Bless Me, Ultima | Study Guide

Rudolfo A. Anaya

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Bless Me, Ultima | Chapters 3–5 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 3 (Tres)

Antonio is cut and bruised after fleeing his hiding place in the riverside reeds. As he heals, Antonio wonders, "Where was Lupito's soul?" Antonio worries because Lupito killed an innocent man, the sheriff, and died without receiving last rites from the Church, so he had a "mortal sin on his soul." Antonio wonders if God will forgive Lupito, but then he realizes, "God didn't forgive anyone." Antonio worries Lupito's unquiet spirit will inhabit the spirit of the river—particularly worrisome since the river already makes Antonio uneasy. He also contemplates the sin carried by the men who killed Lupito in revenge. These men "walked the earth with the terrible burden of dark mortal sin on their souls."

It's Sunday morning, a time when Antonio's parents always quarrel. His mother wakes everyone to go to mass, but his father is usually hungover from his Saturday night revels. Gabriel is also far less religious than his wife. He speaks disparagingly about priests and the Church, and Maria thinks such talk is blasphemous. Antonio wonders how two such disparate people ever fell in love and got married.

Antonio tells how a priest founded the colony of El Puerto, where his mother's Luna clan first settled. The founding priest was a Luna, which is why Maria wants her son to follow in his footsteps.

At breakfast Maria asks the family to pray for the men killed the night before. Then the family talks about sin and how a boy becomes sinful when he grows to manhood. Again, Maria says if Antonio becomes a priest he will avoid becoming sinful.

While Antonio is out feeding the animals, he thinks, "Ya las campanas de Ia iglesia estan doblando" (already the church bells are tolling) for the dead. He snaps out of his thoughts when his mother calls him to get ready for church. As the family walks to church, Antonio hears some people whispering about Ultima, "Es una mujer" (It's a woman who has not sinned). Some people mutter "curandera" (healer); others whisper "Hechecera, bruja" (sorceress, witch).

Antonio asks Ultima how his father can take communion after helping to kill Lupito. Ultima believes Gabriel did not fire on Lupito because a llanero (cowboy) only kills justly. Therefore, Gabriel committed no sin. Also on the way to church, Antonio notes they are passing the house of Rosie, who runs a brothel. The church bells begin to ring again.

In front of the church Antonio meets some of his friends. All of them are talking about the two killings the night before. Some boys curse. The gentle Samuel says he "saw blood on the sand" near the river. Vitamin Kid, as usual, wants someone to race against. Horse picks a fight with a smaller boy. Ernie's father was in the café when the sheriff was killed, and he says Lupito just walked up to the sheriff and shot him. Horse, as usual, calls the story "bullshit." The boys raucously condemn the murderer—and those who defend him—to hell. Horse challenges Florence to a wrestling match, but Antonio offer to wrestle in his stead. He holds his own against the bigger, tougher Horse. In fact, Antonio actually throws him once. Instead of getting violently angry, Horse respects Antonio's prowess. The Mass begins and they all go into the church.

Chapter 4 (Cuatro)

Antonio goes with Ultima to collect herbs and wild plants. The late summer days are glorious. Ultima teaches Antonio about medicinal plants and their properties. She has him speak to each plant to explain why they are pulling it out of the ground. In this way she respects the lives of the plants and their healing qualities. They pick la yerba del manso (grass of the meek), oregano—a great cough medicine—osha, prickly pear, and other herbal remedies. Ultima has "a nobility to her" as she collects herbs; Antonio tries to emulate her.

Antonio asks Ultima why his mother's people and his father's people are so different. She says the differences are in their blood. The Lunas are quiet and calm farmers; the Márez have wild blood. Then Ultima speaks of the river's presence, which Antonio has always been able to feel. As the pair go home, Antonio realizes he's no longer afraid of the river's presence. They find some manzanilla (chamomile), which Ultima had used to cure Antonio's brother León of his sunken mollera (infant's head; fontanelle). Ultima teaches Antonio about the herbs and ancient medicines of the native peoples of the region: the Aztec and Maya.

While eating dinner, the family discusses their annual trip to El Puerto to help Maria's brothers with the harvest. Afterward Antonio goes to the river to cut alfalfa to feed the family's animals. Later Gabriel comes home from work on the highway and greets his cabritos (children). After everyone has eaten, Maria leads the family in prayer. The family prays to the beloved Virgin of Guadalupe. Antonio remembers the story of the Virgin's visitation to a Mexican peasant, which led her to become Mexico's patron saint. Antonio loves the Virgin because she is kind and loving, unlike the God of the Church, who "moved the hands that killed Lupito." The Virgin could intercede with God to forgive sins because of her compassion and because "she was born without sin." Maria and Ultima say prayers for Antonio's brothers to return safely from the war. As Antonio heads up to bed, he hears Ultima's owl promise the brothers will return home safely.

Chapter 5 (Cinco)

It's time for Maria and the children to travel to El Puerto to help with the harvest. Antonio hugs his tio (uncle) Pedro, who communicates better with the earth than with people. Pedro is Antonio's favorite uncle. Antonio feeds the animals as the rest of the family packs their bags. This is the first time Ultima will be going with them. Antonio describes the lovely countryside the truck passes through on its way. Finally they arrive in the beautiful valley of El Puerto de los Lunas. They drive past the church and Tenorio's Bar until they reach the Luna farm at the end of the road. They visit grandfather in his house and pay their respects. Grandfather Prudencio talks with Maria about her sons fighting the war. Prudencio bemoans turning innocent young farming boys into killers for the military, but then he says, "it's the will of God." He even blames the violence of war for in some way causing the death of Lupito. The violence is infiltrating the lives of ordinary people, making them do sinful things. "There is much evil running loose in the world," he says.

The group leaves Prudencio's house and settles in at Uncle Juan's house, where they will stay for the duration of the harvest. Antonio says everyone always enjoys their stay with the Lunas and is happy working to harvest the crops. They harvest chilis, apples, and other crops. At night they tell cuentos (stories) of the old times.

Uncle Juan says, "there is hope" in Antonio, and again Maria says how much she hopes he'll become a priest. Juan tells Antonio he should come and spend an entire summer with the Lunas, learning about farming and the earth.

Analysis

After his traumatic experience witnessing Lupito's death, Antonio thinks deeply about justice, forgiveness, and revenge. He fears Lupito's soul will be condemned to hell even though the man's action resulted from his war-generated insanity. He wonders, too, about the fate of Chávez who killed someone out of revenge. Does revenge for a violent act excuse a violent revenge? The man Chávez killed, Lupito, was essentially innocent of any crime (because of his insanity), so Antonio wonders if both Lupito and Chávez will be punished for their sin. Antonio tries but has great difficulty understanding the line between sin and innocence, between acts deserving punishment and acts warranting forgiveness.

On the way to church, Antonio asks Ultima if God will forgive his father for shooting Lupito. In her answer Ultima tries to distinguish punishable acts—sins—from justifiable acts of violence. She says, "A man of the llano [plains] ... will not take the life of a llanero unless there is just cause." Ultima does little to clarify Antonio's confusion when she states, "you must never judge who God forgives and who He doesn't." But this is exactly what Antonio wants to understand. Ultima assures him, "Knowledge comes slowly," so he must be patient.

Ultima may not be able to reveal to Antonio the mysterious workings of divine justice, but she increases his knowledge of the natural world through the healing plants she collects. Ultima says plants, like all living things, have a spirit, so he must tell the plants he picks, "we lift you to make good medicine."

The issue of sin bleeds into the family's conflicting traditions and expectations for Antonio. The family addresses the issues of innocence and sin in terms of maturity and one's identity as a man. Maria says, "what a sin it is for a boy to grow into a man." Gabriel disagrees vehemently: "It is no sin ... only a fact of life." Maria responds, "Ay, but life destroys the pureness God gives," to which Gabriel replies, "It does not destroy ... it builds up ... [to make] him a man." The divergent traditions and beliefs of Antonio's parents very likely confuse him about his identity and his future. The conversation ends, as so often happens, with Maria again hoping Antonio will become a priest because "that would save him" from sin. It might also stunt his growth into a mature man, but this does not seem to concern her. Later Ultima tries to reassure and calm Antonio's conflict by telling him, "You have plenty of time to find yourself." Yet Antonio is smart enough to know he's caught between his family's conflicting traditions.

It should be noted Antonio is not a timid or frightened boy. He steps up to wrestle with Horse and even throws him. Antonio is sure Horse will "rear up ... and stomp [him] into the ground" for throwing him, but Horse recognizes and respects Antonio's bravery and skill.

Family conflict also revolves around cultural attitudes toward religion. Antonio's mother, Maria, is a devout Catholic who prays daily and always attends mass on Sunday. Antonio's father is irreligious. While drunk, he "called priests 'women' and made fun" of them. Gabriel's attitude toward religion is attributable not only to his wild, cowboy upbringing but to his notion of what defines a man. His macho attitude is delineated by very clear notions of how real men act and what they believe. His ideas are in direct conflict not only with his wife's beliefs but also with the actual life lived by her brothers, the Lunas, who are farmers.

The Luna brothers are true examples of a harmonious family living a traditional pastoral life. The time Antonio and his family spend harvesting their crops is one of peace and happiness. Antonio exhibits his Luna blood by enjoying the serene farming life. The peace and harmony of this particular time may owe a lot to Gabriel's absence. Antonio loves this traditional way of life, one in which the family is "happy, working, helping each other." Because he fits in so well with the Luna family, they make plans to have him spend an entire summer with his uncles.

Maria refers to the planned trip to help with the Luna brothers' harvest in religious terms, as a pilgrimage. Antonio, too, uses Christian references when he prays to the Virgin of Guadalupe, of whom he says, "There was no one I loved more than the Virgin." She remains his closest Christian spiritual guide because she embodies mercy and forgiveness, something Antonio is grappling with in his mind and his life. The Virgin is the symbol of "quiet, peaceful love" in contrast to the vengeful Christian God who "moved the hands that killed Lupito." Antonio is moving further away from the God of the Church who seems so unjust and pitiless.

Antonio's dream hints Maria is not attuned to the true, divinely ordained fate of her youngest son. The dream shows his mother praying to the Virgin to "make my fourth son a priest." Then the dream depicts the Virgin "draped ... in mourning for the fourth son." The dream terrifies Antonio, who wakes up screaming.

The war is brought up in conversation with Antonio's grandfather. Old Prudencio assures Maria her three sons will come back safely from the war. But the old man also blames the recent murders on the influence of the war seeping into everyday life. War made Lupito insane, and his war-induced insanity impelled him to kill, which then led to his being killed by the other men. War, the grandfather says, "is against the will of God."

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