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Bless Me, Ultima | Context

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Cultural History of New Mexico

Bless Me, Ultima, is set in New Mexico, where Rudolfo Anaya has long lived and worked. New Mexico has a rich and diverse population and cultural history. The region was first part of Mexico, and today Chicanos—Mexican Americans born in the United States—retain much of their cultural heritage. However, intermarriage with Anglos (whites) has had a significant impact on Chicano culture, giving the Southwest its distinctive Chicano way of life. Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a city notable for its unique Chicano culture, as well as for the cultures of the state's Native Americans.

The Mexicans who settled New Mexico were generally concentrated in the central regions of the state. Many farms cropped up along the alluvial plains (flat landforms where sediment has been deposited by rivers) of the Rio Grande River. Others sprang up near natural lakes such as those in Guadalupe County, New Mexico. In Bless Me, Ultima, the Luna farm is located near one of these lakes. In regions unsuitable for farming, ranchers raised sheep, which were herded by vaqueros, or cowboys, such as the men in Antonio's father's family in Bless Me, Ultima.

In the late 19th century, Mexican Americans made up an estimated 25 percent or more of all vaqueros. However, development has made these Spanish cowboys rather rare in New Mexico. Antonio's father, Gabriel, leaves behind his vaquero roots to work as a highway repairman, but the vaquero spirit lives on in him, and he tries to implant the spirit of adventure in his sons.

New Mexico in World War II

The events of Bless Me, Ultima take place while World War II (1939–45) rages overseas. Many Mexican Americans—such as Antonio's brothers in Bless Me, Ultima—were imbued with American patriotism and were eager to fight for their country. They were among the first citizens in the nation to enlist.

Life changed considerably in New Mexico both during and after the war. After seeing more of the world, many war veterans, like the Márez brothers, felt the urge to leave family farms and small towns to seek greater opportunities in the cities.

The war also boosted New Mexico's population and its economy. In 1940 the state's population was just over 530,000 people. By 1960 that number had soared to just over 950,000. New Mexico was chosen as a site for research into innovative military technology and war-related science. The influx of personnel for all the government sponsored or funded research centers not only provided jobs directly for New Mexicans but increased employment in ancillary economic sectors such as construction and service industries. Many people used to living close to the land, such as Antonio's mother and her family in Bless Me, Ultima, were faced with the unwelcome changes brought about by modern technology.

The Atomic Bomb

During World War II the atomic bomb rocked the once-quiet world depicted in Bless Me, Ultima. Research on the atomic bomb was carried out in Los Alamos, New Mexico, under the name the Manhattan Project. Most jobs at the research site went to scientists and engineers with the highest national security clearance. Local Pueblo Indians were hired to work as truck drivers, maintenance workers, and construction workers. Pueblo women were also hired for child care and as maids. Few jobs were created for the population not in the area immediately surrounding Los Alamos.

At 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945, scientists first tested the atomic bomb in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The resulting mushroom cloud rose 40,000 feet into the air; and the amount of energy released was equivalent to about 20,000 tons of trinitrotoluene (TNT). The explosion's intense heat melted and fused the desert sand into glass. In Bless Me, Ultima, townspeople observe the explosion with fear and horror, calling the bomb "a ball of white heat beyond the imagination, beyond hell." The people condemn the scientists, whispering, "they compete with God ... they seek to know more than God Himself," adding, "In the end that knowledge they seek will destroy us all."

When the scientists knew their process and design worked, they built two other atomic bombs. American forces dropped one on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945, and the other on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 9, 1945.

New Mexicans had some idea important scientific work was being carried out at Los Alamos, but the Manhattan Project was largely kept under wraps. Later it was proved the atomic bomb testing at Los Alamos threatened the health of the Pueblo Indians who lived close to the test site. Both the water and air at the pueblos were contaminated with radioactivity.

The Manhattan Project was originally planned as a temporary scientific endeavor whose lab would be dismantled once the atomic bomb was produced and used. Yet Los Alamos was not shut down once the war was won. Permanent research centers were built at various sites in New Mexico, making the state a national center for both military and non-military scientific research and contributing to the vast changes wrought in a once-quiet way of life.

The Virgin of Guadalupe

In December 1531, Juan Diego, a Mexican man of simple means, had visions of the Virgin Mary on Tepeyac Hill in Guadalupe, today a suburb of Mexico City. He said the Virgin told him to have a shrine built for her on the spot. Diego told the local bishop about his vision, but the cleric did not believe him. An archbishop instructed Diego to return with proof of the visitation. When the Virgin appeared to Diego again, she told him to collect flowers from Tepeyac Hill. Although it was December, when the hill was usually barren, Diego found and collected Castilian roses—which are not native to Mexico—and put them inside his cloak. When Diego returned to the archbishop, he opened his cloak and countless rose petals fell out. An image of the Virgin Mary was clearly visible on the inside of his cloak. The bishop's skepticism vanished. He kept Diego's cloak and put its image on display. It was later displayed in the basilica built in Mexico City for the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Some high-ranking Catholics as well as religious scholars have questioned this episode, but their skepticism has not dampened many Mexicans' devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe, who became the country's patron saint. Shrines have been built to her throughout Mexico, as well as in other Latin American nations. In Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio, who grows up in the town of Guadalupe, is drawn to the Virgin of Guadalupe because she represents the forgiving and compassionate side of the Roman Catholic faith.

Magical Realism

Magical realism is a style of writing in which fantastical or mythical events or characters are included in an otherwise realistic story or novel. Magical realism is most identified with the literature of Latin America. Authors Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) and Gabriel García Márquez (1927–2014), both internationally known, are notable for popularizing magical realism in works such as Borges's short-story collection Ficciones (1944) and Marquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967). Anaya uses magical realism to give depth and color to the story he tells in Bless Me, Ultima.

Some literary critics and historians suggest magical realism arose in Latin America as a way to reconcile and blend the disparate realities of indigenous culture and imposed European culture.

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