by ROSE BRENNAN, A&E Editor
As part of my New Year’s resolution, I decided to read more books considered “classics.” I originally rolled my eyes at the “classics” when I was in middle and high school, but now that I am a bit older, I have a newfound appreciation for them, especially when they are as immersive and enthralling as Rudolfo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima.”
“Bless Me, Ultima” is narrated by a boy named Antonio Marez Luna, and primarily follows his relationships with his family and with a curandera, or witch doctor by the name of Ultima. Ultima, or La Grande as Antonio’s mother calls her, has special ties to the family because she delivered all six of Antonio’s mother’s children, with Antonio as the final child she delivered.
“Bless Me, Ultima” often uses flashbacks and dream sequences in order to provide the reader with a more all-encompassing experience and to overcome the shortcomings that are inherent with a first-person narrator. For example, the reader learns of a deep familial rift between Antonio’s father and mother during a flashback to the day of Antonio’s birth. Antonio’s father wants his son to be an adventurer, while his mother wants nothing more than for Antonio to be a priest. But Ultima intervenes, and states that only she will know his fate.
Years later, Ultima arrives at Antonio’s house in New Mexico in order to live out her final days with the Marez family. Antonio, now approaching seven years old, is originally intimidated by Ultima, but they soon grow to have a special relationship, contrasting greatly with the constant disagreements of his parents.
Originally, Antonio is very close to his mother in his younger years, and wants nothing more than to please her. He begins to internalize the idea of becoming a priest, but that worldview is disrupted by Ultima and by some of his friends at school, he then becomes unsure and disillusioned with the Church. However, he does find peace within Ultima’s spirituality, cementing their bond as friends.
However, Ultima the curandera is not without enemies, the most dangerous of them being Tenorio, a saloon-owner with three daughters. He and his three daughters perform a Black Mass and curse Antonio’s uncle Lucas. Tenorio becomes a sworn enemy when he discovers that Ultima lifted the curse on Lucas, and vows revenge against her when one of his daughters dies after the curse is lifted. He is a formidable enemy, and Antonio is terrified of him, but Ultima refuses to be afraid and continues to do her craft.
Antonio’s coming-of-age story is something that will resonate with a reader of any age. The same struggles of fulfilling one’s parents’ hopes and dreams, disillusionment with religion and forging one’s own unique path remain issues that readers must confront every day. And seeing Antonio confront those very same things proves to the reader that he or she is not alone in those formidable struggles.
“Bless Me, Ultima” is truly a masterpiece in terms of Chicano literature, and remains one of the most widely read pieces within the genre. And it is for good reason. It has been awhile since I personally have read a book in which I can be truly immersed and not get distracted. Antonio’s journey, along with the book’s poetic and descriptive language, in both English and Spanish, created a reading experience that I will not soon forget.
I read much of this book going back and forth to the city on the subway, and I can honestly say I do not remember a single second of any of those rides. I only remember “Bless Me, Ultima” and Antonio’s journey into manhood.