A Religious Struggle
Only a few books dare to discuss the confusion surrounded by a religious awakening. In Bless Me Ultima, Richard A. Anaya, Premio Quinto Sol national Chicano literary award recipient, challenges standard religion and brings in different ideas through the perspective of a young and confused boy. Due to the new ideas that he is introduced to, the events that occurs especially deaths, and his eagerness for knowledge all leads Antonio to question his religious beliefs. At the end of his struggle to understand, the boy reaches the peace of mind he was seeking.
Throughout the book Antonio is introduced to many new ideas. The first is the experiences he has with Ultima. Ultima is a healer who learned her techniques from an old wise man on the llano or prairie. She is sometimes called a bruja or witch. This confuses Antonio because in his heart he knows Ultima represents good and not the evil she is sometimes blamed for. Antonio learns some of the ways of Ultima and begins to understand his surroundings. He knows the name of almost every plant and what medicinal use each has. As the novel continues there is a stronger interpretation of Ultima’s powers as she heals Antonio’s Uncle Lucas. This is the beginning of good versus evil or god versus the devil, Lucas had seen Tenerio’s daughters performing devil worship in the woods and in return the daughters placed a curse on his hair. When the curse was revoked by Ultima it went into effect against the daughters and as they began to die Tenerio went into an evil rage against the powers of Ultima. Antonio was then introduced to the Golden Carp and the story of the waters surrounding the town and its influence, which also allows Antonio to question the influence of god within his life, and the new power behind the carp.
The next revelation for Antonio is the myth of the golden carp. Antonio learns about the golden carp from Cico, a friend of his. According to Cico, the golden carp was once a god who loved the people of Antonio’s town, Guadalupe. The people were not allowed to fish for the brown carp that lived in the river that flowed around the town. These fish were sacred to the gods. However, because of a drought and no food, the people had to eat the carp to survive. This angered the gods. They wanted to punish all the people by death but they relented from killing the people. Instead, they turned the people into carp and made them live forever in the waters of the river- (80). The god who loved the people wished to become a carp like them to protect them from the dangers of the river. The gods agreed and because he was a god they made him very big and colored him the color gold (81). Antonio cannot believe there is a new god and seeks answers from Ultima. Ultima is pleased that he has learned so much, but says she cannot tell him what to believe for he must decide for himself. The Golden Carp represents all the questions Tony has about religion and morality. Tony’s confusion is due to conflicting forces in both these aspects of life. When Cico first introduces the Carp to Tony, he is forced to make a tough decision, “Do you believe the Golden Carp is a god?” which he skillfully evades until he has the information he wants to make his decision (106). After the emergence of the Carp, Tony begins to question his Catholic upbringing, and he wonders why God punishes people. This is when Tony begins to set his idealism aside and truly looses his spiritual innocence.
In the early part of the novel Antonio already starts to begin questioning his relationship with God. The events that occurs throughout the novel especially deaths has a huge impact on the struggles he has with his religious beliefs. In chapter one Antonio takes his first steps toward his loss of innocence, “The brown water would be stained with blood, forever and ever and ever.” Lupito’s death is the first time that he is faced with death, and begins his questioning of God. This is when Antonio first begins to have doubts about his religion.
The second time that Antonio experienced death occurs as Narciso runs through the blizzard to warn Ultima of Tenerio’s relentless violent threats as his second daughter was dying. Antonio did not have time to run for a priest or Ultima as he lay dying under the Juniper, so Antonio took it upon himself to perform the religious ceremony preparing Narciso for death – another influence of god and religion. “It is good on the hill of the llano, beneath the juniper,” these are the last words of Narciso before he died. This leads to Antonio becoming sick, and within his dreams questioning the influence of god and justice within his life. Throughout this time the bond of Ultima is near him as she cares for him, as he is sick.
In the final chapters Antonio could only concentrate on his communion during the remainder of the school year. To him the entrance of god into his body would answer all of his questions. His excellent dedication to the church after school everyday further reinforced his mother’s dream for his entrance into the priesthood. During the novel, Tony bluntly admitted that he did not believe in god and when the boys were forcing Antonio to pretend to be the priest before confession, he sincerely admitted he had no sins and also questioned God. He is still not satisfied even after his First Communion, thought I had felt His warmth, but then everything moved so fast. There wasn’t time just to sit and discover Him like I could do when I sat on the cread bank and watched the golden carp swim in the sun-filtered waters (221). He expects to hear God answer all his questions the second he drinks the wine but he hears nothing from the God he pursues: A thousand questions pushed through my mind, but the Voice within me did not answer. There was only silence (221). The entrance of god into his life did not answer the questions that were plaguing him. He doesn’t know what to believe. The only thing that has proven completely worthy is Ultima and her magic.
In the final scenes of the novel the evil of Tenerio overcomes all as he first attempts to kill Antonio, and then goes to kill Ultima. Antonio arrives just in time to see the killing of the owl, Ultima’s spirit that was tied to her when she was a child by the wise man who taught her how to live with the land and plants. Antonio then goes to bury her spirit in his own peaceful burial under a forked juniper tree as she instructed. By being blessed by her it shows that he has possibly grown from the idea that he is tied to the church by being a deep spiritual individual and accepting that there may be more powers than that of god. Ultima allowed him to see the world differently, and accept her powers especially in Antonio proclamation, “Bless Me Ultima.
For someone of his age, Antonio has a strong yearning for knowledge. He is “driven by the desire to make the magic of the letters and numbers” (58) and works hard, “eager to learn the secret of the magic.” (76) At school, while others “cry…and wet their pants” (58), Antonio spends his time in the corner “writing his name over and over.” (58) Even Ultima praises Tony’s willingness to study, saying, “he learns as much in one day as most do in a year.” (81) However, Tony’s drive for knowledge is not restricted to books; he also “seeks more answers” (71) about God. He tries in vain to find the answers why people are made to “suffer for Old Eve’s sin,” (196) why “…didn’t God make this earth free of evil things” (196), and of why “The Old Man…left Florence all alone” (195) with no family. By asking these questions, he subconsciously challenges the validity of the church, using the excuse that “he is not yet ready to understand” to repress his heresy. Antonio hopes that “when he makes communion, he will understand.” (187)
Antonio’s desire for knowledge nurture a growing wisdom. Feeling only “emptiness…to the God within him,” (221) the “…thousands of questions that push through his mind…” are still unanswered after his first communion. (221) God’s failure to answer Antonio’s questions allows Tony to realize the truths of religion and that his answers cannot be answered by God. “Used to think everyone believed in God,” but now understands that there are “many gods.” (237) His final dream reveals the death of all the faiths and beliefs, and even the “magic of Ultima…dies in agony.” (244) Now he understands that “if the old religion can no longer answer the questions of the children, then perhaps it was time to change it.” (248) Furthermore, from his father, Antonio discovers “most of the things people call evil are not evil at all; it is just that people do not understand those things and thus call them evil.” (248) Most importantly, Tony’s wisdom is complete once he is aware that “understanding comes with life” (248) and that he is “seeing only parts…and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all.” (121)
Antonio wants answers to the questions that have been nagging at him since he was introduced to religious ideology. He does not understand why Ultima, a close elderly friend and a curandera or healer, can save his dying uncle from the curses of evil while the priest from El Puerto with his holy water and the power of God cannot lift the curse from him. He wonders whether God really exists or if the Cico’s story of the golden carp is true. Bless Me Ultima, is a compelling story that deals with Antonio’s family, beliefs, and dreams.
Anaya’s writing successfully integrates the confusion of a young boy who wants answers to topics over his head with a wonderful story. By weaving three subjects in a continuous pattern the stories tie into each other. Anaya uses many Spanish phrases, which are very effective and bring a real life quality to the book. He also uses dream sequences, which accentuate Antonio’s confusion. With such topics it can be hard for a book to flow lightly but with comical scenes and interesting characters scattered throughout the book, this is possible. Anaya uses deep descriptions that do not bore the reader but give insight to the surroundings of the characters. Although writing is not easy, Anaya creates a masterpiece story that satisfies the mind.
The theme of Bless Me Ultima is one of finding what beliefs are right for the individual by experiencing each one characteristically. This relates to our society in so many ways. People follow many different religions, but many are not content with their current situation. They want to learn more and discover the religious idea that suits them. Richard A. Anaya has brought this theme of religious confusion into the literary world and may help many confused people like Antonio find what they are searching for.