In a lot of families, there's that one older lady who just seems like she knows more than everyone else. She's got wisdom, and who knows, maybe even a few supernatural gifts. You're not saying she's a witch or anything, but if she made something levitate or brewed up some crazy potion in a cauldron, you wouldn't be all that surprised. Well, that's Ultima.
She comes to stay with Antonio and his family, and she changes all of their lives forever, especially Antonio's. The two share a connection from the instant they meet (or at least it's the first time Antonio is old enough to know he's meeting her). Antonio doesn't address her as "La Grande," which is the term of respect he's been told to use. His mother snaps at him, but Ultima jumps in and says, "'Let it be […]. This was the last child I pulled from your womb. I knew there would be something between us" (1.417-419). Ah, so that explains it. We guess.
Throughout the novel, the relationship between Ultima and Antonio only grows stronger. She passes along her knowledge to him, and she instructs him in the ways of nature and what it means to simply grow up. Ultima stands as Antonio's guide and mentor. Her powers and presence cause him to question the nature of God (yep, that's a topic that keeps coming up) and send him down the path to accepting all aspects of his cultural heritage. In short, this woman is Important. And yep, that's with a capital I.
If you're going to bring some magical realism (make sure to check out our "Genre" section for more on this) to the people, you better have a character who can do some magic. Ultima fills that role perfectly. She battles witches' curses, ghosts, and evil in the world. She actually yells, "Let the evil come out!" at one point when fighting the curse that's been laid upon Antonio's uncle (10.628). But the best part is that she shows absolutely no fear in the face of all this bad mojo. Which tells tiny Antonio just how powerful she is.
Still, Ultima and her magic are more than just a way to show fights between good and evil. On the surface, she fills the role of the guide in the novel, helping Antonio understand what's right and what's wrong and what's upside down. But Anaya is usually working on more than one level, so it's no surprise that there is more to Ultima than that.
For one thing, she demonstrates the possibility that there is more than one God or one power in the world to Antonio. Through Ultima (and the golden carp), he comes to realize that his Catholic heritage might not be the only path for him to follow. Ultima helps Antonio get in touch with the Native American side of his culture because he sees in her something ancient and powerful, something he can't help but acknowledge and reconcile with his Catholic faith.
Ultima has her own journey, as well. Over the course of her struggles with Tenorio, she comes to understand that, even though she has always used her powers to help those in need, she has still meddled with the affairs of other men, and this has thrown the world out of balance. Before she dies, she says to Antonio, "With the passing away of Tenorio and myself the meddling will be done with, harmony will be reconstituted" (22.638-640). And that turns out to be a key lesson for Antonio. Sure, he's sad to see his Ultima go, but he also realizes that there's consolation in knowing that there's an end to all the strife the beef between Tenorio and Ultima has caused.
"Ultima" can mean the "farthest point" or the "last." which is fitting, don't you think? Ultima seems to be from a time that is fading. In a way (not a literal way, but a way), she's from a faraway place, and you can get the sense that she is the last of her kind—that when she is gone, the world will change and people like her will no longer exist. There just doesn't seem to be a place for them anymore.