Bless Me, Ultima is a beautifully written novel by Rudolfo Anaya. This coming-of-age classic takes place during World War II in New Mexico and chronicles the growing pains of Antonio Juan Márez y Luna. Although most of the novel is written in English, the characters—most of which are Hispanic—primarily speak Spanish. When Spanish is used, it is with choice words or phrases, giving a lyrical embellishment to the narration while showcasing culture, character personalities, and themes. Anaya uses some words interchangeably; sometimes he will use the Spanish version and other times the English version. However, certain words are kept mostly in Spanish and may be pivotal in understanding the themes of Bless Me, Ultima. These words are: llano, curandera, and bruja.
The main character, Antonio, lives with his mother, father, and two sisters in the rocky area between the town and the llano, or open plain. This physical space is symbolic as Bless Me, Ultima narrates Antonio’s struggle between his mother’s dreams and his father’s dreams, his childhood and becoming a man, and the laws of the Church and the spirituality of native teachings. Antonio describes the llano with the heart of poet, illustrating his love for nature and his freedom in childhood. The llano is also symbolic of his father’s people, vasqueros (cowboys). They come from the llano and are wild and free on the open range. The llano is where Antonio communes with the magic of the earth, learned from Ultima, and where he seeks understanding he cannot gather from the church in town. In the novel, llano is never translated into English, as if marking the word as a scared and magical symbol. Instead, Anaya creates an understanding of the llano through his descriptive storytelling.
Ultima, also known as “La Grande” (a title of respect), is a curandera, which may be translated into “medicine woman.” Yet, a curandera is more than a person who is learned in herbology. Antonio and his family do not think of Ultima as a witch, or bruja, but as a person of profound knowledge and powerful in the forces of good. Even though Ultima uses magic, spells, and rites, Antonio understands her as peaceful, kind, loving, and wise—ideals he does not attribute to brujas. Through descriptive storytelling, Anaya creates a connotation for a curandera for those not familiar with the word, keeping the idea separate from a bruja. This separation of terms is important to Antonio who, as a child, sees everything as divided.
The word “witch” is used minimally in the novel. The term bruja is used most often instead. Anaya also used brujeria and witchcraft interchangeably, helping to give context for those who may not be familiar with the term. In the novel, Antonio and Ultima go up against the dark magic of three burja sisters and their sinister father. Although Ultima and the sisters both deal in magical craft, Anaya successfully portrays them as different entities through Antonio’s descriptions and thoughts.
When those in town, who are not as in touch with the old spiritual ways, call Ultima a bruja, Antonio feels defensive since, for him, there is a solid line between a curandera and a bruja. When townspeople accuse Ultima for being a witch, she is given a test to pass through a doorway with a cross attached to it, something a witch cannot do. She passes, but after everyone is gone, Antonio observes: “A faint glitter caught my eye. I bent down and picked up the two needles that had been stuck to the top of the door frame. Whether someone had broken the cross they made, or whether they had fallen, I would never know.” (Anaya 1999) It is here in the novel which hints at that a curandera and a bruja are not so different except for their intentions. Yet, Anaya’s separation of the two terms continues to be successful, even as Antonio begins to grow from a boy to a man and his views are no longer so divided.
With gorgeous descriptions and poetic narration, Anaya’s storytelling is breathtaking. As part of his narration style, Anaya embeds choice Spanish words—llano, curandera, and bruja—to help describe and/or define places, characters, or ideas. This intermingling of the Spanish and English languages helps to paint the setting and culture of the novel. It also assists in creating texture and a lyrical flair to the story. Although written primarily in English, the Spanish language is an important part of the story. These words are symbols, holding the power of theme for those who understand not only their denotation, but their connotations as well.
Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. New York: Grand Central Publishing, [Kindle Edition] 1999.