Bless Me, Ultima
As the summer comes to an end, Antonio spends his mornings walking with Ultima, gathering herbs and medicines from the llano. During this happy time, Antonio grows to love both the llano and the river. Ultima teaches him that plants have spirits like people and tells him stories about the old days. Antonio realizes that Ultima is happiest when she is out on the llano, and her happiness helps him to realize that he too is a part of the llano and a part of nature. Antonio tells Ultima that he will soon visit his mother’s brothers, and Ultima tells him that she is an old friend of his mother’s father. He asks her why his Luna relatives are so quiet, and she replies that it is in the Luna blood to be quiet like the moon, just as it is in the Márez blood to be loud and restless like the sea. (In Spanish, la luna means “moon” and el mar means “sea.”) Antonio feels the presence of the river and wonders again about Lupito’s soul.
Back at home, Antonio and Ultima dry the plants on the chicken shed. María tells them over dinner that, as Antonio had expected, it will soon be time to visit the Lunas to help with the harvest, a yearly ritual that keeps Antonio close to his grandfather and uncles. Antonio spends the rest of the afternoon playing at Jáson’s house and then cuts wild alfalfa by the river to feed to the rabbits.
Every night, Antonio’s family prays before María’s statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a beautiful, two-foot-tall likeness of the Virgin in a blue gown. Antonio loves her because she always forgives; the Virgin is his favorite saint. He knows that she is the patron saint of his land. On the foot of the statue a little paint has chipped away so that the white plaster is visible, and Antonio thinks of the plaster as the Virgin’s pure soul.
That night, Antonio hears Ultima’s owl singing its mournful song outside his attic window. Antonio slips into sleep and has a dream in which the Virgin speaks to María. The Virgin promises María that his older brothers will return home from the war safely. When María asks her to make Antonio a priest, Antonio sees the Virgin wearing the clothing of mourning for him while standing on the moon. When he cries out in his sleep, Ultima comes to comfort him.
Because Anaya’s audience likely has had little previous experience with the culture he describes, Ultima is a mentor figure not only to Antonio, but also to us as readers as well. She relates both to Antonio and to the general reader cultural beliefs about the spirits of plants in nature and also historical information about Antonio’s indigenous ancestors and about the Spanish in Europe. Ultima’s guidance introduces Antonio to his cultural identity as a Chicano. The knowledge she conveys to him is particularly important not only because Antonio will be in school soon but also because of the changes his culture will face as it integrates with a modernized world. In particular, Ultima’s advice that Antonio does not need to choose between his parents’ conflicting wishes for him gives Antonio the resolve to move beyond his parents’ split views. Ultima’s lessons illustrate a deeper desire: she wants him to listen to the voices of the land and his heritage. She believes that this knowledge will help him build his future out of the pieces of his ancestral past.
Although María’s devout Catholicism represents the Spanish elements in her cultural tradition, the form of Catholicism she practices is naturally a mixture of both Spanish and indigenous elements. The legend of the Virgin of Guadalupe is partly an allegory of the cultural and racial clash between Spanish colonists and indigenous peoples. When the Spanish came to the New World, they launched an intense campaign to convert indigenous people to Catholicism. The legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared to a native man who was baptized with the Christian name Juan Diego. However, she appeared with the dark skin of the indigenous peoples of Mexico. She told Juan Diego that she wanted a church built on the hill of Tepeyac, the former location of an Aztec temple destroyed by the Spanish colonists.
The Virgin is the embodiment of both the novel’s main forces of conflict and their inherent resolution; the Virgin both defines and heals the cultural struggle that preoccupies Antonio and his world, and she is thus a figure of extraordinary psychological importance in the book. Her story relates the original conflict between the indigenous peoples of Mexico and the Spanish colonists. Juan Diego, as a native man, had a great deal of difficulty getting an audience with the Spanish bishop. The bishop refused to believe Juan Diego’s story. When the Virgin appeared to Juan Diego for the fourth time, she instructed him to pick some roses to take to the bishop as proof for his story. Juan Diego obeyed her. When he opened his cloak to spill the roses out in front of the bishop, the image of the dark-skinned Virgin Mary was emblazoned on his cloak. Thus the bishop constructed a small church on the hill; it was later replaced with a larger, more elaborate church, the Basilica. The dark-skinned Virgin Mary became known as the Virgin of Guadalupe, sometimes referred to as the Queen of Mexico. Representations of her image contain deep reds and blues, prominent colors in Mexican indigenous artwork.
Antonio’s relationship to the Virgin of Guadalupe highlights his growing moral awareness. Before, he was largely concerned with sin and punishment. In this chapter, he begins to include forgiveness as an element of moral dilemmas. He views the Virgin of Guadalupe as the sweet, forgiving mediator between sinners and a wrathful, unforgiving God. His dream about the Virgin of Guadalupe reveals that he has begun to consider the possibility that he too can sin. He dreams that she prays in mourning over him, implying that she is asking God’s forgiveness for him.
The dream also reveals Antonio’s developing awareness of his own mortality. The dream has multiple meanings. It is possible that the Virgin is mourning his death. It is also possible that the dream means that becoming a priest does not save Antonio from sin as his mother wished. It could also mean that Antonio disappointed his mother’s wishes by not becoming a priest. The dream symbolizes many of the conflicts that plague Antonio as he grows out of his childhood ignorance and innocence. It represents his preoccupation with sin and punishment and the possible significance of disobeying his mother’s wishes for him. He is struggling to integrate his developing independence into a defined moral structure. The absence of a clear line between right and wrong in the dream illustrates Antonio’s struggle with moral ambiguity. He is afraid of the inevitability that he will increasingly be subject to moral judgment as he grows older. However, he does not have to be alone while he makes the journey into the adult world of moral decision-making. Ultima is there to comfort him when he awakes.
On a subconscious level, Antonio relates to Ultima in the same way as he does to the Virgin. Throughout Bless Me, Ultima, Ultima is referred to as the mujer que no ha pecado, or “the woman who has not sinned.” Antonio also had a dream that Ultima’s owl flew the Virgin to heaven. His parents frequently inspire the fear of punishment and judgment, but Ultima does not. Antonio reveals thoughts and feelings to her that he is not comfortable revealing to his parents, and in this way, she is the living embodiment of understanding and forgiveness, just as the Virgin is the iconic embodiment of understanding and forgiveness.
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