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
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 s
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, 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 s
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.