Rudolfo Anaya: Bless Me, Ultima
Bless Me, Ultima is almost certainly the best known Chicano novel and it’s easy to see why, as it is really a very simple story about good versus evil but also very well told. It is narrated by Antonio (Tony) Márez, who is seven at the start of the novel. He is the son of Gabriel Márez (the connection with Spanish word mar, meaning sea is mentioned several times) and María Márez née Luna (= moon). His father comes from the plains, where the men are nomads, managing livestock, while the Luna family is more sedentary, growing crops. This is a conflict both in Tony but also in the family as Gabriel is always eager to move to California. Tony has five siblings. At the start of the novel his three older brothers are away fighting in World War II. They return unharmed but are soon eager to depart. His two sisters play a very minor role. The book opens with the arrival of Ultima, also known as La Grande, a curandera, though some call her a witch. She is now old and has no relatives, so the Márez family take her in.
Tony, who is not yet at school, assists Ultima, clearly both a very kindly and wise woman. The Márez family is, of course, Catholic though the men pay little attention to religion. María is a keen Catholic and wants Tony to become a priest. He is very keen on religion and on doing the right thing by God’s law but has two conflicts. During the course of the novel he sees three men killed violently and a classmate drowned accidentally. He wonders why God allows such things to happen. He gets little help on this issue and the priests seem very peripheral characters. More importantly, he is attracted to the old ways. He follows Ultima around and assists her in two major struggles with evil, where the traditional church has clearly failed and where she does win the struggle. He also follows a boy called Cico, who explains that the carp in the river are the people who used to live here and were turned into carp and that the golden carp, larger than the other fish, is a god there to protect his people. Only a select few get to see the golden carp and Tony is one of the few. He clearly believes in the role of the carp as a god. Anaya never deals with this conflict, suggesting that the old and new religion are entirely compatible with one another.
We follow Tony as he grows up. He goes to school, learns English, gets involved with other kids, has fights and so on but also tends to mix more with the outsiders like Cico. We also follow the events in his family. However, the key story is the fight between good and evil and, specifically, between Ultima and the Trementina family. Tenorio Trementina is a farmer and widower and has three daughters who, like their late mother, practice black magic. The first to be affected is Lucas, María Márez’ brother. He gets sick and looks as though he is going to die. Traditional medicine and priests have not helped so Ultima is called in. Assisted by Tony, she cures him. When one of the Trementina daughters dies, Tenorio comes to her house but her owl attacks him and, as she is able to walk through a door with a cross on it and thereby proves that she is not a witch, she is spared (though Tony later notices that the cross has either fallen off or been knocked off). She helps another family who are haunted by the ghosts of three Comanches. When the second Trementina daughter dies, there is the inevitable showdown.
Anaya is clearly so much in touch with the background of the story and the people of the region that you cannot help but identify and sympathize, whatever your views about either the old or new religion and about the good versus evil battle. Though the book is in English, Anaya uses a lot of Spanish phrases. If you do not know Spanish, this site may help you with these phrases.
First published 1972 by Quinto Sol