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.
Language and Culture Theme Icon

Bless Me, Ultima is an example of Chicano literature, and one of Anaya's primary goal in writing it was to fashion a cultural identity for himself and his community. Much of Antonio's experience is based on a meeting of cultures and a search for identity among the Spanish, Native American, and English-American societies. Ultima is a symbol of indigenous influences and the supernatural, pre-Christian world, while Antonio's school represents the English-speaking society. The Luna and Márez sides of his family are also a meeting of cultures – Antonio's father is a restless vaquero of the llano, while the Lunas are quiet farmers and Catholics. Tony's religious struggle is also connected to his culture, as he vacillates between Spanish Catholicism and the golden carp of the indigenous people.

The format of the novel echoes this clash of cultures as well, as it is written in English with many Spanish words interspersed, and some characters (especially Antonio/Tony) are referred to by both Spanish and English names. When Antonio resolves at the end of the novel to create a new set of beliefs and dreams, it is clear that Bless Me, Ultima itself represents a fulfillment of that intention. The reading experience mirrors Anaya's own cultural experience, and the novel becomes a tale of Chicano identity.

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Language and Culture Quotes in Bless Me, Ultima

Below you will find the important quotes in Bless Me, Ultima related to the theme of Language and Culture.
Chapter 4 (Cuatro) Quotes

"It is the blood of the Lunas to be quiet, for only a quiet man can learn the secrets of the earth that are necessary for planting – They are quiet like the moon – And it is the blood of the Márez to be wild, like the ocean from which they take their name, and the spaces of the llano that have become their home."

Related Characters: Ultima (speaker)
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

This passage describes one of the fundamental disparities, or inner contradictions, within Antonio's identity—the conflicting pull of his mother's nature and his father's nature. Here Ultima lays out that disparity in clear terms: the Lunas (María's family) are quiet and diligent like the moon ("luna"), and they tend to be farmers or priests. The Márez (Gabriel's family), however, are wild and unrestrained like the ocean ("mar"), and they tend to be vaqueros (cowboys). Each parent wants Antonio to grow up and follow in their family's footsteps, but clearly Antonio cannot grow up to be only a true Luna or a true Márez—he is both.

It's worth noting here that although the Luna and Márez seem irreconcilable, they already have been united in Antonio's parents themselves. As he says elsewhere, "their blood and their ways had kept them at odds, and yet for all this, we were happy." Furthermore, both of their natures center around the land itself—whether it is farming its soil, or riding across its plains.

As usual, Ultima doesn't force Antonio to choose here, but only describes both sides of the "argument." This is an early hint of one the crucial lessons Antonio will ultimately learn: that he must embrace all the disparate parts of his heritage and build upon them.

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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 9 (Nueve) Quotes

"The golden carp," I said to myself, "a new god?" I could not believe this strange story, and yet I could not disbelieve Samuel. "Is the golden carp still here?"
"Yes," Samuel answered. His voice was strong with faith. It made me shiver, not because it was cold but because the roots of everything I had ever believed in seemed shaken. If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross? The Virgin? Was my mother praying to the wrong God?

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Samuel (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp, The Virgin of Guadalupe
Page Number: 81
Explanation and Analysis:

Samuel has told Antonio about the golden carp, a kind of pagan god who supposedly lives in the river surrounding the town. The golden carp becomes a crucial symbol in the novel after this, representative of a kind of naturalistic, indigenous alternative to Catholicism, but also a god who shares many characteristics with the Christian God. (What Antonio first learns is that the god became a carp to protect his people, similar to Christ's sacrifice—but later Antonio will learn that the carp, too, plans to harshly punish all sinners just as the Christian God does.)

Antonio learning about the golden carp is a good example of how gaining knowledge shakes his innocence, making him more mature but also more troubled and confused. Antonio is learning that simplistic world-views rarely hold the entire truth, but he also suddenly has complex, seemingly contradictory information to process.

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 17 (Diecisiete) Quotes

"The atomic bomb," they whispered, "a ball of white heat beyond the imagination, beyond hell - " And they pointed south, beyond the green valley of El Puerto. "Man was not made to know so much," the old ladies cried in hushed, hoarse voices. "They compete with God, they disturb the seasons, they seek to know more than God Himself. In the end, that knowledge they seek will destroy us all - "

Related Symbols: The Atomic Bomb
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:

The atomic bomb appears only briefly in the novel (indeed, only in this passage), but it still acts as an important symbol. Here the people of Guadalupe discuss the rumored testing of atomic bombs in the New Mexican desert—part of the U.S. war effort during World War II (when the novel is set). On one level, this is a rare reminder of the larger outside world beyond the borders of Antonio's home region, and the ominous kind of cultural encroachment that is associated with that world—it is a place of war and danger. The idea of the bomb also connects to the book's common motif of apocalyptic punishment, like the Hell of the Christian God and the flood of the golden carp—a kind of universal punishment from which no one can escape. Lastly, the way the "old ladies" discuss the bomb testing ties it to the theme of forbidden knowledge, especially within a religious context. The scientists developing the bomb are seen as "competing with God" and pursuing knowledge that "man was not made to know." This is a direct echo of the Biblical Adam and Eve story, and the idea Antonio has often heard reinforced, that gaining too much knowledge can only mean sinfulness and punishment.

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 19 (Diecinueve) Quotes

I closed my eyes and concentrated. I had just swallowed Him, He must be in there! For a moment, on the altar railing, I thought I had felt His warmth, but then everything moved so fast. There wasn't time just to sit and discover Him, like I could do when I sat on the creek bank and watched the golden carp swim in the sun-filtered waters.
God! Why did Lupito die?
Why do you allow the evil of the Trementinas?
Why did you allow Narciso to be murdered when he was doing good?
Why do you punish Florence? Why doesn't he believe?
Will the golden carp rule - ?
A thousand questions pushed through my mind, but the Voice within me did not answer.

Related Characters: Antonio Juan Márez (speaker), Tenorio Trementina, Narciso, Florence, Lupito, The Trementina Sisters
Related Symbols: The Golden Carp
Page Number: 221
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Antonio finally receives his First Communion. He has been hoping that with the wafer will come divine knowledge and answers to his many questions about God, life, and death—but Antonio feels and hears nothing, and is devastatingly disappointed. According to Catholic doctrine, Jesus is actually physically present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, and so Antonio assumes that because he has eaten the wafer, "He must be in there"—God must be inside of him now, and thus he should be getting some answers. Antonio then gives a brief list of some of the questions that have been tormenting him the most, offering a good encapsulation of many of the book's plot points and themes up to now.

Ultimately, this moment creates an increased sense of disillusionment with Christianity for Antonio, but it also allows him to articulate some of the larger themes behind his questions—why sometimes good people are punished and bad ones "forgiven," how seemingly contradictory cultures and religions could be reconciled, and even why death itself exists in a world supposedly created by a benevolent God.

Chapter 22 (Veintidos) Quotes

"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.

"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.