Symbols are objects, characters, figures, or colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The golden carp represents a magical religious order not connected to Catholicism. The golden carp legend offers its own brand of wisdom, comfort, and moral guidance. Within the context of the novel’s themes, the carp supports the idea that every religious tradition offers different, but equally valid, lessons about the world. Antonio first rejects the golden carp, feeling that he is abandoning God by simply pursuing an interest in the magical fish. He learns later that the carp can actually help in his endeavor to draw from all the cultural and religious sources available to him in crafting his own identity and finding his own answers.
Ultima’s owl represents her life force and the power of her religious mysticism. The owl sings softly outside Antonio’s window at night. Its song symbolizes Ultima’s comforting presence in Antonio’s life and the protective power of her magic. At the end of the novel, Tenorio’s killing of the owl literally destroys Ultima’s life force and leads very quickly to her death. Antonio equates Ultima with the owl—when he buries it, he says that he is really burying Ultima.
María’s statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe symbolizes forgiveness, understanding, and the resolution of cultural conflict. The story of the dark-skinned Virgin represents the reconciliation of the European Catholic Church with the indigenous culture of Antonio’s homeland. Antonio turns to the Virgin repeatedly when he is frustrated by his failure to find a forgiving god.