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Bless Me, Ultima: The Cultural Distress of a Young Society

An answer to the discussion question of whether or not there is a
defined border culture would need a great number of years in field research, but
we can also observe a few of the characteristics of such border culture just by
looking at scholastic essays and books related to the topic.  Within the
research that I did, I found a number of scholars who, while defining the border,
mention all the specific or special characteristics of this new emerging society,
but who also very few times defined it as such.  In the book that I researched,
Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo A.

Anaya, we find many of those characteristics.
There is already  much work on this piece of literature, therefore, I decided to
present my research and study in two ways.  First, I will give a personal
analysis of the work, in which I will discuss the different topics and
parallelisms that I believe are related to an emerging border culture, and
second, I will discuss and complete analysis made by Roberto Cantu,  published
in The Iden tification and Analysis of Chicano Literature.
The novel by Rudolfo Anaya Bless Me, Ultima, was printed in June 1972,
but won the first price in the Second Annual Premio Quinto Sol Literary Award in
The main characters of the novel are Antonio, his father, mother, two
sisters, three brothers, Tenorio and his three daughters, and Ultima.  The
argument presents how a child, (Antonio), matures in one year, thanks to the
different episodes that he goes through.  Antonio, a seven year old child,
narrates in first person, and describes the events that changed his life from
the moment that Ultima arrived at his house.  During the beginning of the book,
his thoughts and actions are typical of such age, but as the events take place,
Antonio changes and matures incredible fast through the text.  It is even hard
to find where the changes in his behavior take place, due to Rudolfo’s smooth
literary transitions.
Carl and Paula Shirley condense their presentation of Bless Me, Ultima
by simply mentioning the story line of the book:
She (Ultima) is present from the boy’s earliest experiences growing
up, family conflict, school, religion, evil and death…  Much good in
this novel, beauty, magic, New Mexico landscape, legends… (Shirley and
Shirley, 105).
All of this is true, but there is more that they did not mention.  The
novel is full of inner conflicts.  Each of the story lines of thought of Antonio
represents not only a personal conflict, but also a social one.  An old society
vs. a new one, Spanish vs. English, good vs. evil, Catholics vs. Protestants vs.
legends, the town vs. the llano and so on.  In each one of them we can see the
formation or foundation of a new society ruled by Antonio’s generation.  A new
society not yet aware of itself, but new nevertheless.
For a better understanding of my analysis I have defined several
different components that present essential keys in the underlined development
of a border culture.  The development if the Mexican border culture is called to
be a mixture of two worlds.  Tom Miller says that:
Ironies and contradictions thrive on the border between the US  and
Mexico, a region that does not adhere to the economic, ethical, political, or
cultural standards of either country (…) It is a       third country of its
own, its own food, its language, its music (…)   It is a colony onto itself,
long and narrow, ruled by two faraway powers.  (Tom Miller, xii)
In the same way, Anaya’s description of Antonio’s life represents
ironies and contradictions, first in a main cultural collision of Mexican and
Anglo culture, family structure and language; and then, in more deep levels of
religion, and basic understanding of oneself.  Inner fights and double realities
are present through out Antonio’s development.  Ramon Saldivar does an extensive
study of Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, and as well as Shirley and Shirley, he seems
to be afraid of calling or recognizing a representation of a border culture.
Saldivar says:
Bless Me, Ultima thus can be said to capture in the form of romance
critical and complex transition period in literary-cultural history of the South
west:  the simultaneous existence within   Chicano communities of pre-Columbian
myths, beliefs, legends    and superstitions, and mid-twentieth century
technological, literate mass media culture. (Saldivar, 108).
As I mention before, Bless Me Ultima presents the struggle between two
different life styles and cultures.  On one hand, we have the Mexican
traditional life style: Antonio’s father was a men of the llano, a vaquero;  his
mother is from a family of free farmers.  On the other hand, we find a very
strong influence of American individualism.  We see this influence in Antonio’s
three brothers: after they returned from W.W.II, their parents are hoping that
they would become part of their family again, but the three brothers decide to
have a life of their own: not as farmers, not as vaqueros, not as highway
workers, not even in the same town, but an independent life in the states.  Only
one of them decides to stay, but not for long.  Due to these series of facts,
Antonio lives a struggle in his mind.  Should he become a farmer or a priest as
his mother wanted?  Should he decide his own future no matter what the
consequences are?  Talking about his families Antonio says: “I love them both,
and yet I am o f neither (Anaya, 38).
At he same time, Antonio is going to school across the bridge, to an
American school.  This is one of the most important aspects of his cultural
development as well as our main point in identifying a border culture.  There is
a two level explanation for this chapter:  first, we have to remember that
Antonio’s father Gabriel was a men of the llano, a vaquero who thought that
freedom is the most important thing in anyone’s life.  Gabriel blames the Texans,
(Americans), over and over again for putting fences across his llano, across his
freedom.  Gabriel never gets accustomed to the life in the city.  Furthermore,
he drinks more and more, and looks forward to the visitors of the llano who come
to his house once in a while to remember old stories.  His Mexican culture is
too strong.  There will be no possible adaptation for him.  In the same way,
Antonio goes to school,  He does not understand English, and therefore does not
understand the kids in the school.  He knows that the kids are laughing at him
because of the way he speaks, the way he behaves, the way he looks and the
things he eats.  In a way,  his freedom , his culture and understanding of life
do not make sense anymore.  Now, the difference between Antonio and his father
culture collision is that Antonio gets accustomed to it.  In a while it does not
bother him anymore.  Why?  The reason is simple:  there were other kids like him
in school.  A sense of mutual bondage, due to cultural differences makes this
group of kids to stick together and question life on their own.
Language and relationships are also another important part on Antonio’s
culture construction.  Soon after Antonio’s family moved to New Mexico, Tono and
Antonio became Tony and Anthony.  Furthermore, we see how the kids in school
used a mixed Spanish and English, especially to swear: “Ay Dios!  ” , “La
verga!”, “La Chingada!”, “se chingo!”, “Ay Diablo!”, “Ah la veca!”, “The hot
beans flavored with chicos and green chile were muy sabrosos”.

Also, Antonio’s friends are also different.  It was shocking to Antonio
that his friends were no longer dark skinned with dark eyes and hair.  He
mentions that some of them were tall with clear eyes and blond hair.
Furthermore, it was even more shocking  that those new light kids were speaking
in Spanish.  The fact is that he was no longer in the land of Mexico.  He was no
longer in a protective environment.
Antonio comes from an strict catholic environment.  There is nothing
else but Catholicism.  His mother wants him to become a priest as one of her
ancestors was, but Antonio is battling a struggle of his own.  He is now going
to school with Protestant kids.  Also, one of his best friends tells him the
legend of the Carpa, a God who decided to become a fish to save his people, but
who will let the town sink on their own sins.  Antonio is afraid of loosing his
faith.  Different episodes of the book make him question his traditional faith.
He believes that God is just and omnipotent, but he also sees how innocent men
die, and their murderers get free.  His is also witness of the impotence of a
priest to save his uncles life, when then Ultima cured him with her magic.
Antonio is confused and afraid of God’s justice.  I the same way, we find a
parallelism or personification of the three people in God in his family. God, as
the powerful father makes the decisions.  The Virgin Mary represented by the mot
her who intercedes to the father for the abolition of punishments for the sons.
Then, we have the holy spirit, represented by Ultima and the owl.    The pure
women who has never sin, whose power and magic is the power of truth and good.
When the holy ghost came to the apostles, they knew what to do.  Words are never
mention.  In the same way, Ultima never told Antonio what to do.  She would
simply bless him and suddenly he would feel a power through him that would make
him almost faint.
Moreover, not only his faith is the question but also his background.
His mother is a Luna, family of farmers.  His father is a Marez, family of the
Llano, wanderers and vaqueros who come from the conquistadores, men of the sea.
Antonio’s inner conflict represents yet another parallelism.  The sea and the
moon are interconnected.  The sea is a brave and powerful element, yet, the moon
moves it every day.  In other words, the sea is controlled by the attraction of
the moon who moves it back and forth.  In the same way, we may say that
Antonio’s passion, blood, or impulse are like the sea, but his thoughts, his
common sense comes from his mother’s part of the family, from the Lunas.  In
other words, where he comes from, what he is, and how he is supposed to behave
is the conflict that it is going on inside him.
Each person on the novel plays and important part on Antonio’s life and
struggle to find the true meaning of life and himself.  Moreover, the most
important person in Antonio during these years, and probably for the future is
La Grande.   Ultima represents the old, the tradition.  The contact that they
have with each other is more on the spiritual level: the old and the new
creating a new form of relationship.  Antonio does not look for this bondage
with Ultima.  It is Ultima who lets Antonio get close to her, and therefore,
meaning that she, the old and traditional, gives permission to the new to bond
with her.  This is to live and learn from the past to better adapt it to the
In conclusion, we find that Antonio is living a continuous struggle by
questioning all he ever knew.  His culture, language, religion, his family and
his background.  The answers to this continuous questioning will be the
development of a new culture which will be an unconscious forced mixture of two
worlds colliding, which resulted from the alienation that Mexico and US cultures
subjugated each other.
Roberto Cantu does an great job in analyzing the book by Anaya.  The
reason of my study is because Cantu divides the novel in three underlined worlds
of “Universe, world, and Antonio” which he explains by looking at the past,
present and future actions in the book.  On the other hand, Cantu does not
mention or recognize the new society as such.  As we will see in the next pages,
the three levels of time are directly involved with the development of a new
subculture which calls “Regeneration, New Life and New Universe”.
The Universe and the three time periods are obiously related to the
context of the old testament.  The legend of the Carpa nad the imminent Flood
are the garden of Eden and the destruction of such.  What is very related to ou
topic is that Cico, (the friend who tells Antonio the legend), and a group of
friends trully believe that their city will sink under the lake in which now
lays upon.  Only the good citizens, the ones who do not sin will be able to save
themselves.  Then, they are waiting for the end, for the imminent folld in which
they, the group of comrades who have everything in common will only be saved.
The rest of the world who allietes them will be destroyed.  Then, the Universe
will be ready for a New Universe, in other words for a new culture: their
Roberto Cantu divides his analysis of the World in three parts:
“language, religion and family” (Jimenez 378).  While talking about the language
sued in Bless me Ultima, Cantu mentions the use of Spanish words, the different
fluctuations of the language, the poetic tone, the energy and narrative tone of
the writer, and probably every single aspect of the text that he thought
pertinent.  But Cantu also says:

Uno de los principales deberes de la escuela es, obviamente, el de ensenar al
Chicano el idioma ingles, facilitando de esta manera una sana adaptacion al
medio ambiente. (Jimenez 380)

The relationship between language and a border identity is right under his nose,
but he does not want to mention anything about it:
Ahora bien, en vez de mejorar su situacion, o por lo menos de   ampliar
las facultades comunicativas del mismo, “incomunica” al chicano, separandole de
su familia y de su cultura (lengua,     historia), a la par que mantiene cierta
distancia de la cultura sajona.  En otras palabras: que no asimila facilmente.
(Jimenez, 380) Yes.  He is right. The Chicano gets further from its own culture
but never assimilates the Anglo system. That is what makes it a sub-culture!  As
Cantu and myself mentioned before, language is the first signs of the border
culture.  Shirley and Shirley agree by identifying the following:
Many Chicanos, especially in urban areas, speak and understand a third
language called Calo, or Poncho, or Pachuco.  This mixes  English and Spanish
grammars, structures and vocabulary to form         a hybrid language; it
combines both languages while adding new  words and structures. (Shirley &
Shirley, XV)
What other prove do we want.  In page 39, 51 and 162, we find the
following constructions:  “The hot beans flavored with chicos and green chile
were muy sabrosos”.  “Only ricos could afford school”.  “Muchacho (…) I need
There is no much else that I can say about proving that there is a
significant border culture embodied in the language.  The quotes and the writers
speak by themselves, even though they do not call it anything.
At nay rate, Cantu goes ahead with the second part of his world analysis,
religion.  He presents good ideas when he says: “Church is degraded” ((Jimenez,
382).  Moreover, he quotes Bless Me, Ultima: “los dioses estan muriendo, if the
old religion could no longer answer the questions of the children then perhaps
it was time to change it” (Anaya, 233).  Of course.  It was time to change it.
Let’s just simply ask and answer some questions: Who what’s to change it?  The
children.  Why?  Because it does not answer their questions.  What questions?
Well, the questions about themselves and their new environment.  The children
are still to young to understand that they are in a new culture.  They are
between the ages of 7 and 11 and already feel that they do not belong in their
surroundings.  What else should we look for?  The children are lost in a world
that is not theirs, therefore, they have to create their own, a personal world
that answers their questions, an new culture, an new border culture.
In the third part of the world analysis Cantu is very clear.  The
greatness of Antonio’s ancestors.  His mother’s family, founders of “El
Pastoral” , rich farmers freed to work for anyone but themselves.  His father’s
ancestors, who came to be conquistadores.  Then, degradation.  His father and
his mother, two completely different people who never communicated.  Antonio’s
brothers who leave the family tradition to work on their own in the states.
Antonio is his parent’s only hope for regeneration:

Se sugiere el advenimiento de una familia en al que campeara la armonia y la
comunion de objetivos vitales (…) se nos revelara la solucion de este
conflicto historico en un cabal mestizaje –    ideologico, cultural- que supera
el meramente sanguineo. (Jimenez 384-385)

Cantu cannot get any closer to say that there is a representation of a
new evolving border culture in the text.
In his last part, Cantu explains Antonio’s inner conflict.  His
ancestral and different heritage of the Lunas and the Marez, the degradation of
his family and his religious and cultural ideas, and finally the “regeneration
onto a new life” (Jimenez 385).  Now, what exactly does Cantu mean by a new
life?  As we have seen along this paper, I have proved that there is a new
border culture being born during each one of the episodes of the story.
Furthermore, through all the research that I have done, no one has even mention
the possibility of an emerging new culture within the book.  Does Cantu
recognize this culture? I believe that he does, but as well as all the other
writers, he does not want to acknowledge it.  Why?  That is another paper topic.


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