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Bless Me, Ultima
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Antonio Marez is six years old when Ultima comes to stay with his family in New Mexico. She is a curandera, one who cures with herbs and magic. Under her wise wing, Tony will probe the family ties that bind and rend him, and he will discover himself in the magical secrets of the pagan past–a mythic legacy as palpable as the Catholicism of Latin America. And at each life turn there is Ultima, who delivered Tony into the world… and will nurture the birth of his soul.
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Bless Me, Ultima was my first novel. In the 1960s I was a young man teaching in the public schools in Alburquerque, New Mexico, and writing at night. In the mid-sixties I married Patricia and she became my encouragement. I wrote over seven drafts of the novel, and she read each one and shared her suggestions.
I was born in 1937 in the small village of Pastura, New Mexico, in the llano (open plain) of the eastern part of the state. Soon after my birth my family moved to Santa Rosa on the Pecos River where I grew up. Bless Me, Ultima has autobiographical elements in it, after all, a writer utilizes his life experiences. But the novel is a work of fiction which follows two years of the rites of passage of the main character, Antonio. I wrote the novel in the first person because I identify very closely with Antonio.
I didn't take creative writing classes while attending the university, so my effort was self-taught. Pounding the keys of an old Smith Corona typewriter late at night, I wrote draft after draft of the novel. The truly magical moment in the creative process was when Ultima appeared to me and instructed me to make her a character in the novel. Suddenly a boy's adventure novel became an intense exploration of the unconscious. For me Ultima, la curandera, is a healer in the tradition of our native New Mexican healers. She is a repository of Spanish, Mexican, and Native American teachings. Her role is "to open Antonio's eyes" so he can see the beauty of the landscape and understand the spiritual roots of his culture. With her guidance he begins to understand that the river, the open plain, and all of nature is imbued with spirit. Everything is alive; God is everywhere. Suddenly the ordinary conflicts of childhood take on a deeper meaning. Antonio must now begin his journey into dreams and experiences that are extraordinary. This leads him to question why there is good and evil in the world.
When Antonio accompanies Ultima to El Puerto to cure the uncle who has been cursed by witches, he experiences what few children experience. He participates in a cleansing ceremony in which Ultima expels the ball of hair which made the uncle sick. Antonio has entered the realm of the shaman.
New Mexico folklore, our cuentos, contains many stories about people who can take the form of owls or coyotes, people who can fly. These witches (I prefer the term shaman) are people of power whose work may be viewed as good or evil, depending on the needs of those who ask for their assistance. Ultima is a shaman who uses her positive power to do good.
With the arrival of Ultima, Antonio begins a journey into "the world of spirits," the realm in which the shaman operates. Antonio enters a new reality. His dreams begin to reflect this magical, sometimes frightening, world. Is Antonio an apprentice to Ultima? If so, how can he reconcile the teachings of the church with the indigenous beliefs of Ultima? These and the other decisions Antonio must make create the tension in the novel.
"Where did you get Ultima's name?" many ask me. "That was her name when she came to me," I answer. From that first fortuitous meeting I have trained myself to act as a dream catcher. I don't seek characters, they seem to come to me asking me to tell their stories. Ultima came to reveal the world of the unconscious to me and to Antonio. In the realm of the unconscious the symbols of my culture are connected to world symbols. The Golden Carp of the novel is my myth, for as storyteller I am also mythmaker. The story of the Golden Carp resonates to the fish symbol of Christianity, Aztec mythology, and Pueblo Indian emergence tales.
There were women like Ultima in the traditional New Mexico villages. When there were no doctors in the villages there were the midwives (parteras). They gave massages (sobadoras), sometimes they had to set broken bones, and they knew and used a variety of herbs from the land to cure various ailments. Some of these healers conducted intensive cleansing ceremonies to cure the ill effects of the curses set by witches. Today you may go to a psychiatrist to cure mental distress, but for over four hundred years in New Mexico we had only our home-grown healers, those curanderas I call women warriors who helped restore harmony to the fragmented soul.
Curanderas still practice today. There is renewed interest in traditional medicine. Holistic healers are practicing in some of the areas the old curanderas treated. We all know people who seem to have special abilities to make, not only our bodies, but our spirits feel better. Ultima has such knowledge.
When I finished writing Bless Me, Ultima I sent it to many major publishers. I received many rejections, but writers are strong willed. (You have to be if you think there are people out there waiting to read your story.) Finally I sent it to Quinto Sol, a small press in Berkeley. The manuscript was accepted, and I was awarded the 1971 Premio Quinto Sol Literary Prize for the best Chicano novel of the year. The novel was published in 1972. In the 1960s and '70s the Mexican American community was going through a civil rights struggle. In the arts there was a renaissance called the Chicano Movement. Poetry, fiction, theatre, murals, and music blossomed and became part of the social and economic struggle to better the lives of Mexican Americans. I became part of that literary movement and was invited to many university campuses and communities to speak about my novel.
In 1974 I began teaching at the University of New Mexico. I kept writing, completing my somewhat autobiographical New Mexico trilogy with Heart of Aztlan and Tortuga. Heart of Aztlan is set in the 1950s in Barelas, a barrio in Alburquerque. My parents had moved us to the city, following the pattern after World War II which drew many families from small New Mexican communities to seek work in bigger cities. Tortuga is a novel that verges on magical realism in which the hospital becomes the underworld that the boy, Tortuga, must struggle to leave.
But Bless Me, Ultima remains the favorite. I believe readers have sympathy for Antonio's spiritual journey. Perhaps, like Antonio, we have questioned our faith or beliefs, and we understand his search for the truth. The novel also explores folklore, myth, and dream in a lyrical narrative. Readers tell me they feel the landscape come alive in the novel, the river palpitates with its presence, its soul, and the llano seems to form the character of the people who live there. The sun and moon, the river and the open plain, the themes of good and evil, the teaching of the Catholic church and the native spirituality, all these elements form archetypes that touch the reader.
The beliefs of my traditional New Mexican culture are grounded in the Catholic religion and Spanish folktales from the Iberian world. These beliefs are influenced by cultural borrowings from the Pueblo Indian way of life. This culture is the backdrop for the novel. It is the way of life of the Nuevos Mexicanos that inspires my creativity. But a novel is not written to explain a culture, it creates its own. I create stories, so the reader must separate realistic portrayals of the culture from fiction.
I am still writing. My recent novels include a quartet written around the seasons and set in Alburquerque, where I live. The quartet started with the spring novel, Alburquerque, then shifted to three murder mysteries: Zia Summer, Rio Grande Fall, and Shaman Winter. The novels are set in the city and deal with more contemporary themes, yet they echo the same spiritual themes I explored in Bless Me, Ultima. I have also written dozens of short stories and essays, many plays, and recently picture books and stories for young readers.
The success of Bless Me, Ultima is due to its readers. One reader tells another about it, or a teacher uses it with students. I'm especially pleased when young readers read and discuss my work. Antonio's story has attracted readers from all over the world. It has been widely translated into many languages. I am still amazed, and thankful, the novel has this power to touch the lives of people, and perhaps like Ultima, help in the healing process that we all need in our daily lives.
Alburquerque, New Mexico
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. She took my hand, and the silent, magic powers she possessed made beauty from the raw, sun-baked llano, the green river valley, and the blue bowl which was the white sun's home. My bare feet felt the throbbing earth and my body trembled with excitement. Time stood still, and it shared with me all that had been, and all that was to come….
Let me begin at the beginning. I do not mean the beginning that was in my dreams and the stories they whispered to me about my birth, and the people of my father and mother, and my three brothers—but the beginning that came with Ultima.
The attic of our home was partitioned into two small rooms. My sisters, Deborah and Theresa, slept in one and I slept in the small cubicle by the door. The wooden steps creaked down into a small hallway that led into the kitchen. From the top of the stairs I had a vantage point into the heart of our home, my mother's kitchen. From there I was to see the terrified face of Chávez when he brought the terrible news of the murder of the sheriff; I was to see the rebellion of my brothers against my father; and many times late at night I was to see Ultima returning from the llano where she gathered the herbs that can be harvested only in the light of the full moon by the careful hands of a curandera.
That night I lay very quietly in my bed, and I heard my father and mother speak of Ultima.
"Está sola," my father said, "ya no queda gente en el pueblito de Las Pasturas—"
He spoke in Spanish, and the village he mentioned was his home. My father had been a vaquero all his life, a calling as ancient as the coming of the Spaniard to Nuevo Méjico. Even after the big rancheros and the tejanos came and fenced the beautiful llano, he and those like him continued to work there, I guess because only in that wide expanse of land and sky could they feel the freedom their spirits needed.
"Qué lástima," my mother answered, and I knew her nimble fingers worked the pattern on the doily she crocheted for the big chair in the sala.
I heard her sigh, and she must have shuddered too when she thought of Ultima living alone in the loneliness of the wide llano. My mother was not a woman of the llano, she was the daughter of a farmer. She could not see beauty in the llano and she could not understand the coarse men who lived half their lifetimes on horseback. After I was born in Las Pasturas she persuaded my father to leave the llano and bring her family to the town of Guadalupe where she said there would be opportunity and school for us. The move lowered my father in the esteem of his compadres, the other vaqueros of the llano who clung tenaciously to their way of life and freedom. There was no room to keep animals in town so my father had to sell his small herd, but he would not sell his horse so he gave it to a good friend, Benito Campos. But Campos could not keep the animal penned up because somehow the horse was very close to the spirit of the man, and so the horse was allowed to roam free and no vaquero on that llano would throw a lazo on that horse. It was as if someone had died, and they turned their gaze from the spirit that walked the earth.
It hurt my father's pride. He saw less and less of his old compadres. He went to work on the highway and on Saturdays after they collected their pay he drank with his crew at the Longhorn, but he was never close to the men of the town. Some weekends the llaneros would come into town for supplies and old amigos like Bonney or Campos or the Gonzales brothers would come by to visit. Then my father's eyes lit up as they drank and talked of the old days and told the old stories. But when the western sun touched the clouds with orange and gold the vaqueros got in their trucks and headed home, and my father was left to drink alone in the long night. Sunday morning he would get up very crudo and complain about having to go to early mass.
"—She served the people all her life, and now the people are scattered, driven like tumbleweeds by the winds of war. The war sucks everything dry," my father said solemnly, "it takes the young boys overseas, and their families move to California where there is work—"
"Ave Mariá Purisima," my mother made the sign of the cross for my three brothers who were away at war. "Gabriel," she said to my father, "it is not right that la Grande be alone in her old age—"
"No," my father agreed.
"When I married you and went to the llano to live with you and raise your family, I could not have survived without la Grande's help. Oh, those were hard years—"
"Those were good years," my father countered. But my mother would not argue.
"There isn't a family she did not help," she continued, "no road was too long for her to walk to its end to snatch somebody from the jaws of death, and not even the blizzards of the llano could keep her from the appointed place where a baby was to be delivered—"
"Es verdad," my father nodded.
"She tended me at the birth of my sons—" And then I knew her eyes glanced briefly at my father. "Gabriel, we cannot let her live her last days in loneliness—"
"No," my father agreed, "it is not the way of our people."
"It would be a great honor to provide a home for la Grande," my mother murmured. My mother called Ultima la Grande out of respect. It meant the woman was old and wise.
"I have already sent word with Campos that Ultima is to come and live with us," my father said with some satisfaction. He knew it would please my mother.
"I am grateful," my mother said tenderly, "perhaps we can repay a little of the kindness la Grande has given to so many."
"And the children?" my father asked. I knew why he expressed concern for me and my sisters. It was because Ultima was a curandera, a woman who knew the herbs and remedies of the ancients, a miracle-worker who could heal the sick. And I had heard that Ultima could lift the curses laid by brujas, that she could exorcise the evil the witches planted in people to make them sick. And because a curandera had this power she was misunderstood and often suspected of practicing witchcraft herself.
I shuddered and my heart turned cold at the thought. The cuentos of the people were full of the tales of evil done by brujas.
"She helped bring them into the world, she cannot be but good for the children," my mother answered.
"Está bien," my father yawned, "I will go for her in the morning."
So it was decided that Ultima should come and live with us. I knew that my father and mother did good by providing a home for Ultima. It was the custom to provide for the old and the sick. There was always room in the safety and warmth of la familia for one more person, be that person stranger or friend.
It was warm in the attic, and as I lay quietly listening to the sounds of the house falling asleep and repeating a Hail Mary over and over in my thoughts, I drifted into the time of dreams. Once I had told my mother about my dreams, and she said they were visions from God and she was happy, because her own dream was that I should grow up and become a priest. After that I did not tell her about my dreams, and they remained in me forever and ever…
In my dream I flew over the rolling hills of the llano. My soul wandered over the dark plain until it came to a cluster of adobe huts. I recognized the village of Las Pasturas and my heart grew happy. One mud hut had a lighted window, and the vision of my dream swept me towards it to be witness at the birth of a baby.
I could not make out the face of the mother who rested from the pains of birth, but I could see the old woman in black who tended the just-arrived, steaming baby. She nimbly tied a knot on the cord that had connected the baby to its mother's blood, then quickly she bent and with her teeth she bit off the loose end. She wrapped the squirming baby and laid it at the mother's side, then she returned to cleaning the bed. All linen was swept aside to be washed, but she carefully wrapped the useless cord and the afterbirth and laid the package at the feet of the Virgin on the small altar. I sensed that these things were yet to be delivered to someone.
Now the people who had waited patiently in the dark were allowed to come in and speak to the mother and deliver their gifts to the baby. I recognized my mother's brothers, my uncles from El Puerto de los Lunas. They entered ceremoniously. A patient hope stirred in their dark, brooding eyes.
This one will be a Luna, the old man said, he will be a farmer and keep our customs and traditions. Perhaps God will bless our family and make the baby a priest.
And to show their hope they rubbed the dark earth of the river valley on the baby's forehead, and they surrounded the bed with the fruits of their harvest so the small room smelled of fresh green chile and corn, ripe apples and peaches, pumpkins and green beans.
Then the silence was shattered with the thunder of hoofbeats; vaqueros surrounded the small house with shouts and gunshots, and when they entered the room they were laughing and singing and drinking.
Gabriel, they shouted, you have a fine son! He will make a fine vaquero! And they smashed the fruits and vegetables that surrounded the bed and replaced them with a saddle, horse blankets, bottles of whiskey, a new rope, bridles, chapas, and an old guitar. And they rubbed the stain of earth from the baby's forehead because man was not to be tied to the earth but free upon it.
These were the people of my father, the vaqueros of the llano. They were an exuberant, restless people, wandering across the ocean of the plain.
We must return to our valley, the old man who led the farmers spoke. We must take with us the blood that comes after the birth. We will bury it in our fields to renew their fertility and to assure that the baby will follow our ways. He nodded for the old woman to deliver the package at the altar.
No! the llaneros protested, it will stay here! We will burn it and let the winds of the llano scatter the ashes.
It is blasphemy to scatter a man's blood on unholy ground, the farmers chanted. The new son must fulfill his mother's dream. He must come to El Puerto and rule over the Lunas of the valley. The blood of the Lunas is strong in him.
He is a Márez, the vaqueros shouted. His forefathers were conquistadores, men as restless as the seas they sailed and as free as the land they conquered. He is his father's blood!
Curses and threats filled the air, pistols were drawn, and the opposing sides made ready for battle. But the clash was stopped by the old woman who delivered the baby.
Cease! she cried, and the men were quiet. I pulled this baby into the light of life, so I will bury the afterbirth and the cord that once linked him to eternity. Only I will know his destiny.
The dream began to dissolve. When I opened my eyes I heard my father cranking the truck outside. I wanted to go with him, I wanted to see Las Pasturas, I wanted to see Ultima. I dressed hurriedly, but I was too late. The truck was bouncing down the goat path that led to the bridge and the highway.
I turned, as I always did, and looked down the slope of our hill to the green of the river, and I raised my eyes and saw the town of Guadalupe. Towering above the housetops and the trees of the town was the church tower. I made the sign of the cross on my lips. The only other building that rose above the housetops to compete with the church tower was the yellow top of the schoolhouse. This fall I would be going to school.
My heart sank. When I thought of leaving my mother and going to school a warm, sick feeling came to my stomach. To get rid of it I ran to the pens we kept by the molino to feed the animals. I had fed the rabbits that night and they already had alfalfa and so I only changed their water. I scattered some grain for the hungry chickens and watched their mad scramble as the rooster called them to peck. I milked the cow and turned her loose. During the day she would forage along the highway where the grass was thick and green, then she would return at nightfall. She was a good cow and there were very few times when I had to run and bring her back in the evening. Then I dreaded it, because she might wander into the hills where the bats flew at dusk and there was only the sound of my heart beating as I ran and it made me sad and frightened to be alone.
I collected three eggs in the chicken house and returned for breakfast.
"Antonio," my mother smiled and took the eggs and milk, "come and eat your breakfast."
I sat across the table from Deborah and Theresa and ate my atole and the hot tortilla with butter. I said very little. I usually spoke very little to my two sisters. They were older than I and they were very close. They usually spent the entire day in the attic, playing dolls and giggling. I did not concern myself with those things.
"Your father has gone to Las Pasturas," my mother chattered, "he has gone to bring la Grande." Her hands were white with the flour of the dough. I watched carefully. "—And when he returns, I want you children to show your manners. You must not shame your father or your mother—"
"Isn't her real name Ultima?" Deborah asked. She was like that, always asking grown-up questions.
"You will address her as la Grande," my mother said flatly. I looked at her and wondered if this woman with the black hair and laughing eyes was the woman who gave birth in my dream.
"Grande," Theresa repeated.
"Is it true she is a witch?" Deborah asked. Oh, she was in for it. I saw my mother whirl then pause and control herself.
"No!" she scolded. "You must not speak of such things! Oh, I don't know where you learn such ways—" Her eyes flooded with tears. She always cried when she thought we were learning the ways of my father, the ways of the Márez. "She is a woman of learning," she went on and I knew she didn't have time to stop and cry, "she had worked hard for all the people of the village. Oh, I would never have survived those hard years if it had not been for her—so show her respect. We are honored that she comes to live with us, understand?"
"Sí, mamá," Deborah said half willingly.
"Sí, mamá," Theresa repeated.
"Now run and sweep the room at the end of the hall. Eugene's room—" I heard her voice choke. She breathed a prayer and crossed her forehead. The flour left white stains on her, the four points of the cross. I knew it was because my three brothers were at war that she was sad, and Eugene was the youngest.
"Mamá." I wanted to speak to her. I wanted to know who the old woman was who cut the baby's cord.
"Sí." She turned and looked at me.
"Was Ultima at my birth?" I asked.
"¡Ay Dios mío!" my mother cried. She came to where I sat and ran her hand through my hair. She smelled warm, like bread. "Where do you get such questions, my son. Yes," she smiled, "la Grande was there to help me. She was there to help at the birth of all of my children—"
"And my uncles from El Puerto were there?"
"Of course," she answered, "my brothers have always been at my side when I needed them. They have always prayed that I would bless them with a—"
I did not hear what she said because I was hearing the sounds of the dream, and I was seeing the dream again. The warm cereal in my stomach made me feel sick.
"And my father's brother was there, the Márez' and their friends, the vaqueros—"
"Ay!" she cried out. "Don't speak to me of those worthless Márez and their friends!"
"There was a fight?" I asked.
"No," she said, "a silly argument. They wanted to start a fight with my brothers—that is all they are good for. Vaqueros, they call themselves, they are worthless drunks! Thieves! Always on the move, like gypsies, always dragging their families around the country like vagabonds—"
As long as I could remember she always raged about the Márez family and their friends. She called the village of Las Pasturas beautiful; she had gotten used to the loneliness, but she had never accepted its people. She was the daughter of farmers.
But the dream was true. It was as I had seen it. Ultima knew.
"But you will not be like them." She caught her breath and stopped. She kissed my forehead. "You will be like my brothers. You will be a Luna, Antonio. You will be a man of the people, and perhaps a priest." She smiled.
A priest, I thought, that was her dream. I was to hold mass on Sundays like father Byrnes did in the church in town. I was to hear the confessions of the silent people of the valley, and I was to administer the holy Sacrament to them.
"Perhaps," I said.
"Yes," my mother smiled. She held me tenderly. The fragrance of her body was sweet.
"But then," I whispered, "who will hear my confession?"
"Nothing," I answered. I felt a cool sweat on my forehead and I knew I had to run, I had to clear my mind of the dream. "I am going to Jasón's house," I said hurriedly and slid past my mother. I ran out the kitchen door, past the animal pens, towards Jasón's house. The white sun and the fresh air cleansed me.
On this side of the river there were only three houses. The slope of the hill rose gradually into the hills of juniper and mesquite and cedar clumps. Jasón's house was farther away from the river than our house. On the path that led to the bridge lived huge, fat Fío and his beautiful wife. Fío and my father worked together on the highway. They were good drinking friends.
"¡Jasón!" I called at the kitchen door. I had run hard and was panting. His mother appeared at the door.
"Jasón no está aquí," she said. All of the older people spoke only in Spanish, and I myself understood only Spanish. It was only after one went to school that one learned English.
"¿Dónde está?" I asked.
She pointed towards the river, northwest, past the railroad tracks to the dark hills. The river came through those hills and there were old Indian grounds there, holy burial grounds Jasón told me. There in an old cave lived his Indian. At least everybody called him Jasón's Indian. He was the only Indian of the town, and he talked only to Jasón. Jasón's father had forbidden Jasón to talk to the Indian, he had beaten him, he had tried in every way to keep Jasón from the Indian.
But Jasón persisted. Jasón was not a bad boy, he was just Jasón. He was quiet and moody, and sometimes for no reason at all wild, loud sounds came exploding from his throat and lungs. Sometimes I felt like Jasón, like I wanted to shout and cry, but I never did.
- "The best-known and most-respected contemporary Chicano fiction."—New York Times
- "One of the nation's foremost Chicano literary artists."—Denver Post
- On Sale
- Jun 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing