Bless Me, Ultima won the National Chicano Literary Award and is considered one of the most important Chicano novels ever written. Non-Chicanos will find it easy to read, even with some phrases in Spanish — but perhaps foreign in some of its concepts, for Bless Me, Ultima is in the tradition of magical realism. Ultima is a curandera, a healer who cures with herbs, lifts curses, and casts spells. The dilemma of the main character, the child Antonio Márez, is to reconcile seemingly contradictory influences — Ultima’s unexplained powers and his mother’s Catholicism; his father’s family’s restlessness and his mother’s family’s rootedness to the land.
Ultima moves into the Márez household in tiny Guadalupe, New Mexico, early in the novel. Six-year-old Antonio and his two older sisters are at home; the three oldest sons are off fighting in World War II. The father comes from rough cowboy stock, the mother from quiet farmers. She dreams of her youngest son’s becoming a priest.
As Antonio witnesses deaths and upsetting events, he ponders the ultimate questions of why we’re here, why good people suffer, what happens after death, and how he can know the truth. He comes to learn that the understanding he seeks isn’t about absolute answers. With Ultima’s counsel and example, he realizes that understanding is more about sympathy and tolerance.
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