Bless Me, Ultima

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Themes and Colors
Growing Up Theme Icon
Punishment and Forgiveness Theme Icon
Knowledge Theme Icon
Language and Culture Theme Icon
Christianity vs. the Supernatural Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Bless Me, Ultima, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Growing Up Theme Icon

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.

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Growing Up Quotes in Bless Me, Ultima

Below you will find the important quotes in Bless Me, Ultima related to the theme of Growing Up.
Chapter 1 (Uno) Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Ultima
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

These lines, which open the book, briefly introduce many of the novel's main themes, and do so in vivid, almost fantastical language. Antonio, the narrator, is looking back on his childhood from a vantage point of greater age and maturity, and he reflects on the summer he spent with Ultima while mentioning several themes that will come up again later: the power of the land and the connection of Chicano culture to the landscape, the "magical" qualities of both childhood innocence and nature itself, and the idea of growing up and accepting the unstoppable passage of time. This passage also is a reminder (important in hindsight) of just how young Antonio is when all these events are happening.

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Chapter 3 (Tres) Quotes

"Ay, how true," my mother said and clutched me tightly, "and what a sin it is for a boy to grow into a man--"
It was a sin to grow up and be a man.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), María Luna Márez (speaker)
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

It is the day after Antonio's first real traumatic experience—witnessing the death of Lupito. As the family prepares for Mass, Ultima calls Antonio a "man," only for María to contradict her and say that Antonio is still a "baby."

Throughout most of the book, Antonio is faced with conflicting forces pulling him in different directions, both regarding what he will grow up to be and whether he will grow up at all. María, as we see here, consistently clings to Antonio's childhood innocence, and wants to keep him from being corrupted by the world and becoming a man. She connects this innocence with the perceived innocence of the priesthood, and so (later) wants Antonio to become a priest when he gets older—she knows she can't keep him from aging and maturing, but she does want to keep him innocent. Here she explicitly connects "becoming a man" with "sin," and Antonio immediately internalizes the message by repeating it to himself. This particular worldview will later conflict with others Antonio experiences, and be the cause of much confusion and inner turmoil for him.

Chapter 6 (Seis) Quotes

"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.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Ultima (speaker), María Luna Márez (speaker)
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:

Again María makes it clear that she doesn't want Antonio to grow up and lose his innocence, but if he must, she wants him to be a "man of learning" and become a priest. This desire obviously comes from María's strong Catholic faith, but also from her family's tradition of priesthood and her idea that becoming a priest means staying innocent and avoiding the sin of "becoming a man." (This idea becomes confusing for Antonio later, as being a "man of learning" is associated with becoming a priest and receiving divine knowledge, but elsewhere knowledge is associated with sin, pride, and corruption.)

Ultima, then, again acts as a figure of gentle but firm wisdom, encouraging Antonio to grow up but also to make his own choices and grow up in the way that is best for him. It's also interesting to note that Ultima's quote at the end of the passage is seemingly a reference to a Bible verse from Ephesians: "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." That verse refers to marriage, and so isn't wholly applicable in its entirety here, but it is surprising that Ultima—the figure usually most connected with the supernatural and paganism—seems to be so comfortable quoting from the Bible (if indeed she is).

Chapter 8 (Ocho) Quotes

"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.

Related Characters: Eugene Márez (speaker), León Márez (speaker), Antonio Juan Márez, María Luna Márez
Page Number: 68
Explanation and Analysis:

Antonio's brothers have returned home from the war, and they seem to have been greatly changed by their experiences. In this passage we see how they, too, have faced pressure from their parents about what kind of men they will be. Clearly María has given up on Eugene, León , or Andrew becoming a farmer or priest, and so she now pins all her hopes on Antonio—and in this scene, the brothers pin their hopes on him too, trying to rid themselves of responsibility and the pressure to please their mother (and their father, who wants to work alongside his sons and "be free" with them). In general, this passage shows Antonio being further weighed down by familial expectations and differing cultural and religious influences.

Chapter 11 (Once) Quotes

"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.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Cico (speaker), María Luna Márez
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp
Page Number: 118
Explanation and Analysis:

Previously, the golden carp had seemed like an alternative to the Christian God, a more "natural" and forgiving deity (and also one more connected to the indigenous peoples of the region, instead of the white Christian colonizers of the past), but here Antonio learns that the carp, like God, plans on punishing all the sinners of the town with death—and everyone sins, so no one will escape punishment.

This passage, then, connects to Antonio's learned belief that growing up and gaining knowledge means losing one's innocence and sinning—and sin must always be punished. Furthermore, Antonio now learns that this isn't just a Catholic idea, or just his mother's idea, but is a pagan idea too.

Chapter 12 (Doce) Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Ultima, María Luna Márez
Page Number: 123
Explanation and Analysis:

Ultima continues to act like a mother figure and guide for Antonio as he grows up, as here the narrative briefly speeds up to cover a time of idyllic peace and learning. The majority of Antonio's time spent with Ultima emphasizes the healthier parts of growing up for him—not always witnessing death or experiencing religious crises, but rather gaining knowledge of the land and his own heritage and culture. It is arguably this kind of knowledge—learning the "glory and tragedy of the history of my people"—that is most useful to Antonio as he matures, and that also informs Anaya's project in the novel itself.

Chapter 14 (Catorce) Quotes

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!

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Ultima, Andrew Márez, Lupito
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp
Page Number: 165
Explanation and Analysis:

While following Narciso, Antonio sees his brother Andrew at Rosie's brothel. Antonio then remembers his dream (described in a previous quotation) about Andrew not entering the brothel until Antonio himself had lost his innocence. Thus Antonio is shocked to see his brother in such a "sinful" state, but is even more appalled at what this might mean for his own soul.

Antonio continues to connect "innocence" with both the idea of childish ignorance and Catholic doctrine, and so sees the loss of innocence as inherently being sorrowful and sinful. Furthermore, he then sees anything that seems to contradict Catholicism as perhaps being the cause of his loss of innocence—not just his tragic experiences of death (Lupito's murder and Ultima's near-murder), but notably his witnessing of Ultima's magic and the golden carp. Antonio is distraught, and fears that he has condemned himself with his actions—immediately looking past Andrew's perceived loss of innocence and worrying about his own possible sinfulness.

Chapter 17 (Diecisiete) Quotes

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?

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Florence (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp
Page Number: 197
Explanation and Analysis:

Antonio has been going to Catholic catechism class, preparing for his First Communion and hoping for answers to some of his existential questions, but he only feels more conflicted the more he learns. Here he talks with his friend Florence, who is an anomaly among Antonio's peers—he is an atheist.

In this passage knowledge is again associated with sin, and with the "sorrow" of growing up and losing one's innocence. This is also reinforced by the Adam and Eve story, in which their "original sin" was essentially seeking knowledge that was forbidden to them. Antonio wants to avoid sharing in this sin, but he is also insatiably curious, and furthermore wants to take Communion precisely so he can gain knowledge—but, presumably, knowledge of divine origin that is somehow not "sinful." This seeming contradiction is, of course, confusing to Antonio, and Florence's defiant defense of Adam and Eve's sin only adds to his inner conflict. Lastly, this conflict again makes Antonio consider the golden carp, and wonder whether it would be a "better god"—here not because the carp is more merciful or natural, but rather because the carp is a "dumb animal," neither offering nor forbidding any kind of knowledge at all.

Chapter 21 (Veintiuno) Quotes

The lonely river was a sad place to be when one is a small boy who has just seen a friend die.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker)
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

Antonio has made the decision to tell Florence about the golden carp—assuming that his thoughtful, kind friend would be able to understand and properly appreciate the river deity—only to find that Florence has just tragically drowned.

Overwhelmed by this latest and most devastating tragedy, Antonio hides next to the river to cry and be alone, and the adult narrator-Antonio looks back on himself as a "small boy who has just seen a friend die"—a tragic moment of stepping back and simply describing the sad realities of life. For Antonio, growing up is about gaining knowledge and experience, but often it seems that it's mostly about death, sadness, and disappointment, and learning to accept the tragedy and unfairness of the world.

Chapter 22 (Veintidos) Quotes

"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."

Related Characters: Ultima (speaker)
Page Number: 245
Explanation and Analysis:

After experiencing so much tragedy in such a short amount of time (and at such a young age), Antonio's parents and Ultima decide to send Antonio to stay with the Lunas, his uncles on his mother's side, for a month, so that hopefully he can rest and regain his strength. As Antonio prepares to leave Ultima, she offers him this "blessing," prefiguring the final blessing that gives the novel its title.

As Ultima acknowledges here, growing up means sadness, pain, and the loss of innocence, but she then reminds Antonio that it also means greater strength and wisdom in reaction to such things. As she often does, Ultima teaches the lesson of drawing on personal experience, knowledge, and heritage to construct one's own individual strength as one matures.

"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?"

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Gabriel Márez (speaker), Ultima
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp
Page Number: 247
Explanation and Analysis:

As Gabriel drives Antonio to go stay with the Lunas, the father and son have an illuminating and important conversation. Gabriel seems worn out, and no longer has his old fierce desire to make his sons follow in his own footsteps—instead, he now recognizes that becoming a man means to "make something new." This, then, is exactly the lesson Antonio needs to hear, as he continues to struggle with inner conflicts within his own identity and the world-views of those around him.

Antonio's mental response to his father's statement then acts as a kind of thesis statement for Anaya's novel. Antonio must embrace all the seemingly disparate parts of his identity, culture, and religion, and use them to make something new and fundamentally his own. This means accepting at once Luna and Márez ("the moon and the sea"), God and the golden carp, Native American, Spanish, and English culture, curanderismo (Ultima's magic and knowledge) and Catholic priesthood, the "llano and the river valley," and using them to make a new, personal "religion"—a project arguably fulfilled in the writing of the novel itself.

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.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Ultima
Page Number: 249
Explanation and Analysis:

Gabriel and Antonio continue their conversation as they drive to the Lunas' farm. Gabriel expresses a relatively relativistic view of evil, similar to Ultima's—saying that most "evil" is just things people don't understand. Antonio (as narrator, looking back on his childhood) then makes a crucial point: that Ultima's "magic" is, in the end, primarily just understanding and empathy. This is not a belief system critically tied to either Christianity or paganism, but is instead about the "magical strength that resides in the human heart." This is a crucial lesson for Antonio as he grows up and tries to reconcile both his belief systems and the seeming unfairness of life—notably why Tenorio is still allowed to get away with his "evil."

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.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker)
Related Symbols: Ultima's Owl
Page Number: 258
Explanation and Analysis:

Tenorio has just shot Ultima's owl, having figured out that the bird is some sort of life force or "familiar" for her, and that killing it will ultimately kill Ultima as well. At this climactic moment, however, the narrator (adult Antonio) suddenly steps back, placing the present sound of the rifle shot in the larger context of Antonio's entire childhood history.

In a way, this narrative decision shows Antonio already acting on Ultima's and Gabriel's important advice—he is drawing strength from his memories and experiences, even the painful ones, and using them to create something new (the story itself). Antonio does not react to Tenorio's murderous act with rage, but neither does he offer forgiveness. Instead he simply offers understanding, and an acknowledgement that this act has deeply affected his entire life, including the very narrative he is relating now.

"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.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), María Luna Márez
Page Number: 259
Explanation and Analysis:

Tenorio has just killed Ultima's owl and tried to shoot Antonio, but then Pedro Luna has shot Tenorio and killed him. Everyone is confused by the scene, and Antonio here responds with authority, telling his mother to take his sisters inside—speaking "as a man." This shows Antonio growing up in a definitive way, strengthened by his past experiences of tragedy. He is now facing death yet again, but has learned to respond to it with courage and calm. It's also worth noting the nature of his "command"—he wants his mother to take his sisters inside so they don't have to witness the tragedy that he has seen. In a way, this shows Antonio trying to preserve his sisters' innocence while he can, despite the fact that his own innocence has been lost.

"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 --"

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Ultima (speaker)
Page Number: 260-261
Explanation and Analysis:

It is from this passage that the book takes its title, and the scene also acts as both a tragic climax and a kind of "moral" to the story. Ultima's final blessing echoes the many priestly blessings (whether fake or real) in the novel, but her blessing doesn't mention God at all, or even magic—instead it focuses only on Antonio's own inner strength, his memories and experiences and hardships, and the land itself. There is nothing explicitly supernatural or Christian about it, and the "power" Ultima invokes to bless Antonio is merely "all that is good and strong and beautiful." As Antonio has come to realize over the latter part of the book, Ultima's greatest power and wisdom is rooted in empathy, understanding, appreciation of nature, and inner strength.