Tuesday, February 8, 2022

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Source of book: Audiobook from the library

Since some changes in our family life due to Covid and the kids getting older, I have been taking over more of the transporting duties, which has meant time in the car by myself in addition to my modest commute. While I usually listen to music, or perhaps NPR (if I haven’t already caught up online), I have started listening to audiobooks as well. 


I chose Bless Me, Ultima, after seeing a reference to it in A Dream Called Home. A bit of research revealed that the book is the all time best selling novel by a Mexican-American author. Published in 1972, it has been a frequent target of book challenges, making the top ten list twice in the last 20 years, which is pretty impressive for a 50 year old book. The lowlight was in 1981, when the San Juan County school board burned copies. Yes, the freaking school board did the burnings. So, the book seemed appropriate for our own time, with a surge in efforts to purge schools and libraries of books written by and about minorities, and book burnings sponsored by churches making worldwide headlines. 


The animosity toward the book has come from a few directions. The most obvious is that there is swearing in it. [Fundies clutch their pearls…] The swearing is mostly in Spanish, though, which kind of raises the question of exactly what the problem is. For gringo kids with no experience of other languages (Joke: what do you call someone who only speaks one language? An American), they would either gloss over the words, understanding from context that they were probably swears, because that’s what humans do. Or, if they were adventuresome, maybe go get a Spanish dictionary and look it up. (At least back in 1972. Now, they would just google it on their phones.) 


The other sorts of kids would be either Spanish speakers, who would already know how to swear in Spanish, or kids like me who grew up in a diverse neighborhood - and knew the Spanish swear words already too. In fact, I was kind of amused to realize that I could understand a few categories of Spanish in this book, despite never having taken a foreign language. (One of my big regrets about my wasted youth.) I knew the swear words, obviously, and the food words, and also the religious words. 


The other reason the book has gotten challenged is because of religion. The book is mildly hostile toward the Catholic faith, and contains magical elements. The world it exists in is one where magic and brujas and curses are real. And traditional Indigenous medicine cures people neither modern doctors nor the church can heal. By the way, when I say “mildly hostile,” I don’t mean hostile really. Rather, the book simply questions the adequacy of the faith. The protagonist, young Tony is under pressure to become a priest someday, and he really does try, but he ultimately finds the answers the Catholic Church has to the profound questions of life, death, justice, and evil to be inadequate and unsatisfying. Which, I suspect, is more of a problem than a book that was actually hostile to religion. 


The third reason, though, is puzzling to me. The book has been accused of being “racist.” Which, WHAAAT???? I mean, the book is kind of about the author’s childhood, and very much about his hometown and family (although my understanding is that Ultima, the curandera, is fictional, as are most of the dramatic events. And Anaya is, well, Mexican American, and from a mestizo family (roots both in the Spaniard colonialists and Indigenous peoples), so the characters in the book are almost entirely not white people. Guessing from names, there are maybe two white characters? But even they may be Latinx. Which makes sense because this place is what Anaya grew up. An overwhelmingly Mexican-American small town in New Mexico. 


Other than the fact that the characters are not white, there is very little about race in the book. A brief mention about prejudice in the military (three of the brothers serve in World War Two), a few references to the limited jobs available to non-whites who didn’t finish high school. But blink and you miss these. The story is just….not about white people at all. Which, I guess, got a certain sort of white people all panties-in-a-wad. I just don’t get it. But there you have it. Same thing is happening now, with challenges to any book that is written by minorities or LGBTQ people. 


So, about the book. The story is told by Tony (Antonio), a young boy. His parents are an unmatched match, so to speak. His mother’s family farms, and is connected to the land (and the lunar cycles, as their name, Luna, indicates.) His father, a Marez, has the urge to travel and roam, and ride the llano. His dreams have been thwarted by his need to support his family. Tony’s parents conflict over what his future should be. 


And then, Ultima arrives. She is related to Tony, but I am not clear on the exact connection - and the internet has been no help. Anyway, she is an elderly woman, and a curandera - a traditional healer. One might call her a shaman, more or less, and she represents the traditional pagan Indigenous roots of the family. 


And, as has been the case throughout western history, the line between “healer” and “witch” is often one of perception, not reality. So, unsurprisingly, while people tend to respect Ultima, and call her when all else fails, they also call her a bruja behind her back. Whether she is or not, I suppose, depends on your theology. Tony and Ultima bond, and she takes him on as an apprentice for a few cases. 


Alongside this thread are two others. First is Tony’s experiences as he starts school. He and his friends get into various kinds of trouble, both at school, and in Confirmation classes at the church. Tony learns the legend of the Golden Carp - and even sees it one day. This pagan religion, which another boy believes, forms a counterpart to the Catholicism and the more syncratic beliefs of Ultima. For Tony, nothing ultimately is fully satisfactory, which is why he asks his father toward the end if it is possible to form a new religion. 


The other thread is a series of violent events that Tony unwittingly becomes part of. First, Lupito, a veteran with severe PTSD, kills the Sheriff, and is then lynched by a posse. Then, the family becomes the target of Tenorio, a vicious and violent saloon owner. Tenorio’s daughters are genuine brujas, and after Tony’s uncle overhears their Black Mass, they put a curse on him. Ultima breaks the curse, and it rebounds, killing one of the daughters. (See, magic, magical realism, or whatever you want to call it…) Tenorio swears revenge, and up until the end, his blood feud with Ultima and anyone who defends her leaves further bodies in its wake. 


There is a good bit of blood in the book. Violence is central to the narrative, and to Tony’s coming-of-age. He sees and experiences things that he really shouldn’t have to bear at his age, from the various murders, to the accidental drowning of a friend. Some passages are a bit rough. But so are the existential questions, for which, as Tony eventually learns, there are no good answers, whatever the great religions of the world claim. 


It is easy to understand why this book became popular, and why it is critically acclaimed. The narrative is compelling, the story riveting. It immerses the reader in a fascinating culture, and brings to life familiar family dynamics. And, it has one of the most loathsome villains possible, the kind who would literally try to kill a kid when drunk. It is both melodramatic and thoughtful, not the easiest thing to pull off. 


As for the reasons people hate it? Well, their kids probably already know how to say chingada and ala vega and Jesus, Maria, y Jose! At least in one language. 


I should mention the narrator on this audio edition, Robert Ramirez, who does an excellent job. He apparently has narrated a lot of books, particularly kid books, and it is easy to see why. There is a wonderful clarity to his reading, both in English and Spanish, and he conveys emotion brilliantly. It definitely added to the experience. 


There was a movie made from the book a few years back that seems to have been decent - I haven’t seen it. And, surprisingly, Hector Armienta wrote an opera based on the book. 


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