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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.
Ace your assignments with our guide to Bless Me, Ultima!