Joe Barrera: Looking at Bless Me, Ultima

Rudolfo Anaya’s New Mexican novel, Bless Me, Ultima, is complex, appealing to readers on many levels. A salient characteristic is the union of the protagonist, the boy Antonio, with nature, something that this work by a Chicano writer shares with 19th century romanticism and American Transcendentalism. This is not so unusual. Anaya is writing an American novel, even if that is not appreciated by readers. But Chicano literature, if properly understood, is plainly a type of American literature, and there many kinds of American literatures. The desire for communion with nature is an integral part of classic American literature. We can think of Melville’s Moby Dick, or Walt Whtiman’s poetry, and, of course, Emerson’s essays, and Thoreau’s Walden. This quality is also integral to Chicano literature.

Some find this kind of mysticism to be the main attraction in the novel.The beauty of the natural landscape and the love that the sensitive Antonio has for the New Mexican “llano,” or plains, creates the reverence for the numinous that sets the tone for the events in this Chicano “bildungsroman,” or coming of age novel. For Antonio, coming of age above all means learning “curanderismo'” or the art of healing, and the traditions of his own people. Unlike other bildungsromans, in which the boy desiring to be a man abandons his roots, Antonio must grow closer to them, not withdraw from them, as his older brothers do. Ultima is his teacher in this path to true self-awareness. 

In his quest to discover the secrets of nature Antonio is guided by his spirit helper, the “curandera” Ultima. “Ultima” in Spanish means “the ultimate or last one,” and that is appropriate because when she vanishes there will not be another like her. The term “curandera” means “healer,” and that is what the old woman is, a powerful healer with the ability to heal not only ordinary illnesses, but even the strongest spells and curses laid by the witches and shapeshifters who populate the mythical landscape in which Antonio grows up. Like any good mythic story, Antonio manifests as an epic hero, journeying into the dark realms of antagonistic monsters and evil spirits and doing battle with them, but also into the light-filled regions of ancient patron gods, primarily the Golden Carp, who is a type of ancestor. He is aided by his spirit helper, and returns with a boon for his people, a gift that he wins by his courage and faith in Ultima. This boon is his status as a messenger, conveying the message of cultural authenticity to a people thrown into the maw of technological Anglo American culture, personified by the explosion of the first atom bomb in 1945, which is the time of the novel, at the White Sands Test Range. The Chicanos are in danger of losing their hearts and minds to the soulless machine, a perpetual danger for a powerless minority. To counter this, Antonio returns as a healer in his own right, ensuring the continuation of the traditions and knowledge essential to the survival of the people.

Because it is a “mestizo” novel, Bless Me, Ultima is also about  the perennial struggle between the blood of the Spaniard and the blood of the Indian. “Spaniard” and “Indian” are never mentioned in the novel. But the conflict is plain, even if implicit in the character of Antonio, in the contrast between the Mares (seas) blood of his father, and Luna (moon) blood of his mother. The Mares are horseman, passionate and restless, and like the Spaniards, they have traversed the ocean. The Luna side are farmers, patient and stoical like the Pueblo Indians, obedient to the cycles of the moon and bound to the earth which has nurtured them for a thousand-years. As is typical in the type of Latin American mestizo literature which does not gloss over the Indian half of the equation, this conflict plays out in the person of a protagonist, usually a male character, who has to find his way in life simultaneously pulled in opposite directions. The hero, Antonio, manages to successfully balance the polarities, no mean feat and one that makes Bless Me, Ultima a valuable tool in the education of the young Mexican Americans who seek to understand themselves.

Jose Barrera

Joe Barrera: First the Night Then the Dawn

I am writing during Holy Week, the time of the passion. We are in the middle of our own passion right now. Not passion as in an intense emotion, though that can be part of it, but “passion” as in a test of faith and courage, and above all, love. Passion means to endure pain to the  bitter end. In our culture Christ is the foremost example of this kind of passion. On Good Friday we naturally think of him. No matter how you feel about him, Christ heroically endured unspeakable cruelty. He suffered the scourging at the pillar with a Roman whip called a flagrum. The Roman soldiers used this instrument of torture,  leather thongs with the knuckle bones of sheep or lead weights tied at the ends, meant to tear flesh. Most likely they almost killed Christ with this punishment. But it wasn’t over. He was then nailed to a cross and died a tortuous death of asphyxiation.

Plagues, or disease outbreaks, are a trial, a  passion, and there have been many in history. We know about the Ten Plagues of Egypt. The tenth plague, as described in Exodus, mortally afflicted the first born in Egyptian families. The Bible story describes a mysterious disease which struck children, but older people, too, since they also can be the eldest in families. In this respect it’s just like the coronavirus. The series of disasters befalling the Egyptians was meant to coerce them to free the Hebrew slaves, which they stubbornly refused to do. An unjust social order had enslaved the Israelites but God intervened to correct the imbalance.

It’s not the fashion nowadays to consider epidemics (pandemics when they spread to multiple countries), or any kind of disease outbreak, as punishment from God or Nature. But sometimes it does seem to be that way. In our case, we can look at Covid-19 as an alarm bell in the night alerting us to necessary changes in our attitudes and behaviors. It’s not hard to see what needs to change. To give one example, we have been discharging so many green house gases into the atmosphere that the planet is in serious, even mortal danger. But since the world-wide lockdown green house gases have been drastically reduced. In spite of the economic harm we know that any reduction in carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and methane is a good thing for Mother Earth. Can we change our habits and permanently stop global warming? Another good thing is the change in our social behavior. From the almost mindless frenzy of our hectic lives we have assumed a gentler, slower, more unselfish pace, paying more attention to others even if we have to maintain social distance.

We pride ourselves on our advanced medical science, but it can border on hubris. The coronavirus is a reminder that “pride goes before the fall.”  We have been shocked into an awareness that this is just the latest in a long line of plagues. Like all the others it is a an enemy which we do not know how to defeat. So much for our proud medical science.

The most notable pandemic was bubonic plague, the Black Death, which struck the Byzantine Empire in the 6th Century and then returned in the 14th Century and wiped out 25 million people in Europe. It was caused by a bacterium known as Yersinia Pestis, transmitted by fleas infesting the large rat populations common in medieval times. And then, of course, there was the Spanish Flu of 1918-1919 which killed 675,000 people in the U.S. and 50 million world-wide. This disease actually originated on Kansas pig farms, crossing the human-animal barrier. The novel coronavirus also crossed the human-animal barrier.

But there is hope. We are now enjoying Easter, the resurrection which nullifies death, and which also reminds us that there is order in the cosmos, a good end to everything. The way it all works is that there is always an accounting, some payment which must be rendered for our behavior, our bad thinking, our arrogance. This is not just a religious thing. We are reminded of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, when he pronounces the price that the nation must pay for the American original sin of slavery, “…until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword…”

Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He teaches American Literature, Military History, and Southwest History and Culture.

John Lewis: Stepping Down

Due to changes in my professional life over the last year, I am no longer in a position to provide the time and energy toward the Almagre Review as a biannual publication. I am stepping down from my editorial role in deference to these circumstances.

It has been an honor to work with each and every contributor the last few years — with six novel length editions containing stories and poetry from people all over the world. I have learned an enormous amount about this process of bringing narrative to fruition and into paper form. It requires tremendous dedication to grant each author the dignity of her time and the humanity of her work — something I’m no longer in a position to do. I am also much more sympathetic to editors and publishers who run magazines and journals. It turns out, they are not the frosty exterior blocking the way to our beautiful prose. Editors and publishers the industry over are by and large quite sympathetic, and have dedicated their livelihood (to great sacrifice) toward actually pulling authors into the professionally published world.

Because Colorado Springs has a deep connection to John Nichols and his work, The Almagre Review still plans to finish the project of publishing our interview and essay collection about John and his novels. The finished publication will be available locally and on our site.

The website will remain functioning too, and Joe and I can still be contacted through it.

With Gratitude,

John Lewis

Joe Barrera: We Must End the War on Drugs

I have always stayed away from drugs, legal or otherwise, but they are a problem that we can’t ignore anymore. Recent events reveal the futility of drug prohibition. The massacre of the LeBaron fundamentalist Mormons in the Mexican border state of Sonora is a terrible tragedy. The large extended LeBaron families are descended from immigrants who fled to Mexico in the late 19th century to practice freely their religion which allows for polygamy or plural marriage, as the Mormons call it. The tragedy has made obvious the folly of the U.S. War on Drugs. This “war” is driven by the puritanical urge to police human behavior. In the context of religious liberty, which we see as one of our greatest achievements, it’s noteworthy that Mexico is much more tolerant of polygamy as a religious belief than the U.S. where it is outlawed. But we are spiritual descendants of the Puritans and we have a cultural trait that drives us to ban, prohibit, or make illegal anything seen as abhorrent, immoral and dangerous, even if there is insufficient evidence to justify the ban. This is why alcohol was made illegal during Prohibition and why there is now a wave of indignation and a movement to ban vaping. And this is why polygamy is illegal and why recreational drugs are illegal. We may abhor polygamy, but in our righteous wrath at the deaths of American women and children we have forgotten that polygamy was the reason that the American LeBarons chose to flee to Mexico. Our sense of moral superiority is so strong that there have been loud calls for a U.S. military intervention to destroy the drug gangs in Mexico. You may feel that this kind of thing would work both ways. Not so. Many of the dead in the recent El Paso Wal-Mart massacre were Mexican citizens from Ciudad Juarez, accustomed to visit El Paso for shopping. In response the Mexican government politely offered to help U.S. authorities fight the white supremacists who inspired the massacre. But the offer was rejected.

The slaughter of the innocents in Sonora was gruesome but maybe some good can come out of it. Maybe it will make us reevaluate our drug policies, as if the deaths of 150,000 Mexicans (a conservative estimate) since 2006, when the Mexican government at the insistence of the U.S. began its war on the cartels, were not enough to make us forsake our fruitless war on illegal drugs. The war in Mexico now has the character of a full-blown insurgency, with large swaths of the country under the control of the cartels, the often corrupt and ineffectual government having ceded authority to the stronger force. It is not a good thing to have a close neighbor in the throes of horrific violence. The war against the cartels will spread into our country and breed chaos and destruction. The disorder extends to Central America, causing the unending flow of migrants headed for our southern border.

We have not benefited from the huge expenditure of treasure and the spilling of blood. We know from their ubiquitous presence that the War on Drugs has not stopped the flow of cocaine, heroin, meth, marijuana, etc. into the U.S. But it has caused the incarceration of 500,000 Americans, with African Americans ten times more likely to be sent to state and federal prisons than whites. Fully 50% of federal prisoners and 16% of state prisoners are imprisoned on drug charges, at enormous expense to U.S. taxpayers. We incarcerate more women than any other country, meaning that we are in effect waging a war on women. 85% of women in prison are there on drug charges. Our constitutional due process rights and freedom from unlawful search and seizure are routinely violated by federal authorities who confiscate billions in asset forfeitures every year. Many police agencies have become addicted to easy money from asset forfeiture, leading to increased militarization of civilian police, never a good idea in a democracy. The police focus on the drug war and emphasis on tactics more suitable to urban warfare has led to a serious breakdown of communication and trust between law enforcement and local communities. This has made police work a far more dangerous occupation. And there are ripple effects. We have a deadly opioid epidemic in our drug-ridden society, with tens of thousands dead from legal doctor-prescribed pain-killers. But with the increased scrutiny on doctors and opioids, sufferers turn to the old stand-by, heroin, a cheaper alternative, further incentivizing the criminals in Mexico to supply this market. Thousands have died because people can easily overdose on heroin.

Let’s be honest. We have an insatiable appetite for drugs and the addictions they breed. Man-made laws cannot control this. There is a desire to get high, to slip into a drug-induced nirvana, to ease mental and emotional pain, to forget the daily grind of our hectic and often lonely lives. I have never used drugs, but I know drug tragedy from personal experience. My young nephew, a star student at Texas A&M and a proud member of the Corps of Cadets at that prestigious school, died of a heroin overdose. It was a terrible waste of a young life. My sister, his mother, is inconsolable. Sometimes late at night he appears in his ROTC uniform and says, “Please don’t forget me.”


Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS,  a lecturer in U.S. Southwest history, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Joe Barrera, Publisher, Literary Journal

Joe Barrera: My Motives in 1967

I have been asked my times about my reasons for fighting in Vietnam. This was especially true at Colorado College, the wonderful paradise of innocence in the early ’70s when I was a student there. My answer did not satisfy the anti-war people who made life hard for me, but this is what I would say: When I was a boy in Catholic school I would read books by Fr. Albert Nevins, the Maryknoll Catholic priest and unofficial spokesman for the Foreign Mission Society of America, as Maryknoll is formally known. Fr. Nevins was of a different time. In those innocent days of the ’50s and early ’60s America was still a light unto the world, a savior for oppressed peoples everywhere. There was truth in this and we are still a light unto the world, if we can live up to our ideals. As a young man I considered myself fortunate to be part of the effort to spread democracy and halt Communism, a sentiment reinforced by my father, a career Army man. But disillusion was inevitable. I understood later that there was also a dark, imperialistic side to U.S. foreign policy. I wasn’t the only one who realized that. As a country we learned about our own misguided decisions in the ’60s with the debacle of the Vietnam War. Vietnam drastically altered the world view of a whole generation and we have never been the same since. We behaved in less than an exemplary manner in Vietnam. One statistic is enough to bring this into focus. Over the course of our war in Southeast Asia we dropped more than 7 million tons of bombs on Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, more than twice what rained down on Europe and Asia during WWII. Imagine for a moment that you are an Asian peasant and a flight of B-52 bombers begins to carpet bomb your rice field. You run like hell, but you can’t outrun a bomb falling from 30,000 feet. I know about that. I saw it, felt it, and still live it. A 500 lb bomb from a B-52 fell right on top of my infantry company. Lucky for me I had dug a deep hole in the ground. Otherwise I would not be here today. That was some kind of “friendly fire!”

But  back in 1967 I knew nothing about this. My world view was decidedly anti-Communist, influenced by Fr. Nevins, who had written about the atrocities committed by Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Minh after they routed the French at Dien Bien Phu and won their struggle against colonialism, at least in North Vietnam. The French, of course, were no paragons of virtue. They committed many crimes in Vietnam and later in Algeria, where they behaved even worse. But it was the Communists in Vietnam who frightened me. I vividly remember one episode in which Vietnamese Catholics had chopsticks rammed into their ears, recounted in detail in a book by Fr. Nevins, if memory serves me right. That was enough to make me a crusader against the Reds.

So, in 1967 I joined the Army and it was off to Vietnam. Influenced by my uncle, the eternal soldier who had almost been killed during the siege of Brest in 1944, I volunteered for the infantry. He called me a fool for doing it, but I had to prove that I was as tough as he was. Well, I did, but it was mostly because of sheer dumb luck that I survived. That, and my pious mother’s prayers. I went to war completely idealistically, like countless young men before and after me. My motive was to save the world from Communism, or at least South Vietnam. Communism to me was monstrous, the equivalent of Nazism and Fascism, twin evils the Greatest Generation who fought WWII had so heroically destroyed. I emulated that Generation in 1967, and contrary to Vietnam War myth, many of my fellow soldiers felt the same way. We were virtuous in our Americanism. I believed in that. I was motivated by that kind of selflessness. And then in one turn of fortune so many of us turned bitter and cynical. The Veterans’ Affairs hospitals and clinics are full of us now, not to mention the cemeteries. But, please, remember me and all of us for who were, “We were soldiers once, and young.”

Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

Call for Submissions: ISSUE 7, “The Chicana/o Collection”

MAY 2019,

The Almagre Review, a Colorado literary journal, is now open for submissions for the Chicana and Chicano Issue, to be published in Fall 2019. Deadline for submissions will be September 16, 2019.

Butterfly Issue 6

We are primarily looking for fiction and essay/memoirs. We are also interested in black & white artwork. The focus of this issue of The Almagre Review is the identity of Chicanos, who can be characterized as Mexican Americans with a conscience-consciousness.

We are looking for stories of the Chicano/a Movement and how the 1960s and 1970s shaped our lives, how the influence of that era is still with us, and most importantly, how we can pass that history onto the younger generation.

Send us intelligent perspectives on the current political and social status of Chicanas/os, and the prognosis for the future. We understand the struggles of our immigrant brothers and sisters, but we want to focus on the realities of those of us who have deep roots in this country, in many cases going back hundreds of years.

On the fiction side, we would like to see short stories about the every day lives of Chicanas/os. Again, to be clear, we appreciate that there are many kinds of Latinos in the U.S., but we want to devote our attention to the lives of  the largest population group of Latinos–the Chicanos. Stories can often reveal hidden truths in ways that essays and memoirs cannot. We ask that submissions be no longer than 5000 words. Please contact Joe Barrera and John Lewis at

Joe Barrera, Publisher
La Revista Almagre

Denver Events: Share the Experience

Thank you for the warm welcome in Denver; thank you to the American GI Forum of Colorado Mile Hi Chapter, and the Colorado Society of Hispanic Geneology. The storytelling was brilliant and bold, the food delicious and plentiful.

George Autobee (FEB 15)
     George Autobee describing his experiences in Vietnam

Issue 6 contributor, Ramon Del Castillo, tells the story of his brother and cousin, who fought in Vietnam and carried their wounds home…


Karen Gonzales (FEB 15)
     Issue 5 contributor, Karen Gonzales, reads from her memoir, The Lady Llorona


Butterfly Issue 6

The one thing more fantastic than  purchasing a copy of our journal through our website, is purchasing a copy at a local bookstore. Entrepeneurs who do that — run bookstores — are real culture heroes. Having said that, The Almagre Review can be found in Denver at The BookBar, 4280 Tennyson St, Denver, CO 80212. Every purchased issue shares proceeds with your local business. Support Storytelling, Support Local Business — swing by the BookBar and ask for a copy.

The Book Bar (FB Image)

Please Join us in Denver (FRI & SAT)

Hello, friends. Once again, we are headed to Denver this upcoming weekend for a couple of Literary Events. We hope to see you there. As always, any questions or comments, please email our Publisher, Joe Barrera at, or our Artist/Editor John Lewis at

GI Forum vets book event

Both locations are easily accesible from I-25.

Issue 6: Live Reading

Thank you to all who attended and to those who read. We had a great time, and appreciate our participating contributors; Thomas Mowle, Marshall Griffith, Lucy Bell, Tom Noonan, Bill Stanley, Scott Lewis, and Bill Gessner. Thank you for your words and your shared experience. These contributors and more can be found in Issue 6: VETERANS, Part I.

For stories from the post-launch celebration at Phantom Canyon, contact the Publisher of La Revista Almagre, Joe Barrera. Our next event will be February 15 up in Denver. Please stay in touch for further details…

GI Forum vets book event

Joe Barrera: After the Celebration

We just honored the life and legacy of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was the right thing to do as it is every year. But now that it’s over the time for sober reappraisals is here. Not about the holiday itself, but about our understanding of it. Did it make any real difference? Did we truly grasp its meaning? The truth for me in terms of MLK Day is “No.” This failure is true not just for the King holiday, but for almost every other commemoration meant to improve our individual and collective lives. It can be a sad catalogue.

Urban Farming

Christmas comes and goes but we don’t appreciate the descent of heaven to earth (even if we are not religious, we want to see the miracle of the season). Veterans’ Day rolls around and we are no closer to restoring a normal life to returning combat veterans, what we crave more than anything else. On Labor Day, we think that nobody works, which makes us forget the millions who work but don’t make a living wage. We congratulate ourselves because we are free, but when the 4th of July explodes, liberty and justice for all (let me repeat, “for all”) are just as evanescent as the fireworks. We decorate soldiers’ tombs on Memorial Day as we prepare for more war and more tombs. At Easter we celebrate the triumph of life over death, as the opioid epidemic, mass shootings, gun violence, and the teen suicide rate undermine our hopes. “But wait,” you say, “we are making progress on all these fronts.” True, but not good enough. Not for me. My dissatisfaction has deep roots.

In the summer of 1963 I was working at a Rio Grande Valley fruit packing shed in 100-degree heat. It was August 28, and I left work because I didn’t want to toil anymore for $1.05 an hour, which even then was not enough. I went home, turned on the little black-and-white TV and watched Rev. King deliver his “I Have a Dream Speech.” In that moment King became my hero. What this meant for me was that I expected him to very soon come and lead the oppressed Mexican Americans of south Texas into the Promised Land — democracy, civil rights, equality, non-discrimination. Just like he was doing for Black folks. King would join forces with Cesar Chavez, the fellow disciple of Mahatma Gandhi, and with Chavez save the Chicano farmworkers from the slavery of the fields. He would do all of this with God on his side.

In 1967 the farmworkers in Starr County, the poorest county in the nation, went on strike for higher wages. The growers called in the Texas Rangers, little more than hired goons at their beck and call. Ranger A.Y. Allee, the Bull Connor of south Texas, led the effort to suppress the strike. I expected Dr. King to descend on Starr County at any moment and defeat Allee with nothing but moral force. It didn’t happen, and it still hasn’t happened. I was and still am bitterly disappointed. It would have meant so much to us if he had come to Starr County. But that’s in the past. I am unhappy because the present-day guardians of his legacy have not learned what he taught. They ignore the grossest violation of human rights that we commit now, the mistreatment of refugees seeking asylum. Dr. King would not ignore that.

Joe Barrera, Ph.D, is the former director of the Ethnic Studies Program at UCCS, and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

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