The story of Bless Me, Ultima is built around Antonio's early coming-of-age experiences. The book is an example of "bildungsroman," or a tale of the growth of a character, though Antonio has to deal with issues that most six-year-olds don't have to, like magic, existential religious doubts, and murder. His largest childhood influence is his parents, and each parent has a specific dream for his life path; his mother, a Luna, wants Tony to become a farmer and a Catholic priest, while his father, a Márez, wants him to be a vaquero (cowboy) of the llano or help him move to California. Beginning with this inner conflict, much of the book deals with Antonio deciding what kind of adult he wants to be.
There is also a recurring theme that growing up means a loss of innocence, or that adulthood is something inherently sinful. Antonio's mother wants him to remain a child forever, and even Ultima says "life is filled with sadness when a boy grows to be a man." His many painful experiences certainly destroy his innocence in many ways, but by the end of the novel Tony is wise beyond his years.
Growing Up ThemeTracker
Growing Up Quotes in Bless Me, Ultima
Ultima came to stay with us the summer I was almost seven. When she came the beauty of the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth. The magical time of childhood stood still, and the pulse of the living earth pressed its mystery into my living blood.
"The ways of men are strange, and hard to learn."
"Ay! My man of learning!" my mother smiled when I entered the kitchen. She swept me in her arms and before I knew it she was crying on my shoulder. "My baby will be gone today," she sobbed.
"He will be all right," Ultima said. "The sons must leave the sides of their mothers," she said almost sternly and pulled my mother gently.
I yearned for my mother, and at the same time I understood that she had sent me to this place where I was an outcast. I had tried hard to learn and they had laughed at me; I had opened my lunch to eat and again they had laughed and pointed at me. The pain and sadness seemed to spread to my soul, and I felt for the first time what the grown-ups call, la tristesa de la vida.
"And, they still have Tony," Gene said and looked at me. "Tony will be her priest," he laughed.
"Tony will be her farmer," León added.
"And her dream will be complete and we will be free!" Gene shouted.
"But it's not fair to those who don't sin!" I countered.
"Tony," Cico said softly, "all men sin."
I had no answer to that. My own mother had said that losing your innocence and becoming a man was learning to sin. I felt weak and powerless in the knowledge of the impending doom.
"Antonio," she said calmly and placed her hand on my shoulder, "I cannot tell you what to believe. Your father and your mother can tell you, because you are their blood, but I cannot. As you grow into manhood you must find your own truths -- "
Ultima and I continued to search for plants and roots in the hills. I felt more attached to Ultima than to my own mother. Ultima told me the stories and legends of my ancestors. From her I learned the glory and tragedy of the history of my people, and I came to understand how that history stirred in my blood.
And I remembered my dream. Andrew had said that he would not enter the house of the naked women until I had lost my innocence. Had I already lost my innocence? How? I had seen Lupito murdered… I had seen Ultima's cure… I had seen the men come to hang her… I had seen the awful fight just now… I had seen and reveled in the beauty of the golden carp!
There seemed to be so many pitfalls in the questions we asked. I wanted answers to the questions, but would the knowledge of the answers make me share in the original sin of Adam and Eve?
"And if we didn't have any knowledge?" I asked.
"Then we would be like the dumb animals of the fields," Florence replied.
Animals, I thought. Were the fish of the golden carp happier than we were? Was the golden carp a better God?
"Ah, there is no freedom like the freedom of the llano!" my father said and breathed in the fresh, clean air.
"And there is no beauty like this earth," Ultima said. They looked at each other and smiled, and I realized that from these two people I had learned to love the magical beauty of the wide, free earth.
"You have to choose, Tony," Cico said, "you have to choose between the god of the church, or the beauty that is here and now --"
The lonely river was a sad place to be when one is a small boy who has just seen a friend die.
"Ay," she tried to smile, "life is filled with sadness when a boy grows to be a man. But as you grow into manhood you must not despair of life, but gather strength to sustain you – can you understand that."
"Ay, every generation, every man is a part of his past. He cannot escape it, but he may reform the old materials, make something new --"
"Take the llano and the river valley, the moon and the sea, God and the golden carp – and make something new," I said to myself. That is what Ultima meant by building strength from life. "Papá," I asked, "can a new religion be made?"
And that is what Ultima tried to teach me, that the tragic consequences of life can be overcome by the magical strength that resides in the human heart.
Would I ever race like a kid again, a wild cabrito rattling the pebbles on the goat path; and would I ever wrestle the crazy Horse and wild Bones again? And what dream would form to guide my life as a man?
The thundering report of the rifle followed the flash of fire. That shot destroyed the quiet, moonlit peace of the hill, and it shattered my childhood into a thousand fragments that long ago stopped falling and are now dusty relics gathered in distant memories.
"Take them to their room," I said to my mother. It was the first time I had ever spoken to my mother as a man; she nodded and obeyed.
"Bless me, Ultima --"
Her hand touched my forehead and her last words were, "I bless you in the name of all that is good and strong and beautiful, Antonio. Always have the strength to live. Love life, and if despair enters your heart, look for me in the evening when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills. I shall be with you --"