"BLESS ME, ULTIMA,"
FOR AN ANGLO AUDIENCE
by Dr. Willis E. McNelly
Professor Emeritus, English and Comparative Literature
California State University, Fullerton
Let me begin by saying my knowledge of Spanish is limited to "Dos cervesa, por favor," or, what inevitably follows, "Donde esta el bano?"
I make this confession much to my own disgrace, to be sure, living as I do in Southern California where 40% of the population is Spanish speaking, yet I never realized the depth and profundity of the Hispanic heritage of the Southwest until my wife and I made a visit to New Mexico a dozen or more years ago. There the city sign outside Santa Fe informed me, in effect, that it had been founded nearly 50 years before the Pilgrims first set foot on Plymouth Rock.
Fifty years? Why had I not been taught this simple but profound fact in grade school? Why was not the heroic Hispanic tradition as much a part of our curriculum as that of Squanto and the first Thanksgiving in far away New England or John Smith and Pocahontas in Virginia? Where was the history of Nuevo Mexico and that of the Pueblo peoples? At a loss for answers - aside from the white Anglo-Saxon tilt of our country - I began to investigate for myself, soon discovering - or was it uncovering - the incredibly rich traditions left by the Spanish forefathers - - "los antepasados."
As a result of that early study and in an attempt to fill what I felt was a major lacuna in my department's curriculum, I decided to work up a course in the literature of the Southwest as one more elective toward our English major.
In searching for possible titles while I was on various trips to the area, I consulted booksellers in both Albuquerque and Santa Fe and asked almost everyone I met what volumes they would suggest. Many titles were obvious: Willa Cather's "Death Comes for the Archbishop," Wallace Stegner's "Angle of Repose," both novels by Pulitzer Prize winning writers, of course. A Hillerman was equally obvious, and my favorite was "A Thief of Time." Something by Leslie Marmon Silko and Scott Momaday, certainly. A Frank Waters' novel, to be sure. I had to include something by the man, Frank Waters, I consider to be one of America's most neglected great writers. Gradually the list began to swell until I was forced to exclude major works like "Lonesome Dove" simply because it was too long, or "The Milagro Beanfield War" because it was too episodic.
Other recommendations I heard again and again were Oliver LaFarge's "Laughing Boy" and "Riders to Cibola," by Norman Zollinger, a writer I'd never heard of at the time. Yet everyone - and I mean everyone - asked me if I had yet read "Bless Me, Ultima," by Rudolfo Anaya. No I hadn't, yet I dutifully read from A to Z - Anaya to Zollinger - and fell in love with both. Zollinger's story, for those of you who may not have read it, tells of a young Hispanic who fled across the border near El Paso about the turn of the century and eventually becomes the chief vaquero of a major cattle ranch in south central New Mexico. There's a lot more, of course, but I know of few better books which treat of the impact of one culture on another and portray quite movingly the inter-relationship of genuine human beings in a well sketched landscape, as well as "Riders to Cibola."
Given time, I'd like to tell you a bit about Norman Zollinger as well, for I met him and he very generously gave me an extensive interview, materials from which have proved invaluable in my teaching. Perhaps at still one more conference like this one.
But Anaya was another matter. The book lay neglected on my shelf at home until still one more enthusiastic reader from Albuquerque gave me a list of the all-time favorite books of New Mexico readers as determined by an extensive poll. To my considerable surprise, "Bless Me Ultima" led all the rest. Not books by Willa Cather. Not my own favorite, the Wallace Stegner novel. Not Frank Waters. Not J. Frank Dobie. Not Tony Hillerman. Not Paul Horgan. Not Mary Austin. Not . . . but Rudolfo Anaya and "Bless Me Ultima."
So I sat down and read it. Or rather my wife read it aloud to me while we were driving from one lonesome place in New Mexico to another, and later I devoured it in one sitting for a second reading. I'm on the fourth or fifth time through it now, and my copy is filled with underlinings, marginalia, exclamation points, and question marks. Moved as much by tears as I was by laughter, moved by both characterization and style, moved by both awe and respect, I soon readily understood its position as the number one favorite among New Mexican readers. When I taught the class in literature of the Southwest this last fall at Cal State Fullerton, I polled the students, and to no one's surprise, it was their clear favorite as well.
Yet while teaching the book I kept wondering how I would approach it to my largely Anglo students. How could I explain things in the novel which I, lacking fluency in Spanish, barely understood. Fortunately I did not embarrass myself too often by asking some of the Spanish speaking students in the class what "Chingada!" meant. I made that mistake only once, recovering from my blushes with the realization that most of the unbowdlerized language in the novel would never have been taught in 4th year Spanish at my University anyway.
What kind of a novel, then is "Bless Me, Ultima?" Briefly, it may be classified as a coming of age novel, a book about a young boy growing up in eastern New Mexico. As a novel of adolescence, a "bildungsroman", it resembles, at least superficially, books like "Huckleberry Finn," "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," "Catcher in the Rye," or that other classic New Mexico novel, "Red Sky at Morning." "Bless Me, Ultima," of course differs from the others mentioned because of its background - New Mexico; its linguistic heritage - the children after all speak only Spanish before they enter school; and the character of the title character, Ultima, the curandera - the healer, the Presence who mediates, who teaches the young narrator about life, suffering, and above all, love and healing.
Yet the novel, apparently "merely" (I hope you can hear my quotation marks) a Chicano novel, a regionalist work that has achieved "some minor national status," (again hear the quotes) is also one of the seminal works which promise to lead Chicano writing into the canon of world literature. Nonetheless, before "Bless Me, Ultima," or its successors can hope to reach those Olympian realms, we must be concerned about how Anglo readers can approach the book. After all, it is drenched with Spanish words and phrases (I can now cuss eloquently if not elegantly in Spanish) and is laced with Hispanic myth.
How can I explain the mystique of "The Silence of the Llano", to cite another Anaya title as well as the importance of the llano itself, or the vitality of the family traditions of the "Lunas" or "Marez" in "Bless Me, Ultima"; or the over-arching presence of Hispanic Roman Catholicism (different almost in kind from the Celtic Catholic traditions which imbue most of our American Anglo culture) in the novel. It is, most certainly, a Roman Catholicism so pervasive that it is roughly analogous to water for fish: life is unthinkable, inconceivable, even unlivable, without it.
Nonetheless it is a Catholicism infused with elements that are apparently pagan, Native American, or, to some, superstitious. Consequently, it might be difficult to explain those elements even to Catholics trained in the northern European tradition as opposed to the southern European or Hispanic tradition. Furthermore, what about the considerable problems teachers must face in either learning about those rituals themselves as well as explaining them to non-Catholics of whatever persuasion in the class.
In the face of these obstacles to the teaching of the book, and some of them are considerable, I would suggest several options: A major one would be the opportunity for many students of learning about an entire new culture, of appreciating its charm, or of understanding an integral part of our western American civilization. Yet I would suggest that none of those options are minor; after all, how many new worlds do you discover each year?
Moreover, I would suggest that this remarkable novel works on many different levels. It is first and foremost, a rattling good story that can stand simply as the semi-autobiographical tale of a young boy facing good and evil, life and death, joy and suffering. Episodic in nature, each chapter can virtually stand by itself, even though they are linked by the vivid characters which inhabit the pages of this marvelous novel. Teach it as a story or episodic narrative, in other words. It works well as "tale," and I can guarantee that your students will never forget the hilarious Christmas pageant episode as the seven year old boys are forced to take over the girls' roles during a blizzard that has swept in from the llano. Simple things like the boy Abel who has been ignored after telling the teachers repeatedly that he has to take a pee, finally puddling on the floor. Yet almost immediately, laughter is followed by tears as the narrator nearly succumbs to pneumonia. It's that kind of a book, unashamedly draining the emotions from the reader, buffeting them, assuaging them, ultimately emphasizing their importance.
On a more profound level, we could analyze the dream sequences, the shading of reality into illusion or even hallucination, or for that matter we could examine Anaya's use of his dream sequences in a very Joycean matter, illuminating reality by showing its essential insubstantiality. And here again, the tools which we all know and use can help us here - or what's an education for, to paraphrase Browning.
Similarly we could work on the major metaphors of the book in pretty standard ways: the trials of the young narrator; his rites of passage; his struggles for identity; his questioning but ultimately affirming Faith-struggle - all these and more can easily yield to traditional approaches. For example, young Antonio the narrator, a thinly veiled palimpsest for Anaya himself, becomes a writer/teacher rather than a priest, but the Mission is the same for both roles - the embracing of all humanity through understanding and forgiveness.
As far as the Mares and Lunas opposition is concerned, here a relatively standard method of approach might help us in the classroom: the Jungian or archetypal tenets of criticism. It is not my intention here either to justify or explain that school, but we should remember that Jung himself was deeply moved by Taos pueblo cultures and referred to them frequently and admiringly through out this life. Rather I would suggest that some scholars might readily maintain that only through the Jungian method will we be enabled to place the Anaya novel within the circuit of world literature and explain it to an Anglo audience. Indeed, I might go so far as to insist that virtually no other school - not the Freudians, for heaven's sakes, and just as assuredly not the deconstructionists or even the post deconstructionists - can enable us to plumb the depths of Anaya's book. Even the strictly textual critics or biographical critics might founder on the shoals of repeated "Chingadas!" and pious invocations to "Madre mia."
While a detailed explication is impossible in the time allotted to me today, I venture to say that only the Jungian or the archetypal approach can enable us to understand the importance of the myth of the Golden Carp that infuses several sections of the novel. To call upon what Jung calls the polarities or Yeats labeled the "antinomies" will enable us to see how Anaya's utilizes the overt paganism of the Golden Carp myth as a valid belief system or mythos, even mystique, against which he can clash the more conventional symbols of good and evil that also permeate the novel. These symbols seem to spring directly from the Jungian concept of the collective unconscious, and must be accepted and understood as such.
As a further suggestion we might also wish to examine, given "world enough and time" the lurking menace of the Jungian Shadow exemplified by the evil presence of Tenorio and his machinations. But to do so is, again, impossible in these brief minutes.
And finally, we must address how best to explain the Presence of Ultima, the curandera who lends her name to the title of this book. I venture to say that to Hispanics, steeped in a tradition of white magic and the myths of the great earth mother, no explanation will be necessary, but to Anglos, rejecting the intuitive, accepting only the intellectual, the masculine, no explanation may be possible - without Jung and the archetypes.
Anaya himself has repeated defended the validity of myth and archetypes. He once said in an interview with David Johnson and David Apodoca:
"One way I have of looking at my own work . . . is through a sense that I have about primal images, primal imageries. A sense that I have about the archetypal, about what we once must have had collectively.
What we all share is a kind of collective memory . . . it simply says that there was more harmony, there was more a sense that we knew we were dust. That we had been created from it, that we were in touch with it, that we danced on it, and the dust swirled around us and that it grew the very kind of basic stuff we need to exist. That's what I'm after. My relationship to it."
Thus Ultima is not merely or even only a representation of the Jungian feminine principle, the Anima, she is also the "last", the "final", the Ultimate connection with Mother Nature or even Mother Earth Herself, the dust that bred us and the dust that will embrace us.
Anaya himself provides the best summary of the role Ultima plays in the novel. As she lies dying and young Antonio, in an intercession which provides the name of the novel, pleads, "Bless me, Ultima -- " the Curandera's own elegiac reply summarizes the themes of the novel:
"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 evenings when the wind is gentle and the owls sing in the hills, I shall be with you.'"
And even Anglos can understand that trinitarian benediction -- the good, the strong, and the beautiful -- and Anglos can certainly come away from reading the book with a profound knowledge of a somewhat strange but incredibly rich society, indeed, an enriched sense of self. No wonder it's number one, numero uno, among both Hispanic and Anglo readers.
Gracias, mi amigos.