Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum
Teacher professional development and classroom resources across the curriculum
Title of work: Bless
Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
Antonio Marez is six years old when Ultima comes to stay with his family. A curandera, or healer, Ultima teaches him about the curative powers of the natural world and the human spirit. Though some in his community see Ultima as a witch, Antonio grows to love her. As he accompanies her to gather herbs and attend to the sick, Antonio begins to probe and question the lessons of both pagan beliefs and his family's Catholicism. In the midst of this spiritual struggle, he also begins to question the future course of his own life. Throughout, Ultima guides him and gives him the courage to face challenges ranging from bigotry and the collapse of his brother, to his witnessing of violent death. A lyrical coming-of-age story that The New York Times called "probably the best-known and most-respected contemporary Chicano fiction," this novel explores the complex relationship between medicine and belief.
I think that I write about my place and what I call the spirit of my place because the people and the place had to be put in books. Our oral tradition was dying, in the sense that after World War II, when I was growing up, a big change came to New Mexico, a big change came to the Mexicanos, to the Hispanos of the Southwest. The young men were going to leave the small towns and go out and work. Some were going to go to colleges through the GI Bill of Rights. And some of those stories were going to be lost. And there was something in me that was telling me: "You have to tell the story of your community." These people are too important in what they represent. The culture and the folklore has to be in books. That's how we're going to share it in the future.
Q & A
Was there a specific teacher or mentor in your schooling who encouraged you to write?
I was going to school in the 1940s and 1950s, and at that time, I don't think Chicanos were encouraged to write. By that I mean, when I look back, for example, at my high school years, I don't remember a counselor, for example, telling me that I had an ability in something. I could write and I was doing well in school. I had good grades. But there was nothing there telling me, "Why don't you try this?" Nobody even told me to try the university. After high school, I went to business school for a couple of years, and I got tired of that. And one day, by sheer accident, something told me, "Why don't you try the university?" And I went up and signed up, and that's how I kind of fell into university study. I use the term "by accident" because there was not enough guidance in those years. I think the times have changed. I think students now have more counseling and teachers who encourage them.
Why do you write in English?
I grew up in a small town in New Mexico, in Santa Rosa. My family -- uncles and aunts and grandfather, and the entire community, everybody -- spoke Spanish. So I grew up in a Spanish-speaking family, and I didn't learn English until I went to school in the first grade. That was culture shock, believe me. It was a small town and we had teachers that knew a little bit of Spanish. Thereafter, all of my schooling was in English. I went to the University of New Mexico and got a degree in the English department, in literature. So when I came to write, I wasn't prepared to write in Spanish. I was prepared to write in English. And when I wrote my first poems and short stories and novels, it was natural, I think, to write in the language of which I had command.
Talk about how World War II impacted your community.
I was in grade school in the 1940s. I had three brothers; all three were in the service. And the war was changing the small villages and small communities because the young men were gone. And there was a sense of foreboding in a way, a sense of grief, because some of them weren't coming back. And I think religion and the whole idea of the spiritual life became very important to me because my mother was a very devout Catholic and we had to pray every single night. Then, the whole idea of the atomic bomb. And I remember, as kids in school we were wondering about this terrible instrument that had been created. And we would ask ourselves, "Is the world coming to an end?" It was a time, I think, for asking a lot of deep, significant questions because of the war, because the atomic bomb was being developed.
And at the same time, I was spending my summers along the river -- I grew up along the Pecos River in New Mexico -- and feeling another kind of spiritual environment in the river, which is the power of nature. And that was calling to me as much as the other part that was sad and full of prayer, and, in a way, full of change. We knew a terrible change was coming, that the communities were just not going to be the same again.
Let's talk about how you began writing Bless Me, Ultima.
When I was at the university, I began by writing poetry. And most of the poetry that I wrote was for young women I was dating. Believe it or not, I used to write Shakespearean sonnets, because I fell in love with literature and I was reading a lot. And then I'd try my hand at different types of the poetry that I was reading. And after that, I went to novels and I wrote these long novels -- most of them were about young people in trouble. And I think that was the process of learning to write; it's kind of a process of "I don't know what I'm doing, but I have to do it, I have to write." I had come out of -- or, I'm a product of -- an oral tradition, not a written tradition. In my family and the community that I grew up in, we grew up hearing cuentos, hearing the folk stories. People were fantastic storytellers. Anybody that came to visit the family would just tell a story all night long, you know? And I guess those voices are the voices that were telling me, "You have to write."
I wrote a lot of stories and novels, and later on, I burned all the manuscripts. I threw them in a fireplace one night. And I started writing Bless Me, Ultima as a story of growing up in a small town. The story was about Antonio. But I think what happened during the process of writing Bless Me, Ultima is that Ultima came into it. Ultima visited me, appeared to me, and told me that she had to be in the novel, she had to get in the novel, she had to be a character. And that's the spirit of the novel. And I think she represents those people that used to tell stories. She represents the tradition, the culture, the healers, our mothers who took care of families. Remember, in some of these small towns at the end of the 1940s, we didn't go to the doctor, we didn't have the money. And a lot of the care was done at home by our mothers and the curanderas that maybe lived in the town or in the ranches. [If] a man fell off a horse and broke an arm, they would set it. [If] a woman was having a baby way out, 20 miles out in the middle of nowhere on a ranch, the curandera went. And so those are the voices I think that it represents.
And once Ultima appeared in the novel, then the novel acquired a soul, a life. It was more than just a story about Antonio growing up. I now become a storyteller, and I'm telling not only the story of my people and these fabulous characters that I met as a child, but she's forcing me to go deeper: 'What is your history, what is your past? What are the old, old stories? Where do they come from? And how do those give you identity? Who are you?" And so the novel answers for Antonio, the main character, who he is, and it answers it for me, the writer. And so the novel is also a process of discovery, a process of illumination, which is what all creativity is all about. The musician, the dancer, the poet, the moviemaker, are discovering not only their subject, but about themselves.
Describe the autobiographical nature of the novel.
Bless Me, Ultima is autobiographical in the sense that I relate very closely to Antonio. It's written in first person, and so every time I have Antonio doing something, I feel that Antonio is me. I use my hometown as background, I used the river, the church, the school, the villages, the people, my classmates. I just throw them in the novel. It's almost as if the novel is ready-made. But then there's the element of fiction, the element of composing to put all of this together. I have to have it make sense, create not only a chronology -- but why is that chronology important? Create not only the geography of the town and the river -- but why is it important? And it's important because as I delve deeper and deeper into that landscape, it becomes a sacred landscape. It acquires an element of the sacred that that's where my childhood took place, that's where I came from, and that's where all those stories took place. That's where people rejoiced and went to dances and had good times, and that's where people died. That's where the sheriff of the town died, where my friend drowned at the lake. I think writing is also making sense out of life, putting it together not only on the level of autobiography but, as I say, going deeper. What did I find in the river and the lakes of that small town?
How do you use myth, ritual, and folklore to illuminate culture?
I write about the Mexican Americans here in the Southwest, specifically New Mexico. But myth is something that is inherent in us. Not only am I a maker of myths, but every person is too. It's part of our inheritance. And I think if we can look at it that way, then it doesn't become something that's foreign. It's just in us. That's part of our capacity as human beings, to carry those stories within us. And one way to begin, I think, especially, to understand Bless Me, Ultima is to maybe read some of the folktales of New Mexico. We have the fabulous collection of the oral tradition that was brought up into this country by the Spaniards and by the Mexicans that settled here in the sixteenth century. And if you could read a few of those folktales, you can understand not only the fantasy and the themes, but you can understand how the people carried that whole sense of storytelling and mythology and [how] they brought it to the place in which they settled. I'm just a product of that whole place and that community, and so I'm just a link in the chain. There were storytellers before me and there will be storytellers after me, and I just happened to like to touch that depth of the origins. Myth tells us of the origins: How did things get started? What is our relationship to the gods? Our relationship to the spiritual world? And that's what you find in Bless Me, Ultima.
Explain the significance of La Llorona, the crying woman.
It's hard to tell sometimes, to tell people this, that La Llorona is just a story. But when you are growing up in the environment I grew up in, she was real. She still is, because I keep writing about her. La Llorona is the most prevalent story in this area -- every Mexican American has heard of La Llorona. This is the woman that is driven to kill her children. Usually she drowns them. The basic story goes that she fell in love with a man or a prince or a rich guy, and she has a baby. And then the rich guy goes away and abandons her, and in a rage, a fit of revenge or rage, she takes it out on the child and drowns the child. When I was growing up, these stories were told. And [the story is] used to keep us away from danger. So if our parents would say, "Don't go near the river -- La Llorona will get you," what they are really saying is, "There's danger," you know, "you can fall in, don't stay out too late at night."
I can't tell you how much time I spent along the river. And the river has these towering cottonwood trees, so you could get lost. It's like a jungle. And there are deer and birds and raccoons and snakes, so it's like living in nature, in the soul of nature. And La Llorona lives there, because you find yourself down there alone late in the evening and you begin to hear sounds, and then you begin to hear La Llorona. And then you see her, which I did many times -- and then I had to run home. When I was writing, that's the La Llorona I used in Bless Me, Ultima, that spirit that is looking for her children. She drowned her children and now she's looking for them, and she's liable to get you because she can mistake you as being the child that she drowned. She appears in all of my novels, in all of my work. I wrote a story called The Legend of La Llorona in which I suggest that the reason that she murders her children is because she sees that they are about to be enslaved. They are either to become slaves of the Spaniards, or to be murdered -- they are to be taken back to Spain where they will die. And rather than have that happen to them, she makes the choice of killing them and throwing them in the lake. So this fabulous spiritual character, who is sister and mother and grandmother and spirit from the stories of the past, appears in different versions in my writing.
How did you come up with the image of the golden carp (Bless Me, Ultima)?
The golden carp is a fish that represents so many things -- an image that is a symbol, and that symbol is an archetypal image. It can now touch the archetypal images of all the mythology of the world because we have them in common. That is our common humanity, that we all come from one source and we all have the stories from one source, and we have to discover them in our own place. And that's what I do -- in discovering that spirit of my place -- is open myself up to the people, to the environment, to the stories, and then let it flow through me and work its way into the story. My process of writing is in creating myth that somehow relates to that community. But it's also going to touch base with other mythologies in the world. And that's part of the process. I'm not just doing autobiography; I'm a storyteller, and the storyteller has to compose stories that have meaning for the community. And most of the meaning comes about in mythology, in the myths. And so I become a mythmaker. I create myths.
Information about key references
The curandera is a traditional folk healer who uses herbs, incantations, and/or physical manipulation to heal. The curandera sees no separation between mind and body, and may be consulted for social, spiritual, or physical problems. Ultima is a curandera.
La Llorona, or "the weeping woman," is a legendary figure in Chicano folklore, with roots in pre-Columbian Mexico. She is a ghost who wanders near rivers crying for her children. According to legend, La Llorona drowned her children in a river either because she was crazy, having been jilted by a lover, or because she was preventing them from being colonized and enslaved. Today, many Chicana writers have adopted the legend of La Llorona, breathing new life into her in their creative writing.
La Virgen de Guadalupe
Also known as Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, the Virgin, who appeared to Juan Diego, a 16th-century Christian Indian from Mexico, is considered the symbol of Mexican Catholicism. She is the mother of God, to whom Antonio and his mother pray in the novel.
A bruja or brujo is essentially a witch. Belief in witchcraft has been common in the American Southwest, as evidenced by the large number of folkloric tales about witchcraft in New Mexico and Texas.
In Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio has long and vivid dreams that sometimes reveal his past, and at other times hint at his future.
Suggestions for applying other theories to Bless Me, Ultima
Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima is a rich novel that lends itself well to the inquiry approach taken in the program. Teacher Jorge Arredondo engaged his students initially in open and free response to the novel before jumping into a more complex inquiry. He could also have stayed with reader-response activities. Because many of Arredondo's students share Anaya's cultural heritage, they were able to bring a rich "schema" - or background - to the class. In classes where fewer students are attuned to the author's culture, teachers may choose to offer a brief overview of the author's cultural world.
Teachers can also introduce cultural studies activities that explore myth, ritual, and tradition in rural New Mexico. For example, they can have students research collections of folktales or read about folk culture. They can study the influence of Native American, Spanish, and European-American traditions as they blend to produce certain ritual celebrations such as Dios de los Muertos, Dia de los Reyes, or other holidays.
Critical issues worth exploring in the novel might include the effect of war on family and communities, the tension between Catholicism and other belief systems, or the sociocultural development of young children. After further reading and conversation, students might engage in some form of anti-war activism, such as educating other students, teachers, or parents about the effects of war they have read about, especially as they pertain to young children.