Bless Me, Ultima
Long before J.K. Rowling sent Harry Potter off to Hogwarts, Rudolfo Anaya penned a novel about magic, witches, ghosts, a young boy growing up, and an awesome pet owl.
Published in 1972, Bless Me, Ultima follows the trials and tribulations of Antonio "Tony" Márez as he tries to find his way in the world. He is about to start school, learn a new language (English), meet a whole new group of children, and begin his religious studies as he moves towards taking his First Holy Communion. He's guided on his journey by Ultima, a wise curandera—think part medicine woman, part Episode IV-era Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Bless Me, Ultima delves deep into the family life, religious beliefs, and conflicting pasts of Chicano culture. In the novel, we see the struggle between Spanish heritage and Native American heritage; the desire for the younger generation to be a part of America, while the older generation struggles to hold onto traditions of the past; and a universal story of a young boy taking his first steps towards manhood. Add to that the fact that it stars characters you can relate to, incredibly funny moments mixed with heartbreaking tragedy, and all the magic you could hope for, and you'll see why many consider it to be one of the most important works of Chicano literature ever written. Ever.
While it stands out as a major work of fiction, Bless Me, Ultima is only one in a long line of big-time novels from Anaya, who has won multiple awards including the Premio Quinto Sol National Chicano literary award, the 2007 Notable New Mexican Award, and the PEN Center USA West Award for Fiction (source).
So why is Rudolfo racking up all these accolades? A lot of reasons, we think. For one thing, there's just something about landscapes and the Southwest, don't you think? Many of the best novels dealing with that region of the country manage to make the surrounding land a character in the book, and Bless Me, Ultima rivals any in that regard. The llano lives and breathes and shapes the culture that springs up around it. This has made the Bless Me, Ultima a mainstay in Southwestern Literature courses.
But, this isn't just a regional novel. People from all over can tap into that time in their youth when they saw their lives stretching out in front of them, and for the first time they knew they wanted to choose their own direction, take charge of their own fate. Bless Me Ultima's ability to hit on themes and moments that ring true for so many people is why it shows up on must-read lists and why it hit the silver screen in 2012.
Lists and films aside, though, it's just plain old good reading that touches on the struggles of a young boy, an entire culture, and anybody who has ever tried to find their own way in the world. Pick it up, and Shmoop guarantees you won't be disappointed.
Why Should I Care?
You ever get tired of people telling you what to do? Parents, teachers, and that annoying guy at work who thinks he knows everything all seem to want to plan your life for you—or at the very least your next fifteen minutes. Even if they mean well, you know that you've reached the point when you want to start making some of your own decisions. Well, that very issue rests at the center of Bless Me, Ultima.
Antonio finds himself torn between his mother's dreams of his becoming a farmer-priest and his father's desire for his sons to wander to the West with him, between Catholicism and the old gods, between Spanish and English, between his heritage and his future, and a whole lot of other stuff. There are major forces pulling at Antonio and trying to send him down a particular path, but deep down he wants to find answers on his own and choose his own course life.
Which he can totally do—it just might not be as simple a task as he'd like. Even though he's quite young, he's advanced for his age. He has major questions that he wants answers to, but he soon discovers that sometimes the answers simply don't exist. It's something we all face as we start to make our way through life. It's like that first time you realize that not everything adults say is true. It shakes you up, but it makes you realize that you can start to figure things out on your own. That just because they don't have the answers doesn't mean you don't.
Once you connect with Antonio's struggle to grow up and find a little independence, you'll get the added bonus of magic, witchcraft, revenge, and the dreaded first day of school. You also get to witness an exorcism that would give Emily Rose and Linda Blair a run for their money. Plus there's that owl that will rip out a man's eye if he's unjust. Bonus!