Antonio Márez might be one of the most thoughtful young children in all of literature. Give this kid an Irish accent and he's pretty much a young Stephen Dedalus (minus the brothels and incredible arrogance, of course). Antonio spends much of the book questioning everything—from his place in the world to the existence and meaning of God. He searches for answers to questions that most people don't get around to until they're much older, wiser, and more boring.
After, he witnesses the death of the murderer Lupito, he wonders, "Where was Lupito's soul? […] He would go to hell. Or would God forgive him and grant him Purgatory, the lonely resting place of those who were neither saved nor damned" (3.19-22). Forgiveness remains a theme of Antonio's questioning. Even as he grows to admire (or even worship) the golden carp, he questions this being's methods: "But why had the new god, the golden carp, chosen also to punish people?" (13.34-36). In short, he takes everything with a healthy heaping of salt. As a curious kiddo, Antonio's not content to just let the world fly by unexamined.
When not questioning forgiveness, Antonio spends quite a bit of time pondering justice and wrestling with problems that plague a lot of people to this very day: "I could not understand why Narciso, who did good in trying to help Ultima, had lost his life; and why Tenorio, who was evil and had taken a life, was free and unpunished" (16.18-21).
These questions (and many others) arise from Antonio's keen ability to observe the world around him, to never settle for an answer simply because it is easy, and from his just plain, old-fashioned smarts. It's no surprise that after starting at a school that's taught in a language he doesn't understand (English), he's able to skip a grade by the end of his first year. This kid is smart on smart, which raises the question—is he too smart? Too smart for his own good, even?
For the most part Antonio's intelligence serves him well. But there's no denying that it puts him at odds with many of the kids in his class. Sure, he goes fishing and roughhouses and races the Vitamin Kid, but he's always plagued by questions and he is always dealing with larger issues than most of the kids. They have to wonder what he's brooding about when he gets in one of his funks. And indeed they have. This conflict moves front and center when the others make him serve as their priest before going to their first confession. It starts as a game:
"Yeah, Antonio knows more about religion and stuff like that than anyone—"
"Antonio's gonna be a priest!"
"Hey, let's practice going to confession and make Antonio the priest!" (18.208-212)
Of course, Antonio can't simply treat this as a silly game, which is exactly what it is to the other kiddos. When Florence confesses and says he doesn't believe in God, Antonio can't bring himself to simply give Florence some made-up penance, because Antonio is questioning his own belief in God. In this case, Florence's pretending has a very real point. So he lets Florence out of this mock confession with no punishment, which causes the kids to unload on Antonio:
"You are a bad priest, Antonio!"
"We don't want you for our priest!"
"Punish the priest!" (18.413-415)
They go on to beat Antonio to a pulp. What can we say? They're school kids. But if you found yourself shocked at just how riled up they got here, keep in mind that they picked Antonio for a reason. They chose him as the priest because they all knew Antonio was smarter than them when it came to religion and "stuff like that." He'd fill the role well. But of course, it's Antonio's intelligence, thoughtfulness, and inability to just play a game that gets him kicked around by his own friends. He can't just pretend—it's too real for the kid.
Just as Antonio's stuck between the two worlds (of the Catholic God and the magic of the golden carp and Ultima, the Márez and the Luna, the town and the llano, etc.), he also stands between childhood and adulthood. Anaya makes this clear as Antonio leaves for his first day of school: "For the first time I would be away from the protection of my mother. I was excited and sad about it" (6.5-6). While the idea of both fearing and longing for adulthood is pretty common, it's important to keep in mind that Antonio is really young. This is his very first day of school. This is a child who will end up speaking to his mother "as a man" well before he's ten years old (22.618). Now that's growing up.
And it happens pretty fast. This is partially due to the culture in which he's raised, the time in which the book is set, and the circumstances of his childhood (he sees two dudes get murdered, a friend drown, and his mentor die. He also confronts a psychopath on more than one occasion, which would put hair on anyone's chest).
But his super speedy transformation from boyhood to manhood also has to do with the fact that this kid is a major smartypants. In a lot of respects, he's far more mature than many of his friends because he's able to understand more of the complexities of life at such a young age.
Despite all that, he still gets bummed when the Vitamin Kid chooses not to race because he's hanging out with a girl. For Antonio, this is an example of the passing of childhood, and as eager as he is to find answers and to grow up, there's still part of him that wants to remain a kid (don't we all, buddy?). Talking about the race he wins, he says, "But there was no sweetness to the victory, instead I felt that something good had ended" (20.45-47). Even there, he's showing he's got wisdom beyond his years, while at the same time wishing for his youth.
When the term "cultural icon" gets thrown around, people are usually talking about big time entertainers/artists that start to define a generation like Lady Gaga and Bob Dylan or revolutionary thinkers like Martin Luther King, Jr.. The term doesn't usually get applied to elementary school kids just trying to find their way in the world. Antonio, though, fits the bill.
In Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio stands in for an entire generation of kids who grew up (this still happens, of course) in between cultures. Antonio is torn between his Spanish/Mexican Catholic roots and the Native American heritage of his people in New Mexico. He's also torn between the culture of his family and the culture of the English-speaking world that he's thrown into when he goes to school. In that sense, he's following in the footsteps of his big brothers, who have lived through a similar culture clash. They've seen the world, and are no longer satisfied with the limited scope of their parents' world. Antonio's brother Gene sums this up perfectly when he says, "We're men, Andy, we're not boys any longer. We can't be tied down to old dreams" (8.101-102).
Antonio, like many children growing up in America, stands at a crossroads between cultures, times, and beliefs. His reconciliation of the opposites that pull him is really what Bless Me, Ultima is all about. Need proof? Just check out the scene in which he first sees the golden carp:
The golden carp swam by Cico and disappeared into the darkness of the pond. I felt my body trembling as I saw the bright golden form disappear. I knew I had witnessed a miraculous thing, the appearance of a pagan god […] If God was witness to my beholding of the golden carp then I had sinned!
Antonio questions his faith throughout the novel, but he hasn't always been so up-front about it. In this moment, he out and out acknowledges a belief in a deity other than the God of the Catholic Church. As he witnesses this pagan god, two opposing spiritual forces pull at him. Even as he acknowledges the power of the golden carp, he admits that he is committing a sin in the eyes of God. He accepts the pagan god, but still also accepts the power of the Catholic God to condemn one as a sinner. It's quite the rock-and-a-hard-place scenario. But it's also a handy synopsis of Antonio's predicament. In fact, scene encapsulates Antonio's religious struggle in a matter of a few lines. How convenient for us readers. Thanks, Rudolfo!
There's more to the golden carp scene than just religion, though. We also get a glimpse at the cultural struggle raging in Antonio. He's Catholic and has ties to Spain and its religion. However, there is a part of him that is also linked to the Native American culture (and another part that goes to a very American school). Remember, the golden carp story is told as a Native American story, so in this single mighty fish, Antonio sees his religious beliefs pulled in two different directions, and he sees his own heritage split in two. Talk about an identity crisis.