Bless Me Ultima is the story of how a curandera named Ultima and her owl come to live with the Marez-Luna family in the their small home on a rocky hill in Guadalupe, New Mexico during World War II, and of how she helps influence and teach the hero of the story, young Antonio Marez in the ancient customs of healing and magic.
We learn that Ultima was the midwife during Antonio’s birth, and that after performing his birth, Ultima has a special bond with the boy, and this becomes evident in a dream where Antonio remembers how Ultima presided over his birth, and of the differences between his father’s family – vaqueros or cowboys – and his mother’s – a peaceful farming family who were part of the original settlers of New Mexico. His father is not religious, while his mother is devoutly a Catholic, and there is tension in the home due to this. Both parents agree to bring Ultima into their home because she is old, and they respect her, and while she is not related to them, she is closely linked to their family.
Following a horrific shooting of the towns sheriff by Lupito, a damaged and disturbed returning Mexican G.I. – Antonio witnesses Lupito’s own murder on the river by his father, and a group of towns men seeking vengeance for the senseless murder of the sheriff by Lupito. Here, Antonio sees how Narciso, the town drunk is kinder even than his own father, as Narciso tries to prevent the group of men from killing Lupito – but fails.
With Ultima in the house, Antonio spends the summer with her, sitting by the river, and gathering herbs and flowers in the mountains, and learning the ancient ways and myths of his people. Ultima impresses Antonio with a sense of her powers, and he respects her deeply, and her ways excite his imagination, and his longing to make sense of his cognitive dissonance at growing up in two very different and incongruous belief systems, those of Catholicism, and those of the ancient Chican@ customs and myths.
Samuel, one of Antonio’s friends takes him fishing one day, and recounts his knowledge of the Golden Carp, a god that swims in the rivers in the town, and recounts a deeper tale of lore that confuses Antonio because it is at odds with his Catholic upbringing by his mother – who wants him to be a priest, and to follow Judeo-Christian scripture. A visit to Narciso’s garden further confuses Antonio about Narciso, and Samuel, and Ultima, and his identifying with them as “the people” – or those who are part of the greater and deeper narratives of Chican@ mysticism.
When the summer ends, it is the end of the war, and Antonio starts school. He becomes aware of how different he is from the other kids who are in the upper grades, and who are more Americanized than he is – typified in that he brings roasted green chili’s wrapped in tortillas for lunch, while the other kids who have brought sandwiches mock his food, and his lack of familiarity with the American culture. Antonio makes several friends who have similar backgrounds to his, Samuel, Horse, and the Vitamin Kid, and Florence, all who share his feeling of isolation from school and being educated in the mainstream.
Antonio’s brothers, Andrew, Eugene, and Leon return safely from the War, but they are changed, and have seen things which have made them lose their innocence, and their sense of belonging in Gaudalupe, and even their bonds to their own family. His brothers feel they have returned to a hick town and want to leave again as soon as possible to Las Vegas where they dream of owning a car, and chasing women. Eventually they do leave, but Andrew stays behind and takes a job at the local grocery store. Both Gabriel and Maria are crushed that their sons want to leave, and both deal with it in different ways.
Antonio dreams vividly of all of the new experiences and ideas in his life, the new influences of Ultima, of school, of the differences between the ways his parents see the world....
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