First published 1972
Reviewed by Luís Torres
March 8, 2012
Jesús Treviño, the man behind the curtain at Latinopia, had a solid idea. Why not take another look at some of the books that have become classics in Chicano literature? (I regularly write contemporary book reviews for a number of newspapers.) I thought Treviño’s idea was an excellent one and I agreed to be part of a team to take on the challenge. We thought it would be a good idea to begin with arguably the most storied Chicano novel of all time. We are talking, of course, about Rudolfo Anaya’s landmark novel “Bless Me, Ultima.”
First published by a small publishing house back in 1972 it has since sold nearly a half-a-million copies. It has satisfied readers, both Latino and non-Latino, with its impeccable storytelling and its universal analysis of the threshold between innocence and understanding, between wonder and awareness, between the power of the spirit and the presumed rationality of the intellect. It is about the power of myth and legacy. Now published and distributed by a mainstream publishing house, it is still enthralling readers. It has won the praise of critics and captured the hearts of readers in the United States and beyond. And deservedly so.
It is still captivating readers and winning critical praise. This year Anaya will be awarded the Robert Kirsch Prize for literature by the Los Angeles Times, an award recognizing lifetime achievement.
Reading the novel again recently was like encountering an old friend. Can it be that I first read it more than forty years ago? Has time raced that quickly? “Bless Me, Ultima” has become an iconic tapestry of Chicano literature, and it has inspired an entire generation of Latino fiction writers. Upon reading it again, it becomes clear why that is so.
The novel “holds up.” And then some. When we read a book that’s beautiful or somehow moves us, we are
participating in a process. We bring something to the book, based on our experiences and our perspectives. You are not the same person who read the book forty years ago, and so you imbue the experience with your own memories, recollections and, one hopes, insights into the world around us. And the book, if superbly written, isn’t exactly the same book either. It is certainly moored in the craftsmanship and thoughtfulness that made it compelling in the first place. Fundamentally, the book hasn’t changed, but we have. But, in a sense, the book has “evolved” as you, the reader, have evolved. Reading it again recently was an extremely satisfying experience. (In fact, I read “Bless Me, Ultima” a second time about twenty years ago when I was nearing the age of forty and it stood out not only as a wonderful work of art but as a reflection of my own life and frame of reference.) The third time was quite a charm.
For readers who were born during the Bill Clinton administration, maybe a note or two about the social-cultural cauldron that existed in Aztlán in the early 1970s when the book was first embraced by readers is in order. It was published at a time when college students were eagerly reading books such as Carlos Castañeda’s “Teachings of Don Juan.” A complex but marvelous experiment in writing and thinking. Was it anthropology? Was it pure fiction? Did it really matter? It stirred questions in us about the nature of reality. What really is? What isn’t? How the hell can we genuinely distinguish between them?
It was part of a cultural and spiritual quest that captivated many of us young Chicanos, most of whom were the first in their family to go to college and have the comparative luxury to indulge in such questioning. So, “Bless Me, Ultima” tugged at some of those same questions, but in a format and context wholly different from Castañeda’s “Teachings of Don Juan” and his subsequent books exploring those issues.
“Bless Me, Ultima” tells an engaging story of a Chicanito’s coming of age. It tells it in a context that is familiar and yet a bit mysterious to us all. Young Antonio wonders if understanding must come only at the loss of innocence. In his own way he ponders the sources of good and evil. He wonders about his place in the immediate world around him and in the larger universe. And it’s all told magically.
There’s a cast of characters including a benign and powerful curandera, town locas perceived to be brujas, drunkards, priests and prostitutes. And there’s no end of page-turning violence and action. A good story is a good story. And “Bless Me, Ultima” is certainly that, but it is much more. It’s an exploration into tradition versus contemporary reality. An exploration of the lessons of history and the unforeseen potential of the future. It’s an exploration of love and trust and meaning. It takes place in rural New Mexico, a place where the life of the wild, beguiling llano contrasts with the stolid life of the domestic farm. That is its specific geographic and temporal context. But its tale is transcendent; it is universal.
When the novel opens we meet six-year-old Antonio who is on the cusp of a process, despite his young age, of seeking to understand the world around him. As we’ll soon discover, he is torn between several seeming extremes. His father is a descendant of vaqueros of the llano who are crafted from a culture of independence and wanderlust. His mother is from generations of people of the earth, farmers who are linked to the seasons and the bounty that comes their way from being custodians of the nourished and fertile land. Antonio is also somewhat torn between two separate spiritual ways of being: there is the European Catholic church that gives sustenance to his mother and there is the broad and mysterious spiritual perspective that is shown to him by his paternal grandmother, Ultima.
Which side is he on? Which paths should he follow?
Ultima, a curandera who heals people because of her connection to an indigenous way of being and understanding, comes to live with Antonio’s family when the novel begins. Gradually she teaches Antonio about “good and evil” from a perspective quite different from that of his mother’s Christian god. But to Ultima, all things can work in harmony, if one’s heart is open. Antonio’s mother wants him to grow up to be a Catholic priest. Ultima suggests that he will be “a man of learning.”
We follow Antonio as he begins to make his way, trying to understand the world.
Antonio sees darkness and violence all around him. Among other things he sees a man being killed. He tries to reconcile all of this, wondering how a beneficent god can allow such things. Ultima becomes his teacher and his protector. But Ultima herself eventually faces a very serious danger and Antonio tries to protect her.
It is a riveting, sensitively told tale. And, as I say, it still holds up – on many levels. As it happens, I recently also reread Harper Lee’s phenomenal “To Kill A Mockingbird” after first reading it thirty years ago or so. Like “Ultima,” it decidedly “holds up.” And, now that I’m a bit of an anciano, there was more to it than there was before. The book hadn’t changed; I had. I believe – at least I hope – that my own growth and my own experiences made the book resonate differently and more meaningfully than it had before. It’s because of the solid work that it is, a work that allows our experiences to reflect the characters, thoughts and experiences in the book. That’s what outstanding writing is about. And that’s definitely the case with “Bless Me, Ultima.” It’s a delight to read for the first time and a new, fulfilling challenge with every time you revisit it.
On the fortieth anniversary of its initial publication it remains a stellar literary achievement. But it’s also a sign of our political times that the misguided book burners masquerading as legislators and school officials of Arizona have taken it upon themselves to ban “Bless Me, Ultima” as somehow subversive and politically dangerous. Yeah, a lot has happened in our culture since I first read this marvelous book so many years ago.
Pasadena, California, is at work on a
book that examines the 1968 East Los
Angeles high school student walkouts.