When we think of childhood, most of us have an image embedded in our minds of a place blessed with ceaseless joy and happiness. It’s a time in our life during which an individual is free of responsibilities but subsequently begins to learn right from wrong. Bless Me, Ultima by Ruldolfo Anaya, however, offers a differing viewpoint on childhood and adolescence; one denoted by an inauguration into adulthood and maturity. Antonio Márez, the protagonist of Bless Me, Ultima, is a six year old boy whose childhood is marked by many conflicts and events that administer a lasting impact on his life. Ruldolfo Anaya, through the character of Antonio and his brothers, presents to the reader a childhood marked by a loss of innocence and progression into adulthood through the development of moral independence, expectations from family and culture of what one has to become in the future, and development of the judgment of what is good and what is evil/or a sin. Through the culmination of these three factors, we can see how Anaya’s representation of childhood contributes to the meaning of this fine piece of literature, which is one of a transition from innocence to experience through moral independence.
A childhood in Rudolfo Anaya’s perspective is portrayed as one that requires a child to effectively face the loss of his/her innocence in order to progress into adulthood. In Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio loses a great deal of his innocence in response to contact with the harsh realities of his surroundings. However, before talking about our main character, Antonio, let’s take a quick look at the impact of the ordeals faced by his brothers into their progression into mature individuals. Leon, Eugene, and Andrew had gone into the battlefields of World War II in order to fight for their country and explore the world beyond their horizons.
As they sought to discover what was outside their own worlds, they progressively began to lose their innocence. For instance, after they return back from the war and spend the winter with their family in Guadalupe, Eugene comments that “He [their dad] doesn’t realize we’re grown men now… we fought a war!” to the other brothers (Anaya 70). As we see here, when placed under unrelenting situations of demolition and casualties, the brothers gained a great deal of knowledge and had made the transition from young, naive adolescents to mature men who could now make their own decisions.
Whilst seeing all this, Antonio is also the subject of the author’s portrayal of childhood existing as a stage in one’s life when one begins to mature. Antonio faces many tragedies that begin to chip away at his innocence such as the murder of Lupito right before his eyes. In addition to Lupito’s death, the murder of Narciso is another key moment in Antonio’s life as he has to witness yet another death. This is a crucial part in his transition because he assumes the position of a priest as he prays for Narciso and “knelt [kneels] by his side for a long time” in spite of the fact that he could have gone home (Anaya 179). Here, he initiates the development of his moral independence as he willingly chooses to stay however long he pleases. Although the deaths of Lupito and Narciso progress him farther and farther into matureness, Antonio’s loss of innocence is incomplete without the accidental drowning of Florence.
Being one of Antonio’s closest friends, the death of Florence strikes a tough blow to his morale as he begins to question whether or not he can believe in God, but realizes death is just a mystery bound to occur. This coming-of-age gives Antonio a lot of self-confidence which is used to face upcoming struggles. Both Antonio and his brothers faced the trials of losing their innocence and stepped into adulthood. Although this representation of childhood by Anaya may be criticized by many who see it as a tainting of a child’s adolescent years, it is in symmetry with the principal underlying moral of this novel; life is like a river, sometimes it’s best to relinquish yourself to the drift and move on. But during this process, how can a child such as Antonio decide what he has to become in the future? What or who is a child influenced by?
According to the author of Bless Me, Ultima, the loss of one’s innocence during their childhood isn’t solely what our childhood comprises of. Expectations from family and culture of what one has to become in the future is also a great factor in our childhood that allows a child to develop a conscience to judge what is right for him/her, assisting them to the next phase of life. As is common with traditional cultures, the lives of Mexicans revolve around their families. Although Antonio is just a six year old boy, he is under constant bombardment from his parents to choose what they believe is the most suitable future for him. María Márez, Antonio’s mother, is a Catholic who associates growing up with learning how to sin and believes the only way for him to be saved is to become a priest. In addition to teaching the ways of her lineage to her son, the reader can also come to glimpse with the fact that she may merely be trying to keep him from making his own choices, as she wants him to always stay with her.
On the other hand, Antonio’s father Gabriel wishes for him to become a Vaquero, a cowboy, and roam restlessly on the llano as is Márez tradition. Although María despises the Vaqueros as she once states, “Vaqueros…they are worthless drunks,” Gabriel’s philosophy that Antonio should decide what he wants to become goes hand-in-hand with the main theme of this novel, moral independence (Anaya 9). Again, even though Antonio is only a six year old boy, he begins to feel the pressure of the two conflicting destinies that each side of the family wishes he adhere to. When Antonio begins to feel that he needs to discover his true identity, he looks to model himself after his older brother Andrew. However, when he leaves with the other brothers for Santa Fe, Antonio comes to the realization that he must now learn to make his own choices as he begins to draw from his experiences without letting his families wishes become an obstacle in his independency. More importantly, when making his own decisions or upon seeing others make decisions, he has to develop an understanding of what is good and what is bad in that situation.
As kids, we are taught right from wrong by our parents and experiences, which determines how we begin to perceive it in our minds. For instance, after a child is placed on a time-out after being caught lying or cursing, he/she realizes that it’s a bad thing to do and will strive to avoid that unpleasant experience. Rudolfo Anaya also believes that this trial and error process is a part childhood whose occurrence directs a child towards gaining moral independence. However, can one so easily distinguish between good and evil? In the novel, Antonio learns right from wrong more through an outside experience rather than being the person of action. The first time in the novel we see him attempting to categorize a deed as good or evil is when he reflects back upon the fact that Lupito had murdered the sheriff. Especially after witnessing Lupito’s death directly in front of him, Antonio begins to wonder if what Lupito had done was justified as he may just have fallen victim to insanity from the harsh memories of the war. Although he initially thinks that since Lupito had killed the sheriff “he had died with a mortal sin on his soul… [and would] go to hell,” he ponders over this query throughout the novel (Anaya 29-30).
In order to fulfill his quest to know what is right from wrong, Anaya introduces to Antonio’s life Ultima, or la Grande, the elderly “folk healer” that comes to live with his family. Similar to the way a child finds a mentor to guide him/her through the ordeals of life, Antonio looks to Ultima to acquire the answers to his questions. However, instead of doing so, he entangles his mind and drags it further into the depths of uncertainty. This is due to the fact that many of the mystical aspects of her healing clash with the Chicano culture, which feel that her actions resemble that of a witch. For instance, of all animals, she has an owl that many people think is “one of the disguises a bruja took” (Anaya 14). Here, Antonio hits a stalemate as his moral independency fails to provide him any answers due to his lack of experience.
Later on in the novel, Antonio begins to think that he has developed the thought process to assist him from distinguishing right from wrong when he considers Tenorio and his daughters evil and Ultima good. He fails to recognize that Tenorio, like Lupito, may have been justified in killing Ultima as he claimed she had killed his daughters through the use of pagan powers. It may be true that Antonio didn’t fully comprehend good and evil, but the events leading to the end with Ultima’s death proved to be his final barrier which placed him onto his own path of adulthood. There is indeed one thing he does learn which is that there is no clear-cut approach to distinguish good from evil.
All in all, Rudolfo Anaya’s representation of childhood ultimately contributes to the main theme of the work which is the development of moral independence whilst transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. Through the actions and experiences of Antonio Márez, Anaya is successful in portraying her thoughts on childhood. This state of childhood consists of three primary parts: the loss of innocence, expectations from family and culture imposing upon a child what he/she has to become, and the development of our understanding that judges right from wrong. Although these may merely seem to us as typical issues that a child has to face, the manner with which Anaya presents them in this exemplary plot transcends the ability of the reader to connect with the characters and the work as a whole.