In Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya presents a world of opposites in the New Mexican village of Guadalupe. The parents of the young protagonist Antonio have strikingly different temperaments, as dissimilar to each other as the backgrounds from which they hail. Maria Luna Marez, the pious daughter of Catholic farmers from the fertile El Puerto valley, steers her son toward the priesthood and a ministry in an agrarian settlement. Gabriel Marez, Antonio's adventurous father, is descended from a long line of nomadic horsemen; he expects his son to share his wanderlust, and he hopes that as compadres they will explore the vanishing llano (plains). The thrust of Anaya's bildungsroman, however, is not that maturation necessitates exclusionary choices between competing options, but that wisdom and experience allow one to look beyond difference to behold unity.
Historic continuity and spiritual harmony are recurrent strains in much of Anaya's work as he often laments man's weakened connection to the earth, to the past, and to the myths that reveal the proper balance of the cosmos. In "The Myth of Quetzalcoatl," Anaya criticizes the heavy toll which economic and political realities exact from the fragile landscape of the Southwest and its ancient cultures, but, a conciliator, he also cites some merit in change. Rather than condemning or shunning innovation, as do many who, like Anaya, want to protect an endangered heritage, he advocates a measured application of modernization. "Technology may serve people," he reminds those whom he claims are wont to retrench in the old ways, but "it need not be the new god" (198). Likewise, informed engagement in the legislative process, a political reality of the here-and-now, can serve the cause of preserving the landscape and the cultures it sustains. Anaya urges that just as the present can safeguard the past, historical awareness can "shed light on our contemporary problems" (198). He reaches back through the centuries to the Toltec civilization of Tula to bring instructive parallels to bear on current rapacious materialism in the United States (199). As a writer, Anaya practices the rich admixing across time and space that he preaches, for his novels of the American Southwest blend diverse cultural strains. In Bless Me, Ultima he draws deeply on Native American mythology and Mexican Catholicism,(1) and, though the novel is written in conventional English that the protagonist deems a "foreign tongue" (53), the prose is to be read as a translation of the Spanish which most characters speak. When his characters use English, they typically engage in code-switching.(2)
Bless Me, Ultima has earned acclaim for its "cultural uniqueness" and is lauded for such distinctive Chicano features as its use of Aztec myth and symbol, its thematic emphasis on family structures, and its linguistic survivals. Furthermore, Anaya is renowned as one of the "Big Three" of the Chicano canon, alongside Tomas Rivera and Rolando Hinojosa (Sommers 146-47). Set in a sacred place imbued with a spiritual presence and long inhabited by indigenous peoples, his book presents a world where the Anglo is of little consequence to its strong Chicano characters.(3)
Yet this highly celebrated ethnic novel also reveals the strong imprint of Anglo-American belles-lettres. Many critics observe Anaya's reliance upon James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to relate the anguished rites of passage of his own protagonist.(4) Both Antonio Marez and Stephen Dedalus ask bold questions about the nature of good and evil as they examine their roles within the families and Church that circumscribe their lives. William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, and Katherine Anne Porter, among others, have also been cited as literary influences on Anaya.(5) But in a novel that uncovers shared tenets among seemingly discordant worldviews by an author who prizes cross-cultural connections, Anaya goes even further afield in choosing his literary models. …