November 14th, 2011
The Power of Folk Figures and Other Folkloric Elements in Bless Me, Ultima
As Antonio, the protagonist in Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, encounters the acts of mythological, folk figures, he often questions his Catholic faith. Mythic, folk figures included in the novel are the curandera, the brujas, la llornona, and the golden carp. Not only is Antonio torn between his religious and mythic beliefs, but he also faces a cultural conflict within la familia; for he must choose between the traditions of the Lunas and become a priest or develop into a full-blooded Marez, a man of the land. Within the acts of each folk figure as well as in the traditions of la familia, one finds an array of folkloric elements and practices: folk medicine, curses, cures, remedies, superstitions, the oral tradition, myths, rituals, voodoo, and folk sayings.
Ultima holds the most significant mythological role in the novel; folklorist Carol Mitchell identifies Ultima as an “archetypal earth mother” (59). Literary scholar Montye P. Fuse discusses the traditional status of Mexican American women, and suggests that on the contrary to such traditions, Anaya develops a “dynamic, empowered, and unconventional characterization of Ultima” (46). She is beyond categorization within the traditional Mexican American gender roles. Ultima practices folk medicine as a reputable healer: “Ultima was a curandera, a woman who knew the herbs and remedies of the ancients, a miracle-worker who could heal the sick”; and “there isn’t a family she did not help” (Anaya 4, 3). She goes out of her way to heal those around her, for “no road was too long for her to walk to its end to snatch somebody from the jaws of death, and not even the blizzards of the llano could keep her from the appointed place where a baby was to be delivered” (3). Antonio is quick to recognize his grandmother’s mythic powers: “[s]he took my hand, and the silent, magic powers she possessed made beauty from the raw, sun-baked llano, the green river valley, and the blue bowl which was the white sun’s home” (1). Literary scholar, Enrique R. Lamadrid, confers Antonio’s recognition, as he claims that “[t]he dynamism of mythic thought and its power of synthesis is poignantly expressed in Antonio’s descriptions of the feelings and emotions that are aroused by contact with Ultima” (500). Antonio becomes “spellbound” by the “bright power in her eyes” (Anaya 28). Not only does Antonio acknowledge Ultima’s power, but he also feels it: “I felt Ultima’s hand on my head and at the same time I felt a great force, like a whirlwind, swirl about me” (51). Her powers, though, go beyond her aura.
Antonio identifies the power in Ultima’s folk medicines as well (Anaya 25). In fact, he believes there to be magic in them, as he refers to the “magic of her sweet smelling herbs” and deems her array of herbs and roots to be a “magic harvest” (11, 36). Antonio witnesses a close relationship between Ultima and her folk medicines: “For Ultima, even the plants had a spirit, and before I dug she made me speak to the plant and tell it why we pulled it from its home on the earth. […] We lift you to make good medicine,” she would tell the plants (36). Ultima teaches Antonio about the medicinal purposes of each plant: “Of all the plants we gathered none was endowed with so much magic as the yerba del manso. It could cure burns, sores, piles, colic in babies, bleeding dysentary and even rheumatism” (37). Ultima shares with Antonio that the “dry contents of [her] bag contained a pinch of every plant she had ever gathered since she began her training as a curandera many years ago” (37). He learns that oregano is “not only a cure for coughs and fever but a spice [his] mother used for beans and meat” (37). He also learns that osha “is like la yerba del manso, a cure for everything” (37). And Antonio discovers that Ultima cured his brother, Leon’s, sunk in mollera with manzanilla (39). Ultima also tells Antonio about “the common herbs and medicines [they] shared with the Indians of the Rio del Norte” (39). Ultima gathers most of the folk medicines herself, but “[t]here were some plants that Ultima could not obtain in the llano or the river, but many people came to seek cures from her and they brought in exchange other herbs and roots” (39). She is the notable folk healer the people of the village most commonly call for to cure their ailments.
In particular, “Ultima is called for help to cure uncle Lucas,” as he was bewitched by a bruja who “put a curse on him” (Anaya 76). No one could cure him—not the doctor in town or the “great doctor in Las Vegas”; not even the holy priest could exorcise the curse out of Lucas (77). Ultima provides warning of her magical healing though—that “when anybody, bruja or curandera, priest or sinner, tampers with the fate of a man that sometimes a chain of events is set into motion over which no one will have ultimate control” (80). Once everyone accepts this traditional notion, Ultima moves on with her procedures. While the common folk saying is that “a curandera cannot give away her secrets,” Ultima requests Antonio’s assistance as she prepares “herbs and oils” to remedy uncle Lucas’ cure (31, 80). Another customary folk saying in the novel is that “when a curandera was working a cure, she was in charge” (86). She remains in charge; however, Ultima’s mythical powers as a curandera arouse suspicion in some, for she was the only one who could “lift the curse laid by brujas” and “exorcise the evil the witches planted in people to make them sick” (4). Because of these special, magical powers, Ultima is “misunderstood and often suspected of practicing witchcraft herself” (4). People would gather around to watch the curandera at work, and those suspicious of her acts would hold “the sign of the cross in front of Ultima’s face”; because they knew it “would work against any bruja” (87). Even after she passes their superstition ritual, Ultima defends herself against Tenorio’s accusation specifically by saying, “I am a curandera, and I have come to lift a curse. It is your daughters who do evil that are the brujas” (87).
After proving herself, Ultima finishes her remedy preparation process. She cooks her remedy of herbs and roots and “forced the mixture down [Lucas’] throat” (Anaya 90). Ultima decides that Lucas must eat a bowl of atole (blue corn meal) and asserts that “then he shall be cured” (91). After this step in the healing process, Ultima realizes that they have “beaten the death spirit,” and declares that “now all that remains is to have him vomit the evil spirit out” (93). Ultima prepares a fresh remedy of oils, roots, and herbs. She recites a chant to the three brujas in order to lift the curse; she then performs voodoo—also representative of folklore practices—with three dolls that symbolize the brujas. And finally the curse is released (94). Ultima kills the women through her act of voodoo, but it is an accepted practice only because they are brujas; the killing of brujas is not against the law, as they so often curse and bring evil to the village (Mitchell 64). To release the evil within Lucas, “[g]reen bile poured from his mouth, and finally he vomited a huge ball of hair. It fell to the floor, hot and steaming and wiggling like live snakes” (Anaya 95). The brujas had worked their evil into his hair (95). Ultima’s magical powers amaze all of the witnesses.
Antonio especially is in complete awe of Ultima’s power used to save his uncle and defeat the curse of the brujas. He begins to question his faith as he realizes that “Ultima’s medicine had cured [his] uncle and how he was well and could work again” (Anaya 98). Antonio wonders, “how the medicine of the doctors and of the priest had failed” (98). And in his “mind, [he] could not understand how the power of God could fail. But it had” (98). Antonio begins to wonder if Untima’s power is stronger than God’s. Literary scholar, Vernon E. Lattin, suggests that “[a]s Ultima’s pagan pouch of herbs has replaced the Christian scapular around Antonio’s neck, so mythic vision has replaced Christianity in Antonio’s life” (632). Antonio realizes that Ultima’s magical remedy is the only remedy suitable to cure evil; as “good magic is shown to conquer evil magic, but magic must be fought with magic, and the Catholic religious rituals cannot take the place of the ancient magic” (Mitchell 64). Antonio as well as others in their village become believers of the folk saying, that “[g]ood is always stronger than evil,” and “[t]he smallest bit of good can stand against all the powers of evil in the world and it will emerge triumphant” (Anaya 91). And so, Ultima’s “good,” magical rituals are understood to be the only curing option for such bewitching and other acts of evil magic. While this causes sheer amazement in Antonio, he also loses faith in his Catholic beliefs. He finds Ultima to be more powerful than God. Even though Ultima’s powers cause Antonio to question his faith, she is a positive folk figure in his life; while divergently, there are other folk figures in the novel that push him even further away from God.
La llorona is another influential folk figure in Antonio’s life; however, she does not offer the same positive role as Ultima. Folklorist, Jane Rogers, asserts that as Antonio “grows from innocence to knowledge and experience, the la llorona motif figures both on a literal mythological level and as an integral part of Antonio’s life” (64). Antonio often refers to this mythic figure as a presence: “I had been afraid of the awful presence of the river, which was the soul of the river” (Anaya 14). While originally strong in his Catholic beliefs at the beginning of the novel, he begins to question his faith, as he recognizes the “holy water of the river”—representative of la llorona (20). While la llorona “invites with music and warmth,” her presence also “threatens death” (Rogers 65). For example, Antonio’s brothers refer to la llorona as “the old witch who cries along the river banks and seeks the blood of boys and men to drink!” (Anaya 23). And the “dust devils of the llano,” which are believed to derive from the “evil spirit of a devil,” bear the signature of la llorona (Anaya 24, Rogers 65). Antonio believes in the superstition that it is “bad luck to let one of those small whirlwinds strike you,” yet he is captivated by la llorona (Anaya 51). Regardless of the evil within this presence, Antonio feels emotionally drawn to la llorona, as if by a spell, for “La llorona seeks the soul of Antoniooooooooooo” (24). After encountering Lupito’s death at the river, Antonio supposes that Lupito is now “a bloody mate to la Llorona” (26). And as Antonio would walk “along the river,” he would “turn and glance over [his] shoulder to catch a glimpse of a shadow—Lupito’s soul, or la Llorona, or the presence of the river” (26). Antonio finds it difficult to differentiate between them, for he believes that la llorona has captured Lupito’s soul and they have seemingly become one entity.
Anaya recurrently personifies this folk motif throughout the novel, for Antonio refers to la llorona as “silent and brooding” and claims that the “presence was watching over” them (Anaya 38). Though referred to as “lifeless,” they still consider la llorona to be “throbbing with its secret message” (38). Anaya continues to personify this folk motif, as Antonio’s character claims assurance that in the “dark shadow of this bridge la llorona lurked,” as if a being of some kind (72). Though the presence seems to consume Antonio for the duration of the novel, he finally hears his last call of la llorona: “The dark presence of the river was like a shroud, enveloping me, calling to me. The drone of the grillos and the sigh of the wind in the trees whispered the call of the soul of the river” (243-44). Instead of succumbing to her death call, he ultimately frees himself of la llorona (Rogers 69). The cry of Ultima’s owl overpowers the allurement of la llorona (Anaya 244).
Similar to the myth of la llorona, the golden carp is a popular mythic legend passed down through the oral tradition in Antonio’s community: “Everybody knew it was bad luck to fish for the big carp that the summer floods washed down. […] It had always been so” (Anaya 73). Antonio’s friend, Samuel, tells him about the myth of the golden carp. The carp “made his home in the waters of the river, and he was sacred to the gods. To stay alive, they […] caught the carp of the river and ate them” (74). Samuel then goes on to say that the gods got very angry and “turned the people into carp and made them live forever in the waters of the river” (74). He explains that if anyone eats a carp, the gods will punish him. And it is believed among villagers that one of the gods pitied the carp and thought they needed protection, and so this god “chose to be turned into a carp and swim in the river where he could take care of his people” (74). To indicate that “he was a god, they made him very big and colored him the color of gold” (74). After being awed by the mythological story Samuel shares with him, Antonio begins to question his Catholic faith: “If the golden carp was a god, who was the man on the cross? The Virgin? Was my mother praying to the wrong God?” (75). Antonio’s enthusiasm increases about the golden carp as the novel progresses, for he “was excited about seeing the magical golden carp” (99). But his doubts about his religion increase as well.
After witnessing the miracle of the golden carp, comparing it with Ultima’s miraculous healing of his uncle Lucas, Antonio expects something similar from his first Holy Communion, only to be disappointed (Anaya 105, 210-11). However, literary scholar, Theresa M. Kanoza claims, “as Antonio comes to comprehend the kinship of the golden carp and Christ, he realizes the obvious—that as the offspring of his mismatched parents he is living proof that opposites can integrate” (166). But another scholar disagrees, for he asserts that “[t]hrough the influence of Ultima and the golden carp, Antonio has progressed beyond traditional Christianity which failed to satisfy his religious quest and has moved into the ancient mythic understanding of existence” (Lattin 631). While Antionio tries to balance the mythical magic of Ultima, la llorona, and the golden carp with his Catholic faith, he struggles. He can easily recognize the results of the mythological folk figures, especially in Ultima’s healing power, but he does not get the same feeling as he takes his first Holy Communion or prays to the Virgin.
Yet another folkloric element prevalent in Bless Me, Ultima is that of cultural conflict within la familia, which “involves the conflicts of individuals in a traditional rural folk culture and one character’s conflicts within himself as he grows up in this culture” (Mitchell 56). Antonio encounters such conflicts, for he must choose between the traditions of his mother and father. His mother would commonly say to him: “You will be a Luna, Antonio. You will be a man of the people, and perhaps a priest” (Anaya 8). And often causing Antonio guilt, his mother “always cried when she thought [he and his brothers] were learning the ways of [their] father, the ways of the Marez” (7). His mother also worries that the influence of the Marez blood will result in Antonio’s loss of innocence: “You are innocent when you do not know, my mother cried, but already you know too much about the flesh and blood of the Marez men” (66). On the contrary, Antonio’s “father’s dream was to gather his sons around him and move westward to the land of the setting sun, to the vineyards of California” (13). His father is a strong believer that “the freedom of the wild horse is in the Marez blood, and his gaze is always westward” (23). Because the men of his father’s family were “vaqueros,” Antonio’s father expects his sons “to be men of the llano” (23). While Antonio respects his father, he knew of the legend that “it was within the power of the father to curse his sons” (67). And he heard through the passed down oral tradition that “a curse laid on a disobedient son or daughter was irrevocable” (67). Antonio worries, because he “knew the stories of many bad sons and daughters who had angered their parents to the point of the disowning curse. […] The cursed children were never heard of again” (67). He does not want to become one of these children. Antonio is pressured to make a choice at such a young age, not wishing to disappoint his father or his mother. His parents encourage the old folk saying, “[j]ust don’t grow up too fast” (69), yet they stress for Antonio to make an adult decision.
Such pressure causes Antonio to be torn between the two cultures of la familia, for his mother’s side of la familia often “chanted in unison, you are to be a farmer-priest for mother!” (Anaya 23). His mother is “a devout Catholic” (27). And because of his mother’s devotion, Antonio follows many Catholic traditions. For example, Antonio explains that “[a]fter supper we always prayed the rosary” (42). Antonio also speaks of his mother’s “beautiful statue of la Virgen de Guadalupe” and expresses the fact that “[t]here was no one [he] loved more than the Virgin” (42, 43). They would “pray to the Virgin” and gather “around the Virgin’s alter” (75). And from his mother, Antonio learns that “God is great” (51). He picks up the ritualistic superstition—as described with the brujas and the defense made in response to the accusations against Ultima—that when one encounters evil, God and the symbol of Christ will protect believers. Antonio explains that “[a]ll you have to do is lift up your right hand and cross your right thumb over your first finger in the form of the cross. No evil can challenge that cross” (51-52). Though he enjoys practicing the religious beliefs, rituals, and superstitions of the Catholic faith and looks forward to his first Holy Communion, Antonio does not wish to disappoint his father. He recognizes and begins to develop the qualities of both the Lunas and Marez:
It is the blood of the Lunas to be quiet, for only a quiet man can learn the secrets of the earth that are necessary for planting—They are quiet like the moon—And it is the blood of the Marez to be wild, like the ocean from which they take their name, and the spaces of the llano that have become their home. (Anaya 38)
Antonio wonders which he will become—a priest or a man of the land.
In contemplating his decision, Antonio recognizes the distinctive characteristics of each of his folkloric mentors: “Ultima in her wisdom, my mother in her dream, and my father in his rebellion” (Anaya 52). While at first the reader assumes Antonio will either choose to follow the Lunas or Marez tradition, as Antonio “seeks and receives Ultima’s deathbed blessing,” the reader can imply that Antonio “will continue forth in the ways of curanderismo (spiritual healing)” (Fuse 44). He will carry on his grandmother’s tradition as a healer and practitioner of folk medicine. While the mother and father serve distinct roles in their cultural traditions, “the curandera and the boy serve as mediators between the oppositions within their cultures” (Lamadrid 499). As the novel concludes, Antonio essentially decides that—along with the practice of curanderismo—he will carry on both cultural traditions in la familia:
He will grant his mother’s wish for a priest by ministering to the needs of others and by mediating between the earthly and the spiritual; and blending his Christianity with pagan mysticism, he will fulfill his father’s desire for an heir who is in touch with the supernatural forces of the land. (Kanoza 166-67)
He will fill the role of all three cultures, keeping the family traditions alive and diverse.
We see such diversity in the array of folk figures Anaya develops as influential characters in the life of Antonio as well as the mixture of cultures Antonio is exposed to and encouraged to carry on through the oral tradition as well as in practice. Such cultural and folkloric multiplicity derives from Anaya’s exploration and usage of folklore. Anaya’s “pluralistic cultural consciousness” is revealed in Bless Me, Ultima through the influence of “Biblical and Indian mythology, Spanish lore, and the traditional canon” (Kanoza 168). Because of such compelling and culturally exuberant influences, Anaya composes a novel so rich in folklore that one can easily identify folkloric elements and figures on just about every page.
Anaya, Rudolfo. Bless Me, Ultima. California: TQS Publications, 1994. Print.
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