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In 1519, when the Spanish conquistadors landed in North America, they were surprised to discover that natives already inhabited the land. These indigenous people had different beliefs from the Spaniards, so the Spanish proceeded to teach these people to be “civilized”. As the indigenous people began to learn the Spanish ways of life, they blended their beliefs with those of the Spaniards to create syncretism, which continued through the ages. In Bless Me Ultima (1972), Anaya shows how the two worlds collide and settle themselves on common ground in Antonio. Different people in the novel come to represent the different sides of the Spanish colonization of Mexico: Antonio’s father, the Spaniards; Antonio’s mother, the indigenous people; and Ultima, the embodiment of all beliefs. These people, as well as others, help Antonio learn to be a man and teach him to accept all aspects of his life as one. In Bless Me Ultima, Antonio learns syncretism by blending various forms of education: familial, spiritual and Ultima’s.
Antonio’s familial education is fraught with the two opposing symbols of Spanish colonization, his mother’s family, the Lunas, and his father’s family, the Marez. The Lunas represent the indigenous people, tied to the earth by their farming; whereas, the Marez represent the conquistadors, freely roaming the llano. Throughout the novel, Antonio, or Tony, is divided between his Luna blood and his Marez blood, always trying to decide between the two. Even in the first pages of the novel, this conflict becomes apparent in Tony’s dream about his birth:
This one will be a Luna . . . he will be a farmer and keep our customs and traditions. Perhaps God will bless our family and make the baby a priest . . . Then the silence was shattered with the thunder of hoof-beats; vaqueros surrounded the small house . . . He is a Marez . . . His forefathers were conquistadores, men as restless as the seas they sailed and as free as the land they conquered. (5-6)
Tony’s first familial education from his parents is that there can be no compromise; he must choose. Throughout the novel, Tony’s mother, Maria, and his father, Gabriel, constantly bicker about Tony’s destiny. Tony knows that one day when he gets to be a man that he will have choose to be his “mother’s priest” or his “father’s son” (41). Both parents always ridicule the other’s family. His mother refers to the vaqueros as “worthless drunks” and “thieves” (9), and his father questions Tony becoming a priest and a farmer. Yet, as the novel progresses, his father comes closer to compromise seeing the effects of Marez blood on his older sons, Andrew, Leon and Gene. Gabriel is bewildered by his sons deserting him and his dreams of California, saying to himself “I was proud that they would show the true blood of the Marez, but little did I realize that same pride would make them desert me” (122). Tony realizes through these words that being too much Luna or Marez is not a good thing because it threatens the balance of the family.
Although Maria and Gabriel represent the two forces colliding in one household, Tony’s brothers and his Luna uncles teach him how this conflict functions in the world. When his brothers return from the war, they have changed drastically. The changes in their personalities teach Tony that the world is bigger than just his household. His brothers exhibit Marez tendencies, wanting to leave and strike out on their own. When Tony cannot seem to understand his brothers’ actions, Andrew tries to explain growing up to him, by saying:
Look, Tony, I know what you’re thinking about. You’re thinking about mama and papa, you’re thinking of their wishes-but it’s too late for us, Tony. Leon, Gene, me, we can’t become farmers or priests, we can’t even go to California with papa . . . maybe it’s because the war made men out of us too fast, maybe it’s because their dreams were never real to begin with. (74)
Andrew teaches Tony that a man must find his own destiny instead of relying upon the dreams of the past. Just as Tony’s brothers represent the instability of the Marez, his uncles represent the stability and steadfastness of the Lunas.
During his summer stay with his uncles, Tony comes to realize the stability and solitude of the Lunas. They teach him to be one with the earth and respect it. Their lives are governed by the moon, which they hold to be sacred. Because of his uncles’ stability, Tony comes to terms with all the death and sorrow he has seen. He begins to thrive on an inner strength, which prepares him for the “final tragedy” (249), Ultima’s death. His uncles, through their silence and reverence for the earth, teach him to see beyond himself into the earth and its peace, seeing the bigger picture. At the end of the novel, Tony embraces syncretism within his familial education, saying to his father, “maybe I do not have to be just Marez, or Luna, perhaps I can be both” (247). Even as Tony tries to deal with the conflicts within his own familial education, he is also trying to sort through his spiritual education.
Tony’s spiritual education also has two opposing sides, Catholicism and cultural spiritual beliefs. Tony’s mother plays a vast role in his spiritual education, believing in both God and the Virgin of Guadalupe, a saint of the culture. Tony mirrors her beliefs in both God and the Virgin, yet he sees vast differences between the two:
My mother said the Virgin was the saint of our land, and although there were many other good saints, I loved none as dearly as the Virgin . . . the mother of God, the last relief of all sinners. God was not always forgiving. He made laws to follow and if you broke them you were punished. The Virgin always forgave. God had power. He spoke and the thunder echoed through the skies. The Virgin was full of a quiet, peaceful love. (43-4)
His mother has a deep reverence for structured religion, shown throughout the text by her constant kneeling and praying to the Virgin. Tony learns reverence for the Virgin and fear of God, yet he questions the Catholicism rigorously, searching for answers to his questions. The Catholic priest teaches Tony and the other children to fear God by painting Him as a punishing, terrifying God. Tony does not ask the priest his questions for fear of making him mad, believing that the answers will all come from God at his first communion. Although doubt looms in his mind about God, the first significant event where Tony realizes he can never be a priest is the pretend confession in front of the church. When Tony, their pretend priest, does not perform the way the children want him to, they become violent and take on a mob mentality. The other children teach him that he cannot be their priest because he will not do something if he does not believe in it. The second significant event that leads to Tony disbelief in the God is his first communion. When the answers do not come from God, he is extremely disillusioned, wondering why “there was only silence” (221). At this point, Tony becomes very unsatisfied with the Catholic religion, wanting something more substantial and tangible like the golden carp.
The golden carp represents a wonderful god to Tony because he is loving and tangible. Although Samuel teaches the legend of the golden carp to him, Tony is reluctant to believe at first because of his former education in Catholicism. When first introduced to the idea of a “new god” (81), uncertainty arises in Tony’s mind:
I could not believe this strange story, and yet I could not disbelieve Samuel . . . His voice was strong with faith. It made me shiver, not because it was cold but because the roots of everything I had ever believed in seemed shaken. If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross? The Virgin? Was my mother praying to the wrong God? (81)
Samuel opens another door in Tony’s spiritual education, an opposition to Catholicism. In the summer, Cico takes him to actually see the golden carp. When Tony sees the golden carp for the first time, his reaction is one of awe, “I could not have been more entranced if I had seen the Virgin, or God Himself” (114). By the next summer after the first communion, Tony truly begins to doubt God: “I wondered if God was alive anymore, or if He had ever been. He had not been able to cure my uncle Lucas . . . He had not been able to save Lupito or Narciso. And yet, He had the right to send you to heaven or hell when you died” (236). Cico tries to help Tony believe only in the golden carp, but Tony still cannot let go of God. His syncretism of the two different religions begins when he asks Cico, “Does one have to choose . . . Is it possible to have both?” (238). Even though Tony doubts the Catholic Church, he cannot bring himself to solely believe in the golden carp or in God. In his spiritual education as well as familial education, Ultima, the wise curandera, helps to teach him that he can believe in both sides, leading him toward syncretism.
In this text, the most influential person in Antonio’s education is Ultima, who embodies all beliefs. In the first page of the novel, he begins to tell his story at the beginning: “I do not mean the beginning that was in my dreams and the stories they whispered to me about my birth, and the people of my father and mother, and my three brothers-but the beginning that came with Ultima” (1). Ultima herself represents the embodiment of all beliefs. She does not push Tony to choose any particular path in life; she simply wants him to be able to decide for himself. She helps him decipher the conflicts in both his familial education and his spiritual education, ultimately giving him an education in syncretism.
From the first day of Tony’s life, Ultima steps forward to protect his right to choose his own destiny by taking the afterbirth and burying it, so she alone knows his destiny. In all disputes on whether he is to be a Luna or a Marez, she remains neutral, not taking sides but providing Antonio with words of wisdom with which to make thoughtful decisions. Ultima allows him the freedom to make his own decisions, pushing him to strike out and discover things on his own without the protection of his mother, who has kept him close and hindered him in making his own decisions. The first day Tony heads out for school, Ultima tells Maria her son’s fate: “He will be a man of learning” (56). Although this seems to make Maria happy, little does she realize that being a man of learning requires Tony to analyze and question seemingly concrete beliefs, such as religion and family heritage. Ultima helps Tony to find his inner strength, which finally comes when he goes to stay with his uncles in El Puerto for the summer. She knows that when he returns he will be a different person, and she prepares him for the changes: “Be prepared to see things change when you return . . . You are growing, and growth is change. Accept the change, make it part of your strength” (245). When she sends him to El Puerto, Ultima knows that he will gain an inner strength that will help him to become a man and deal with the conflict in his life, helping him to find his own paths, both familial and spiritual.
Ultima shows Tony syncretism even more in his spiritual education. She embodies all religious beliefs, which is what gives her power. She thrives on all sources of power, balancing them to her advantage. She respects and reveres God, the Virgin, the golden carp, and the earth equally. She longs for Tony to make his own religious choices: “I cannot tell you what to believe . . . As you grow into manhood you must find your own truths” (119). As she heals Uncle Lucas, Tony sees that her powers work where God’s could not, making him question His power. Although her actions such curing Uncle Lucas and ridding the Tellez house of the curse may make Tony question his Catholic beliefs, Ultima never actively tries to persuade him against any beliefs even Catholicism. The power of her education of syncretism is that she allows Tony to decide for himself, not imposing her own feelings on him and protecting him from too much influence from others.
Finally, at the end, Tony understands the balance Ultima has taught him; he must be both Marez and Luna and have a balance between all religious beliefs to truly be a man of learning. In one of Tony’s dreams, Ultima appears to him and explains that he must see beyond himself: “You have been seeing only parts . . . and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all” (121). As Tony learns all beliefs are bound together into a balanced system, he also realizes that, when the balance is disturbed, it must be restored, as with the deaths of Tenorio and Ultima. Tenorio and Ultima both meddle in the lives of other people, which is forbidden, so for balance to be restored, they both must die. By the end of the novel, Tony is able to understand and cope with Ultima’s death, having embraced the syncretism which she taught him and making himself stronger.
In Anaya’s Bless Me Ultima, Antonio embraces syncretism through several different types of education: familial, spiritual, and, most importantly, Ultima’s. Many different people influence Tony’s path to syncretism, teaching him the importance of all beliefs and opinions. Antonio’s quest for the truth leads him directly into being a man of learning because all good scholars search for a balance in knowledge. Through Ultima, Tony discovers his own destiny and how to lead his own life, despite what others might want him to do, because the choice is ultimately his.
Anaya, Rudulfo. Bless Me, Ultima. New York: Warner Books, 1972. Print.
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