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Bless Me, Ultima:
The Cultural Distress of a Young Society
Luis Rafael Villafane Fernandez
Latin American Studies
December 3, 1996
An answer to the discussion question of whether or not there is a defined border culture would need a great number of years in field research, but we can also observe a few of the characteristics of such border culture just by looking at scholastic essays and books related to the topic. Within the research that I did, I found a number of scholars who, while defining the border, mention all the specific or special characteristics of this new emerging society, but who also very few times defined it as such. In the book that I researched, Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo A. Anaya, we find many of those characteristics. There is already much work on this piece of literature, therefore, I decided to present my research and study in two ways. First, I will give a personal analysis of the work, in which I will discuss the different topics and parallelisms that I believe are related to an emerging border culture, and second, I will discuss and complete analysis made by Roberto Cantu, published in The Identification and Analysis of Chicano Literature.
The novel by Rudolfo Anaya Bless Me, Ultima, was printed in June 1972, but won the first price in the Second Annual Premio Quinto Sol Literary Award in 1971.
The main characters of the novel are Antonio, his father, mother, two sisters, three brothers, Tenorio and his three daughters, and Ultima. The argument presents how a child, (Antonio), matures in one year, thanks to the different episodes that he goes through. Antonio, a seven year old child, narrates in first person, and describes the events that changed his life from the moment that Ultima arrived at his house. During the beginning of the book, his thoughts and actions are typical of such age, but as the events take place, Antonio changes and matures incredible fast through the text. It is even hard to find where the changes in his behavior take place, due to Rudolfo's smooth literary transitions.
Carl and Paula Shirley condense their presentation of Bless Me, Ultima by simply mentioning the story line of the book:
She (Ultima) is present from the boy's earliest experiences growing up, family conflict, school, religion, evil and death... Much good in this novel, beauty, magic, New Mexico landscape, legends... (Shirley and Shirley, 105).
All of this is true, but there is more that they did not mention. The novel is full of inner conflicts. Each of the story lines of thought of Antonio represents not only a personal conflict, but also a social one. An old society vs. a new one, Spanish vs. English, good vs. evil, Catholics vs. Protestants vs. legends, the town vs. the llano and so on. In each one of them we can see the formation or foundation of a new society ruled by Antonio's generation. A new society not yet aware of itself, but new nevertheless.
For a better understanding of my analysis I have defined several different components that present essential keys in the underlined development of a border culture. The development if the Mexican border culture is called to be a mixture of two worlds. Tom Miller says that:
Ironies and contradictions thrive on the border between the US and Mexico, a region that does not adhere to the economic, ethical, political, or cultural standards of either country (...) It is a third country of its own, its own food, its language, its music (...) It is a colony onto itself, long and narrow, ruled by two faraway powers. (Tom Miller, xii)
In the same way, Anaya's description of Antonio's life represents ironies and contradictions, first in a main cultural collision of Mexican and Anglo culture, family structure and language; and then, in more deep levels of religion, and basic understanding of oneself. Inner fights and double realities are present through out Antonio's development. Ramon Saldivar does an extensive study of Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima, and as well as Shirley and Shirley, he seems to be afraid of calling or recognizing a representation of a border culture. Saldivar says:
Bless Me, Ultima thus can be said to capture in the form of romance critical and complex transition period in literary-cultural history of the South west: the simultaneous existence within Chicano communities of pre-Columbian myths, beliefs, legends and superstitions, and mid-twentieth century technological, literate mass media culture. (Saldivar, 108).
As I mention before, Bless Me Ultima presents the struggle between two different life styles and cultures. On one hand, we have the Mexican traditional life style: Antonio's father was a men of the llano, a vaquero; his mother is from a family of free farmers. On the other hand, we find a very strong influence of American individualism. We see this influence in Antonio's three brothers: after they returned from W.W.II, their parents are hoping that they would become part of their family again, but the three brothers decide to have a life of their own: not as farmers, not as vaqueros, not as highway workers, not even in the same town, but an independent life in the states. Only one of them decides to stay, but not for long. Due to these series of facts, Antonio lives a struggle in his mind. Should he become a farmer or a priest as his mother wanted? Should he decide his own future no matter what the consequences are? Talking about his families Antonio says: "I love them both, and yet I am of neither (Anaya, 38).
At he same time, Antonio is going to school across the bridge, to an American school. This is one of the most important aspects of his cultural development as well as our main point in identifying a border culture. There is a two level explanation for this chapter: first, we have to remember that Antonio's father Gabriel was a men of the llano, a vaquero who thought that freedom is the most important thing in anyone's life. Gabriel blames the Texans, (Americans), over and over again for putting fences across his llano, across his freedom. Gabriel never gets accustomed to the life in the city. Furthermore, he drinks more and more, and looks forward to the visitors of the llano who come to his house once in a while to remember old stories. His Mexican culture is too strong. There will be no possible adaptation for him. In the same way, Antonio goes to school, He does not understand English, and therefore does not understand the kids in the school. He knows that the kids are laughing at him because of the way he speaks, the way he behaves, the way he looks and the things he eats. In a way, his freedom , his culture and understanding of life do not make sense anymore. Now, the difference between Antonio and his father culture collision is that Antonio gets accustomed to it. In a while it does not bother him anymore. Why? The reason is simple: there were other kids like him in school. A sense of mutual bondage, due to cultural differences makes this group of kids to stick together and question life on their own.
Language and relationships are also another important part on Antonio's culture construction. Soon after Antonio's family moved to New Mexico, Tono and Antonio became Tony and Anthony. Furthermore, we see how the kids in school used a mixed Spanish and English, especially to swear:
"Ay Dios! " , "La verga!", "La Chingada!", "se chingo!", "Ay Diablo!", "Ah la veca!", "The hot beans flavored with chicos and green chile were muy sabrosos".
Also, Antonio's friends are also different. It was shocking to Antonio that his friends were no longer dark skinned with dark eyes and hair. He mentions that some of them were tall with clear eyes and blond hair. Furthermore, it was even more shocking that those new light kids were speaking in Spanish. The fact is that he was no longer in the land of Mexico. He was no longer in a protective environment.
Antonio comes from an strict catholic environment. There is nothing else but Catholicism. His mother wants him to become a priest as one of her ancestors was, but Antonio is battling a struggle of his own. He is now going to school with Protestant kids. Also, one of his best friends tells him the legend of the Carpa, a God who decided to become a fish to save his people, but who will let the town sink on their own sins. Antonio is afraid of loosing his faith. Different episodes of the book make him question his traditional faith. He believes that God is just and omnipotent, but he also sees how innocent men die, and their murderers get free. His is also witness of the impotence of a priest to save his uncles life, when then Ultima cured him with her magic. Antonio is confused and afraid of God's justice. I the same way, we find a parallelism or personification of the three people in God in his family. God, as the powerful father makes the decisions. The Virgin Mary represented by the mother who intercedes to the father for the abolition of punishments for the sons. Then, we have the holy spirit, represented by Ultima and the owl. The pure women who has never sin, whose power and magic is the power of truth and good. When the holy ghost came to the apostles, they knew what to do. Words are never mention. In the same way, Ultima never told Antonio what to do. She would simply bless him and suddenly he would feel a power through him that would make him almost faint.
Moreover, not only his faith is the question but also his background. His mother is a Luna, family of farmers. His father is a Marez, family of the Llano, wanderers and vaqueros who come from the conquistadores, men of the sea. Antonio's inner conflict represents yet another parallelism. The sea and the moon are interconnected. The sea is a brave and powerful element, yet, the moon moves it every day. In other words, the sea is controlled by the attraction of the moon who moves it back and forth. In the same way, we may say that Antonio's passion, blood, or impulse are like the sea, but his thoughts, his common sense comes from his mother's part of the family, from the Lunas. In other words, where he comes from, what he is, and how he is supposed to behave is the conflict that it is going on inside him.
Each person on the novel plays and important part on Antonio's life and struggle to find the true meaning of life and himself. Moreover, the most important person in Antonio during these years, and probably for the future is La Grande. Ultima represents the old, the tradition. The contact that they have with each other is more on the spiritual level: the old and the new creating a new form of relationship. Antonio does not look for this bondage with Ultima. It is Ultima who lets Antonio get close to her, and therefore, meaning that she, the old and traditional, gives permission to the new to bond with her. This is to live and learn from the past to better adapt it to the future.
In conclusion, we find that Antonio is living a continuous struggle by questioning all he ever knew. His culture, language, religion, his family and his background. The answers to this continuous questioning will be the development of a new culture which will be an unconscious forced mixture of two worlds colliding, which resulted from the alienation that Mexico and US cultures subjugated each other.
Roberto Cantu does an great job in analyzing the book by Anaya. The reason of my study is because Cantu divides the novel in three underlined worlds of "Universe, world, and Antonio" which he explains by looking at the past, present and future actions in the book. On the other hand, Cantu does not mention or recognize the new society as such. As we will see in the next pages, the three levels of time are directly involved with the development of a new subculture which calls "Regeneration, New Life and New Universe".
Past Present Future
Universe Legend of Carpa Imminent Flood New Universe
World Greatness of Past Degradation Regeneration
Antonio Ancestral HeritageCrisis New Life
The Universe and the three time periods are obiously related to the context of the old testament. The legend of the Carpa nad the imminent Flood are the garden of Eden and the destruction of such. What is very related to ou topic is that Cico, (the friend who tells Antonio the legend), and a group of friends trully believe that their city will sink under the lake in which now lays upon. Only the good citizens, the ones who do not sin will be able to save themselves. Then, they are waiting for the end, for the imminent folld in which they, the group of comrades who have everything in common will only be saved. The rest of the world who allietes them will be destroyed. Then, the Universe will be ready for a New Universe, in other words for a new culture: their culture.
Roberto Cantu divides his analysis of the World in three parts: "language, religion and family" (Jimenez 378). While talking about the language sued in Bless me Ultima, Cantu mentions the use of Spanish words, the different fluctuations of the language, the poetic tone, the energy and narrative tone of the writer, and probably every single aspect of the text that he thought pertinent. But Cantu also says:
Uno de los principales deberes de la escuela es, obviamente, el de ensenar al Chicano el idioma ingles, facilitando de esta manera una sana adaptacion al medio ambiente. (Jimenez 380)
The relationship between language and a border identity is right under his nose, but he does not want to mention anything about it:
Ahora bien, en vez de mejorar su situacion, o por lo menos de ampliar las facultades comunicativas del mismo, "incomunica" al chicano, separandole de su familia y de su cultura (lengua, historia), a la par que mantiene cierta distancia de la cultura sajona. En otras palabras: que no asimila facilmente. (Jimenez, 380)
Yes. He is right. The Chicano gets further from its own culture but never assimilates the Anglo system. That is what makes it a sub-culture! As Cantu and myself mentioned before, language is the first signs of the border culture. Shirley and Shirley agree by identifying the following:
Many Chicanos, especially in urban areas, speak and understand a third language called Calo, or Poncho, or Pachuco. This mixes English and Spanish grammars, structures and vocabulary to form a hybrid language; it combines both languages while adding new words and structures. (Shirley & Shirley, XV)
What other prove do we want. In page 39, 51 and 162, we find the following constructions: "The hot beans flavored with chicos and green chile were muy sabrosos". "Only ricos could afford school". "Muchacho (...) I need confession".
There is no much else that I can say about proving that there is a significant border culture embodied in the language. The quotes and the writers speak by themselves, even though they do not call it anything.
At nay rate, Cantu goes ahead with the second part of his world analysis, religion. He presents good ideas when he says: "Church is degraded" ((Jimenez, 382). Moreover, he quotes Bless Me, Ultima: "los dioses estan muriendo, if the old religion could no longer answer the questions of the children then perhaps it was time to change it" (Anaya, 233). Of course. It was time to change it. Let's just simply ask and answer some questions: Who what's to change it? The children. Why? Because it does not answer their questions. What questions? Well, the questions about themselves and their new environment. The children are still to young to understand that they are in a new culture. They are between the ages of 7 and 11 and already feel that they do not belong in their surroundings. What else should we look for? The children are lost in a world that is not theirs, therefore, they have to create their own, a personal world that answers their questions, an new culture, an new border culture.
In the third part of the world analysis Cantu is very clear. The greatness of Antonio's ancestors. His mother's family, founders of "El Pastoral" , rich farmers freed to work for anyone but themselves. His father's ancestors, who came to be conquistadores. Then, degradation. His father and his mother, two completely different people who never communicated. Antonio's brothers who leave the family tradition to work on their own in the states. Antonio is his parent's only hope for regeneration:
Se sugiere el advenimiento de una familia en al que campeara la armonia y la comunion de objetivos vitales (...) se nos revelara la solucion de este conflicto historico en un cabal mestizaje - ideologico, cultural- que supera el meramente sanguineo. (Jimenez 384-385)
Cantu cannot get any closer to say that there is a representation of a new evolving border culture in the text.
In his last part, Cantu explains Antonio's inner conflict. His ancestral and different heritage of the Lunas and the Marez, the degradation of his family and his religious and cultural ideas, and finally the "regeneration onto a new life" (Jimenez 385). Now, what exactly does Cantu mean by a new life? As we have seen along this paper, I have proved that there is a new border culture being born during each one of the episodes of the story. Furthermore, through all the research that I have done, no one has even mention the possibility of an emerging new culture within the book. Does Cantu recognize this culture? I believe that he does, but as well as all the other writers, he does not want to acknowledge it. Why? That is another paper topic.