Rudolfo Anaya (b. 1937)
Contributing Editor: Raymund Paredes
Classroom Issues and Strategies
Bless Me, Ultima is a bildungsroman and can be compared usefully to other works of this type, notably James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. Another important quality of Bless Me, Ultima is its heavy reliance on Mexican folklore, particularly such well-known legends as "La Llorona." There are many collections of Mexican and Mexican-American folklore that would give students a sense of the traditions that influence Anaya's novel. I recommend, for example, Americo Paredes's Folktales of Mexico (which has a very useful introduction) and Mexican-American Folklore by James O. West. Another important issue to consider is how Anaya tries to impart a flavor of Mexican-American culture to his work. In the excerpt from Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya uses Mexican names, Spanish words and phrases, and focuses on one of the strongest institutions of Mexican-American life, the Catholic church. If it is true that much of American culture and literature grow out of Protestantism, it would be worth examining how those parts of American culture that are based in Catholicism are distinctive.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
The protagonist of Bless Me, Ultima is Antonio, who is coming of age at the conclusion of World War II. Participation in the war has clearly had a dramatic impact on Antonio's older brothers, who now regard the rather isolated life of central New Mexico as dull and confining. Clearly, Antonio's community is in a state of transition and its citizens must face the inevitability of greater interaction with the world beyond their valley. Not far from Antonio's community, at White Sands, the atomic bomb is being tested. Anaya uses the bomb not only to represent the unprecedented capacity of the human race to annihilate itself but to symbolize the irresistible encroachment of modern technology not only in rural New Mexico but everywhere.
Perhaps the major question that Anaya confronts is how Mexican-Americans can retain certain key traditional values while accepting the inevitability--and desirability--of change. In dealing with this issue, Anaya places the boy Antonio under the tutelage of the wise curandera (folkhealer), Ultima, who prepares her charge for the future by grounding him in the rich Spanish and Indian cultures of his past. For Ultima, tradition is not confining but liberating.
One of the striking characteristics of Bless Me, Ultima is its critical stance towards Catholicism, which is presented here as rigid, intimidating, and, at least to Antonio and his friends, largely unintelligible. The Catholic God is punishing while Antonio and his friends long for a nurturing deity. In attacking certain aspects of Catholicism, Anaya follows a long line of Latin American, Mexican, and Chicano writers including José Antonio Villarreal and Tomás Rivera.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Bless Me, Ultima is a fairly conventional novel structurally, although Anaya does use such devices as stream of consciousness, flashbacks, and shifting narrators. As noted above, the key formal and stylistic question is how Anaya attempts to present his novel as a distinctly Chicano work of fiction. Again, Anaya employs Spanish words and names (a boy called Florence, for example, from the Spanish "Florencio") and focuses on important cultural events in Chicano experience. But for the most part, in terms of formal qualities and structure, Bless Me, Ultima is very much a contemporary American novel.
Bless Me, Ultima is a work that intends to explain and depict Mexican-American culture in New Mexico for a general American audience. Nevertheless, Anaya's presentation of Mexican-American culture is relatively "thick" so as to appeal to Chicano readers as well.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Bless Me, Ultima has clearly been influenced by Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Another interesting juxtaposition is with Native Son, Richard Wright's account of a young man--older than Antonio-- who comes of age without much of a sense of his past and with few prospects in the harsh, urban environment of Chicago. Anaya's presentation of the Catholic Church can be fruitfully compared to that of José Antonio Villarreal in Pocho; Anaya's focus on Mexican-American childhood is complemented nicely by Tomás Rivera's . . . y no sé lo tragó la tierra and Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
1. The excerpt from Bless Me, Ultima focuses on events surrounding Lent. Students can be asked to write about their experiences of this occasion or other important religious events. Comparing different sorts of religious experiences could be very useful.
2. As Anaya presents Catholicism, the Church emphasizes punishment and damnation rather than forgiveness and salvation. What is the effect on Antonio and his friends? How do they respond to church practices and rituals? Do students have any ideas about how religion might be presented to children more positively and successfully?
3. Have the students consider the bildungsroman as a literary form. Why is it so enduring? How would the students write one of their own lives? What would be the central experiences they would focus on?
See headnote in The Heath Anthology.