a profoundly spiritual relationship with the earth, which is symbolized by their desire to bury Antonio’s afterbirth in the ground. Their hope that Antonio will become a priest attests to their devout Catholic faith. The mystical character of their relationship to the earth is deeply tied to indigenous spirituality, while their devotion to Catholicism represents the extent to which European culture has shaped them. Despite the violent clash between Spanish and indigenous religions, a culture that contains harmonious elements of both has survived.
Gabriel’s family lives the vaquero, or cowboy, way of life. They are driven by the same adventurous, restless spirit that drove the Spaniards across the ocean to the New World, as their name, derived from the Spanish word for ocean, implies. They are also superb horsemen. However, Gabriel’s reverence for Ultima shows that his worldview is heavily influenced by indigenous culture. Like the Luna family, he has a spiritual and mystical relationship with the land, but he expresses it in a different manner. His love of the open llano is just as spiritual as the Lunas’ love of their farmland, but it embodies an incompatible view of the world. He cannot easily adapt to the slow and stable life of towns and farms, as we see in Gabriel’s general antipathy toward life in Guadalupe and in his deep nostalgia for life on the open plains.