Religious Quest in Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless me, Ultima
Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless me, Ultima falls within the tradition of Chicano literature in America. The hero, Antonio Marez is a child who grows up in a confusing environment, where cultural and religious influences pour on him from various sources. However, Anaya’s novel does not focus on the clash between the American culture and Mexican one. Despite the fact that Antonio struggles with the question of identity in a multicultural environment, his dilemma will not be solved through a process of acculturation. Significantly, his quest for identity involves both cultural and religious quandaries. His cultural heritage places him between two opposed beliefs: the Catholic influence coming from his mother and the pagan influence deriving partly from his father and partly from his spiritual guide, Ultima. The novel resolves these cultural and religious differences through a mythical cognitive perspective: as Ultima’s teachings show and as Antonio eventually comes to understand, the key to his dilemma is not the making of a choice but the unification of the disparate and apparently conflictive beliefs in a single comprehensive view.
The novel is replete with elements of magical realism specific to Hispanic literature. The names of the two families of which Antonio is the descendant, the Lunas and the Marez are highly symbolic. The mother’s family name, Luna, is an allusion to the moon as a fundamental natural element. Marez, the father’s name, hints at the seas. The interdependence of these natural elements during phenomenon of flux and reflux describes the cosmic axis that defines Antonio’s existence. The name symbolism associated with the two parents already implies that the apparently disparate elements will converge to form a single unit. The dreams that haunt the Antonio’s sleep, another mystical element, are filled with imagery relating to these two different sources of origin. The boy’s empirical as well as spiritual origin comes from two separate worlds. His mother’s world represents at once the feminine, the moon and the Catholic belief: “It is the sweet water of the moon, my mother crooned softly, it is the water the Church chooses to make holy and place in its font. It is the water of your baptism” (Anaya 120). His father, on the other hand, speaks to him in his dream about the golden carp, a pagan natural god: “Lies, lies, my father laughed, through your body runs […] the water that binds you to the pagan god of Cico, the golden carp!” (Anaya 120). The father is moreover associated with the seas and with the masculine, as fundamental principles of existence. The book is therefore dedicated to the boy’s restless quest of identity and his internal division between these separate beliefs.
Struggling to understand himself and his origin, Antonio wavers between opposite poles. He feels that, in order to become a whole man, he has to choose between one of these opposed attitudes and embrace it as his own. Significantly however, he is unable to dismiss any of these beliefs completely. Moreover, despite his young age, he witnesses events that accelerate his spiritual maturation. He watches several murders and he participates in the battle between good and evil. This battle is primarily symbolized in the novel by Ultima’s conflict with Tenorio Trementina and his daughters. While Ultima is a “curadora”, a woman that posses ancient wisdom and healing powers, Trementina’s daughters are considered “brujas” or evil witches. As these conflicts develop, Antonio experiences and understands the power of evil. He also encounters characters that make him doubt the Catholic doctrine as it was preached to him. One of these is his classmate, Florence, an atheist who shows him that his faith could be flawed. It is Florence who points out to him that, according to the Catholic belief, someone could perform evil throughout his life and be absolved at the very end when he confesses his sins.
The seed of doubt is further nurtured by an instance where Ultima shows the power of her pagan science and her herbal concoctions by saving the life of one of Antonio’s uncles. The fact that her art succeeds where traditional medicine had failed, makes Antonio question the truth behind the Catholic teachings: “The power of the doctors and the power of the church had failed to cure my uncle. Now everyone depended on Ultima’s magic. Was it possible that there was more power in Ultima’s magic than in the priest?” (Anaya 145). He is therefore continuously torn between the two strands of thought, wondering about the power of each of these two gods. It is through Ultima’s great unifying vision of reality however that the boy will finally come to perceive the plenitude of the universe. He learns that the existence of contraries does not have to imply division but rather unity.
Ultima’s teachings symbolically unify the boy’s different points of origin. She shows him that the circuit of water in nature is uninterrupted and that the waters of the moon and those of the seas are the same thing: “You both know . . . that the sweet water of the moon which falls as rain is the same water that gathers into rivers and flows to fill the seas” (Anaya 121). As for Antonio, he needs to see the universe in its wholeness rather than in its division: “You have been seeing only parts . . . and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all” (Anaya 121). As critic Therese M. Kanoza emphasizes, the essence of Antonio’s experience is the lesson that it gives with respect to cultural and religious difference. Instead of having to make a choice as he initially assumes, the boy understands that he should not see the different gods as competing forces but rather as powers that work together: “The thrust of Anaya’s bildungsroman, however, is not that maturation necessitates exclusionary choices between competing options, but that wisdom and experience allow one to look beyond difference to behold unity” (Kanoza 163). Still according to Kanoza, it is Ultima that teaches Antonio not to fear difference but rather to respect it: “Recognizing that the disparate elements of creation work in concert, she instructs Antonio to respect rather than to fear difference” (Kanoza 168). Ultima herself is a combination of all of these forces. She is respected as a sacred being even by Maria, Antonio’s extremely religious mother, yet she also entertains pagan beliefs. Besides her herbal remedies, she also makes dolls that she stabs with needles, a practice that is easily recognized as witchcraft. Ultima represents therefore, the confluence of the separate religions and the separate cultures. She is moreover a link between the Mexicans’ distant, indigenous past and their present. It is the old woman who initiates Antonio in history and tells him about his cultural roots.
Ultima reveals the truth of the necessity of unity as opposed to division. This is, at the same time, a religious and a cultural lesson. Ultima’s mythical perspective allows her to understand that to believe in division is not only an error but also an instrument of destruction. In her view, the symbolic separation of waters that hint at Antonio’s family origins would lead to an apocalypse: “Without the waters of the moon to replenish the oceans there would be no oceans. And the same salt waters of the oceans are drawn by the sun to the heavens, and in turn become again the waters of the moon. Without the sun there would be no waters formed to slake the dark earth’s thirst” (Anaya 121). Enrique R. Lamadrid points out that, Ultima’s power comes precisely from her mythical understanding of the world and her ability to see the universe in its totality rather than as a fragmented image: “The power invested in the mythical process is the knowledge derived from seeing the world as a totality and understanding its contradictions in a dialectical manner” (Lamadrid 247). Moreover, Lamadrid emphasizes that Anaya actually defines power in the novel as “as the ability to think and understand in a dialectical way” (Lamadrid 254). The lesson that the novel teaches in cultural diversity is not a conventional one: the aim should not be to assimilate other cultures or to understand differences but actually to regard them as essential for the totality of the world.
Symbolically, Antonio’s quest is resolved with his dream of a new religion, which would accept both Jesus and Cico as fundamental gods. In his ultimate vision, Antonio believes indeed in a new religion, a religion of plenitude: “Take the llano and the river valley, the moon and the sea, God and the golden carp–and make something new . . . can a new religion be made?” (Anaya 247). While the novel is not explicit about the time that has elapsed between the time of the events and the actual narration, the author remains confident that he will create his own identity by reconciling all the differences and seeing the world as a whole. The first contact with Ultima had made him feel a strange union with the entire world: “The four directions of the llano met in me, and the white sun shone on my soul. The granules of sand at my feet and the sun and sky above me seemed to dissolve into one strange, complete being” (Anaya 11). Likewise, in the end, Antonio comprehends that the world is whole and he himself is a complete being once he is able to perceive this wholeness.
Bless me, Ultima is thus an unusual Chicano novel. While obviously concerned with cultural differences and the search of identity in a multicultural environment, the novel does not focus on the character’s adaptation to an alien world. Rather, a solution is offered to cultural difference and the clash of religions and traditions: the mythical or archetypal perspective that unites all the disparate elements to make a whole. Ultima symbolizes the power of this mythical vision and translates its importance in the world. Not only does this vision bring harmony to the universe as well as to the individual, but it also safeguards against the destructions caused by wars and conflicts. Antonio’s experience is a symbolic one, hinting at the complexity of the world and the difficulty of understanding one’s identity.
Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. Berkeley: Tonatiuh-Quinto Sol International, 1972.
Kanoza, Theresa M. “The Golden Carp and Moby Dick: Rudolfo Anaya’s Multi-Culturalism.” MELUS. 24.2 (Summer 1999): 159-171.
Lamadrid, Enrique R. “The Dynamics of Myth in the Creative Vision of Rudolfo Anaya.” Pasó Por Aqui: Critical Essays on the New Mexican Literary Tradition, 1542-1988. Ed. Erlinda Gonzales-Berry Albuquerque, N.M.: University of New Mexico Press, 1989. 243-254.