Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

The Importance of Moral Independence

An emphasis on thinking independently about moral decisions pervades Bless Me, Ultima. Antonio’s progress toward moral independence is the main marker of his maturity and development throughout the novel. Antonio’s struggle to reconcile the complexities of his experience with his religion leads him to conclude that he must make his own decisions. He becomes increasingly frustrated by the failure of the church to explain the most pressing questions about morality and human experience.

Ultima acts as Antonio’s guide as he learns the importance of moral independence. Ultima teaches him that the most difficult questions about life can never be answered entirely by a single religion or cultural tradition. Antonio has questions about evil, forgiveness, truth, and the soul, questions he can answer only for himself. Antonio once believed that the Communion ritual would answer all his questions, but Ultima teaches him that he must think for himself and arrive at his own conclusions.

The Influence of Culture on Identity

Bless Me, Ultima explores the difficulty of reconciling conflicting cultural traditions. In the end, Anaya suggests that a person can draw from several cultural traditions to forge a more complex and adaptable identity. Antonio is so eager to find a single, definitive answer to the questions that haunt him because he has been influenced by many conflicting cultures. The first major conflict involves his parents. His Luna mother wishes for him to become a priest, while his vaquero father wishes for him to ride the llano. Each parent has deeply rooted cultural convictions. Next is the conflict within his town between its Spanish and indigenous cultures. We see evidence of this conflict in the pronounced tension between Ultima’s mystical folklore and the Catholic church. Another conflict takes place at Antonio’s school between Spanish and English speakers.

Anaya uses these conflicts to explore the influence of culture on identity. Many characters in the book are limited by their cultural prejudices and never learn to look beyond their own assumptions. For example, the townspeople condemn Narciso for being a drunk and refuse to acknowledge that his traumatic experience in the war might play a part in his psychological state. Ultima teaches Antonio to avoid the limitations inherent in abiding by one culture, one religion, or one creed. Instead, Ultima encourages Antonio to embrace all of the cultural influences in his life to become a better person.

Growing Up and Loss of Innocence

Throughout the novel, Antonio struggles with what it means for him to grow up and wrestles with the man he wants to become. Antonio is initially afraid of growing up for several reasons. First, the idea of independence to him is sad and frightening. He dreads the first day of school both because it’s new and because he’s afraid of leaving his mother and needing her less. This association between growing up and abandoning one’s family continues with his brothers’ behavior. Eugene and León in particular speak of their parents almost scornfully. Second, for Antonio growing up means choosing what kind of man he wants to be—Márez or Luna. In choosing between these two lineages, he is bound to hurt at least one of his parents deeply. Finally, he’s worried about the association of growing up with sin. In the Catholic faith of his mother, losing one’s innocence is an inherently sinful action. Gaining knowledge itself has ties to sin, according to the story of Adam and Eve. At one point, María even states that boys become sinful as they become men.

Antonio ultimately discovers that while all these frightening elements are part of growing up, there are ways in which they can be fun and exciting. Instead of running directly home after school, he goes fishing with Samuel, which eventually leads to him learning about the golden carp. Not needing his mother for guidance thus gives Antonio the opportunity to explore and embrace new ideas and experiences. In the conversation Antonio has with Gabriel in the final chapter, he realizes that he doesn’t actually have to choose between the Márez and Luna ways of life and instead can combine them. This mature way of understanding his heritage can only be achieved through growing up. Finally, he gains a different perspective on innocence. According to Ultima and Gabriel, maturing and learning are normal and natural parts of life. While they acknowledge the sadness in losing one’s innocence, they also see it as an opportunity for independence, freedom, and better understanding. By the end of the novel, Antonio’s maturation has come with hardship but has made him a wiser and more empathetic person. Losing his innocence is ultimately painful but full of possibility.