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.