Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Bless Me, Ultima

I had so much to write about Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima. Really! Just take a look at my copy that is not only long overdue (eep!) but is covered in those little sticky tabs and dog-eared where I didn't have sticky tabs handy. Unfortunately, it's taken me some time to get around to writing this entry so a lot of what I wanted to say has slipped my mind. That happens to me sometimes. I'd never read this classic of Chicano literature but the fact that we are both celebrating the same birthday this year (does that make me a classic too?) and its place on the lengthy list of books that were part of the now defunct Mexican American Studies curriculum in Arizona prompted me to pick up finally pick up a copy. It did not disappoint. And again, I was left wondering why none of my honor and AP English teachers ever introduced me to this book.

Bless Me, Ultima is the coming-of-age story of Antonio Marez, a young New Mexican boy. The story is set at the end of World War II and spans about three years of the child's life beginning with the arrival of Ultima, the well-known curandera and family friend who movies in with Antonio's family. While the story is primarily Antonio's, the boy's coming-of-age is also symbolic of, in a sense, the transitions his own family and surroundings are going through. Ultima's arrival poses the potential for upheaval in the family structure, but in reality, she serves as the anchor and the last link to a past--a culture and a way of life--that is quickly changing.

The story is told from Antonio's point of view, a child between the ages of about seven to about ten, and yet the it feels like it could be a teenager or even an adult. His struggles and fears have the potential to resonate with all because they are so typically human, those enduring issues that make up life no matter what your age--faith, good versus evil, change. Antonio reminds me of what it was like to be a child so full of questions and wonder and fear. We witness the experience of being a Mexican American child, not able to speak English, in a classroom of White children.

"At noon we opened our lunches to eat. Miss Maestas left the room and a high school girl came and sat at the desk while we ate. My mother had packed a small jar of hot beans and some good, green chile wrapped in tortillas. When the other children saw my lunch they laughed and pointed again. Even the high school girl laughed. They showed me their sandwiches which were made of bread. Again I did not feel well."

And at the end of his first school day:

"The pain and sadness seemed to spread to my soul, and I felt for the first time what the grown-ups call, la tristesa de la vida. I wanted to run away, to hid, to run and never come back, never see anyone again."

But along with this sadness we also see the comfort of family and community:

"We always enjoyed our stay at El Puerto. It was a world where people were happy, working, helping each other. The ripeness of the harvest piled around the mud houses and lent life and color to the songs of the women. Green chile was roasted and dried, and red chile was tied into colorful ristras. Apples piled high, some lent their aroma to the air from where they dried in th sun on the lean-to roofs and others as they bubbled into jellies and jams. At night we sat around the fireplace and ate baked apples spiced with sugar and cinnamon and listened to the cuentos, the old stories of the people."

Bless Me, Ultima was National Endowment for the Arts Big Read selection, an honor that recognizes its deserved place in American literature. Despite being focusing on a very specific community, it tells the story of the kinds of changes people throughout the country were experiencing--the effects of war on family, the loss of old ways to new ways. Here we see these changes from the eyes of a child who is also dealing with growing up. I think about this book in the context of its subject matter and the time in which it was published, and I feel grateful that it has endured.