Bless Me, Ultima - Rudolfo Anaya
Bless Me, Ultima was my first novel. In the 1960s I was a young man teaching in the public schools in Alburquerque, New Mexico, and writing at night. In the mid-sixties I married Patricia and she became my encouragement. I wrote over seven drafts of the novel, and she read each one and shared her suggestions.
I was born in 1937 in the small village of Pastura, New Mexico, in the llano (open plain) of the eastern part of the state. Soon after my birth my family moved to Santa Rosa on the Pecos River where I grew up. Bless Me, Ultima has autobiographical elements in it, after all, a writer utilizes his life experiences. But the novel is a work of fiction which follows two years of the rites of passage of the main character, Antonio. I wrote the novel in the first person because I identify very closely with Antonio.
I didn’t take creative writing classes while attending the university, so my effort was self-taught. Pounding the keys of an old Smith Corona typewriter late at night, I wrote draft after draft of the novel. The truly magical moment in the creative process was when Ultima appeared to me and instructed me to make her a character in the novel. Suddenly a boy’s adventure novel became an intense exploration of the unconscious. For me Ultima, la curandera, is a healer in the tradition of our native New Mexican healers. She is a repository of Spanish, Mexican, and Native American teachings. Her role is “to open Antonio’s eyes” so he can see the beauty of the landscape and understand the spiritual roots of his culture. With her guidance he begins to understand that the river, the open plain, and all of nature is imbued with spirit. Everything is alive; God is everywhere. Suddenly the ordinary conflicts of childhood take on a deeper meaning. Antonio must now begin his journey into dreams and experiences that are extraordinary. This leads him to question why there is good and evil in the world.
When Antonio accompanies Ultima to El Puerto to cure the uncle who has been cursed by witches, he experiences what few children experience. He participates in a cleansing ceremony in which Ultima expels the ball of hair which made the uncle sick. Antonio has entered the realm of the shaman.
New Mexico folklore, our cuentos, contains many stories about people who can take the form of owls or coyotes, people who can fly. These witches (I prefer the term shaman) are people of power whose work may be viewed as good or evil, depending on the needs of those who ask for their assistance. Ultima is a shaman who uses her positive power to do good.
With the arrival of Ultima, Antonio begins a journey into “the world of spirits,” the realm in which the shaman operates. Antonio enters a new reality. His dreams begin to reflect this magical, sometimes frightening, world. Is Antonio an apprentice to Ultima? If so, how can he reconcile the teachings of the church with the indigenous beliefs of Ultima? These and the other decisions Antonio must make create the tension in the novel.
“Where did you get Ultima’s name?” many ask me. “That was her name when she came to me,” I answer. From that first fortuitous meeting I have trained myself to act as a dream catcher. I don’t seek characters, they seem to come to me asking me to tell their stories. Ultima came to reveal the world of the unconscious to me and to Antonio. In the realm of the unconscious the symbols of my culture are connected to world symbols. The Golden Carp of the novel is my myth, for as storyteller I am also mythmaker. The story of the Golden Carp resonates to the fish symbol of Christianity, Aztec mythology, and Pueblo Indian emergence tales.
There were women like Ultima in the traditional New Mexico villages. When there were no doctors in the villages there were the midwives (parteras). They gave massages (sobadoras), sometimes they had to set broken bones, and they knew and used a variety of herbs from the land to cure various ailments. Some of these healers conducted intensive cleansing ceremonies to cure the ill effects of the curses set by witches. Today you may go to a psychiatrist to cure mental distress, but for over four hundred years in New Mexico we had only our home-grown healers, those curanderas I call women warriors who helped restore harmony to the fragmented soul.