Where It All Goes Down
1940s New Mexico
Folks are often tempted to box Bless Me, Ultima in as a regional novel, a Chicano novel, or a southwestern novel. But by now you've probably realized that it's so much more than that.
Still, the regional sensibilities of this book's setting play a huge role in shaping its characters and themes. Bless Me, Ultima takes place in rural New Mexico, a place of colliding cultures and powerful landscapes, during the late forties, which was a time of colliding cultures, too.
On every page the llano looms large as a wide-open space of wide-open possibilities. Sure, Antonio lives in a small town with familiar faces, but there's also a great big world out there defined by only one thing: the land itself.
Need proof? Look no further than the first paragraph of the novel, which spells it out for us, in poetic prose:
Ultima came to stay with us the summer I was almost seven. When she came the beauty if the llano unfolded before my eyes, and the gurgling waters of the river sang to the hum of the turning earth. The magical time of childhood stood still, and the pulse of the living earth pressed its mystery into my living blood. She took my hand, and the silent, magic powers she possessed made beauty from the raw, sun-baked llano, the green river valley, and the blow bowl which was the sun's home. My bare feet felt the throbbing earth and my body trembled with excitement. Time stood still, and it shared with me all that had been, and all that was to come…
Right there at the beginning, Anaya proves to us that the land is deeply rooted in Antonio's mind, body, and soul. Ultima brings out the beauty of the land and suddenly Antonio seems more deeply connected to it than ever—the pulse of the earth is literally his pulse, too.
That deep connection comes into play later in the novel, as Antonio struggles to determine his own path in life, and to choose between the heritages of his parents. Though his parents are at odds over Antonio's future, one thing's for sure: it will include the land and all that comes with it. Whether he chooses to roam the llano like his vaquero father or farm its depths like his more agriculturally inclined mom, Antonio will always have a special connection with nature. That much is hammered home to him by Ultima's presence in his life, and her final resting place under a juniper tree at the end of the novel.
On a larger scale, New Mexico during this time period is just about the perfect time to set this novel. After the closing of the west, New Mexico experienced a great deal of change. Barbed wire fenced off pastures, while Mexican, American, and Native American cultures clashed in homes, churches, and towns all over the state. The collision of all of these different ways of life in New Mexico allows Anaya to show us, through Antonio's journey, that a person doesn't have to choose between them. In a multicultural place like New Mexico, perhaps the best option is to mix all these cultures together within one's own identity, so that each one remains a part of that person without defining them or sealing their fate.