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Bless Me, Ultima

Rudolfo A. Anaya

Cinco–Nueve (5–9)

Cuatro (4)

Diez–Once (10–11)

Summary: Cinco (5)

Pedro Luna, Antonio’s uncle, takes Antonio, his mother, his sisters, and Ultima to the Luna farms to help with the harvest. They stop first at the home of María’s father, Prudencio Luna. Afterward, they settle into the home of one of María’s brothers, Juan Luna, because it is his turn to host his sister and her children. Antonio overhears Juan urge María to send Antonio to them for a summer before Antonio is “lost” like his older brothers.

Summary: Seis (6)

That fall, Antonio begins school. When Ultima blesses him, he again feels a whirlwind sweeping around him. He recalls the evil whirlwinds on the llano, which he has been taught to ward off with the sign of the cross, and wonders why he feels the same whirlwind in Ultima’s presence. Reflecting on this similarity, Antonio wonders if the powers of good and evil are the same. María presses Ultima to name Antonio’s fate. Ultima replies sadly that Antonio will be “a man of learning.” In his first day, Antonio learns to write his name, much to his teacher’s pleasure. However, the class first laughs at him because he cannot speak English and because he eats green chili in tortillas for lunch. Feeling like an outcast, Antonio begins eating lunch with other children whose language and customs are different.

Summary: Siete (7)

The war ends, and Antonio dreams of three giants, his brothers. They ask for his “saving hand” because they are dying. Antonio wakes just in time to greet his brothers upon their return.

Summary: Ocho (8)

Antonio’s brothers spend the winter sleeping all day and spending their money on women and drink. All three of them suffer trauma from the war. Their parents say that they have “war-sickness.” In the spring, the brothers are restless to build their own independent lives, resisting Gabriel’s urgings to follow his old dream of moving to California with them.

Summary: Nueve (9)

Antonio dreams that his three brothers urge him to enter Rosie’s brothel. Antonio calls out that he must resist because he might become a priest. His brothers León and Eugene predict that he will eventually enter the brothel. Antonio begs Andrew to stay outside. Andrew promises not to enter until Antonio loses his innocence. Antonio hears the voices of a priest and María, who say that innocence lasts only until understanding. Antonio hears Ultima call out that his innocence is in the lonely llano. Antonio awakes to hear his brothers arguing with their parents. The brothers want to leave the family and strike out on their own. León and Eugene leave the next morning, but Andrew stays behind.

Andrew walks Antonio to school. The Vitamin Kid beats them in a race, calling Antonio a giant killer. At the end of the year, Antonio’s teacher, Miss Maestas, promotes him from first to third grade. After school, Antonio goes fishing with Samuel, the Vitamin Kid’s brother. Samuel asks if Antonio has ever fished for carp. Antonio replies that he hasn’t because to do so is bad luck. Samuel tells Antonio a story that Jasón’s Indian originally told. The story says that the gods sent the first people to the valley but forbade them to eat the carp. During a terrible drought, the people disobeyed the rule. One god pleaded for mercy, so the gods turned the people into carp instead of killing them. The god who saved the people grew sad, so he became a carp as well. However, he is larger than the other carp and golden in color. The story explains why eating carp is a sin. Samuel says that Cico, a local boy, will take Antonio to see the golden carp. When Antonio returns home, María is angry that he is so late. When she learns of his double promotion, however, she quickly forgets it.

Analysis: Cinco–Nueve (5–9)

Ultima’s prediction that Antonio will be a “man of learning” shows that her conception of learning is broader than that of some of the other characters. Her prediction is not necessarily a confirmation that Antonio will fulfill María’s hope that he become a priest. Her answer actually draws from a comment she makes earlier in the novel, when Antonio is trying to make sense of Lupito’s death and Ultima tells him that the ways of men are hard to learn. She seems to believe every man is a “man of learning” because acquiring life experiences is in itself a learning process. Ultima’s sadness may simply result from her awareness that Antonio will face difficult times or from a sense that his mother may misinterpret her prediction.

Bless Me, Ultima is largely focused on the difficulty of reconciling cultural differences, and Antonio’s entrance into school demonstrates one more way in which this difficulty pervades his life. There, he must address the conflict between Anglo and Chicano cultures, yet another set of identities for him to deal with along with the Spanish/indigenous and Luna/vaquero identities. Language plays a large role in his identity conflict at school, where his alienation is intense because he does not speak English. Anaya suggests, however, that even if he did, he would be unable to avoid confrontation with Anglo arrogance. Antonio struggles with his feelings of hurt and even resentment at his mother for sending him to school, another indication that Antonio is growing away from his childhood dependence on his mother. Coping with these feelings is basically the process of coping with change.

Antonio’s dream in Chapter 7, in which his brothers are three giants who ask for his “saving hand,” is open to many metaphorical interpretations, all of which address Antonio’s gradual entrance into adolescence. The dream could mean that Antonio is reluctant to give up his innocent, childish idea that his brothers are infallible and unchanging. It could also mean that they are dying because they have changed too much to settle seamlessly into their old lives. When they do arrive, they are restless and aimless. Finally, León and Eugene decide to build independent lives elsewhere. The dream also reveals Antonio’s awareness that the people he loves can sin despite his attempts to save them. Antonio also has difficulty coping with the idea that his brothers are men, not boys who will stay home with their mother.

Although Antonio loves to learn, his dream about the brothel reveals his anxiety about the morality of desiring knowledge. In this dream, he clearly associates knowledge of the flesh with sin. Antonio’s refusal to enter the brothel on the grounds that he may someday want to become a priest results from his anxieties over whether not fulfilling his mother’s wishes is immoral. In other words, he wonders if it is a sin not to fulfill her wishes. Anaya begins to link some of the thematic anxieties that have troubled the novel’s characters from the beginning: growing up, becoming independent from one’s parents, learning, and finding a clear moral framework in which to live one’s life. Seen within the context of cultural identity, these concerns lie at the heart of Bless Me, Ultima and become increasingly pressing on Antonio as he grows older and is forced to make independent judgments more regularly.

At the same time that the novel intensifies its treatment of conflicting cultural identities, it begins to resolve Antonio’s concern about growing older and leaving his mother. Although he spends much of the first several chapters of the book anxious about leaving his mother, once he actually arrives at school, Antonio solidifies his fragile new independence by forming relationships outside of his family. Some friends, like the Vitamin Kid, simply provide him with boyish fun. Others, like Samuel, are mentors as well as friends. Although Antonio suffers during the initial stages of developing a life independent of his mother, by the end of his first year of school, he begins to make decisions for himself. He demonstrates this self-awareness by choosing to go fishing with Samuel rather than returning home after school.

Once he has firmly acted on his new independence, he is ready to be exposed to an alternate religious view—the legend of the golden carp that Samuel tells him. The legend of the golden carp contains the same kind of moral themes contained in Catholic theology. The story involves sin, punishment, and forgiveness. Antonio’s open mind allows him to realize that both religions represent different ways of making sense of the same issues of life, death, good, and evil. Just as Antonio realizes Catholicism’s limits in understanding Ultima’s power, he realizes that other religions are equally valid forms of knowledge about moral issues. Like Ultima’s worldview, each religion simply provides a different set of principles and icons that people can use to understand the basic issues that define existence.

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