The Subalterned Life in "Bless Me Ultima."
Copyright (c) 2018 by Michael Rickard II
Here's an essay I wrote on Bless Me, Ultima. Spoilers abound:
Rudolfo Anaya employs magical realism in Bless Me, Ultima to advance his coming of age story while exploring the concept of subalterned cultures. Anaya’s protagonist Antonio discovers the world around him is not what he has been taught, and he finds himself questioning everything he believes in ranging from his personal identity to his spiritual principles and beliefs. This parallels Mignolo’s “The Modern World/Colonial System” where a colonized nation’s people and cultures are marginalized by the colonizers. Over the course of Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio learns that the values he has been taught to diminish may hold more value than the ones he has been taught to respect, reflecting how subalterned people may rediscover the value of their nation’s culture as well as their value as human beings. Part of the beauty of Anaya’s writing is he does not provide any easy answers as seen when Ultima tells Tony only he can decide what path to follow, even if it means ridicule and/or ostracization.
Antonio’s conflicted identity is a recurring theme in borderland literature. Antonio seems pulled in many directions, with his father reminding him of his heritage as a horseman and his mother telling him of his roots (no pun intended) as a farmer. Antonio is confused, asking Ultima, “why are they [the farmers]so strange and quiet? And why are my father’s people [the horsemen]so loud and wild?” (41) Ultima tells Antonio each group has qualities that make them adept at what they do, but in a recurring theme of the book, she tells him he must decide what his destiny is. This is paralleled with Antonio’s father’s decision to live as a farmer with his wife and Antonio’s brothers’ decision to leave for the city life.
The young boy seeks to find his spiritual identity as his Roman Catholic upbringing is challenged by new experiences. Although Antonio’s mother encourages him to become a priest, he finds alternatives to spiritual fulfillment through the discovery of the golden carp and Ultima’s healing abilities. At first, Antonio relies on what he has been taught to believe, but these beliefs are challenged by the life experiences that differ from his beliefs. For example, Antonio’s friend Samuel tells him about the golden carp, a seemingly mythical, but real magical creature who seems to have divine qualities. Antonio’s doubts are reflected when he says, “’The golden carp,’ I said to myself, ‘a new god?’ I could not believe this strange story, and yet I could not disbelieve Samuel, ‘Is the golden carp still here?’” (81). Antonio’s faith is tested as he wonders, “If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross?” (81). This conflict stays with Antonio throughout the novel.
This conflict between what is taught and what is experienced again reflects Mignolo’s discussion of colonized people’s beliefs being marginalized. Cultural hegemony is difficult to overcome and often cannot be changed without some major event. Antonio finds himself experiencing new worlds of magic such as the golden carp that slowly make him consider an alternative to the Roman Catholic faith. He also sees Ultima’s unexplainable ability to heal people where doctors and priests have failed. Antonio’s experiences open a new world to him and the realization that he is not alone in seeing the world from a different viewpoint. After Cico tells Antonio there are people who are different such as Ultima and Narciso, Antonio realizes, “I did not know what that difference was, but I did feel a strange brotherhood with Cico” (115). This again reflects Mignolo’s argument that subalterned people can break free of cultural hegemony imposed on them due to colonization.
Bless Me, Ultima does not only show Antonio’s change, but also shows people’s resistance to change. For example, Antonio’s schoolmates mock Florence for being an atheist, even though Florence rationally states his beliefs. When Antonio is given an opportunity to absolve or punish Florence, his absolution leads to Antonio being beat. A similar situation occurs after Ultima has healed the cursed man. When a lynch mob goes to kill Ultima, some of the people Ultima helped refuse to stand up for her. Anaya is realistic in showing how difficult it is for people to change, even when reality is in front of them.
Anaya also shows there is nobility in people who are subalterned. This is seen in Narciso, a drunken outcast who nonetheless possesses many noble characteristics. He is a loyal friend and seems to have a bond with the land, even though he drinks heavily. The people in the village look down on him, dismissing what he says, just as they dismiss Antonio. This too parallels how colonizers look down on colonized people, dismissing their achievements.
In the end, Antonio’s experiences leave him with new options concerning his future. He can become a farmer, a horseman, a priest, or a healer such as Ultima (or any other options). Ultima’s final words to him offer him guidance no matter what path he chooses:
My work was to do good,” she continued, “I was to heal the sick, and show them the path of goodness. But I was not to interfere with the destiny of any man. Those who wallow in evil and brujeria cannot understand this. They create a disharmony that in the end reaches out and destroys life—With the passing away of Tenorio and myself the meddling will be done with, harmony will be reconstituted.” (260).
It is arguable Ultima’s final words reflect the actions of colonizers who imposed their wills on native people, causing disruption to all. Balance must be restored if the colonizers and the colonized are to become whole.
Bless Me, Ultima contains many parallels with Mignolo’s ideas concerning subalterned people. Antonio’s life experiences open his eyes to new possibilities and challenge the belief system imposed on him. These experiences lead to him realizing a person’s value should be based on their actions and not the opinions of others.
Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. Warner Books, 1994.