One of the major themes of the novel is Antonio’s loss of innocence. At the opening of the novel, Antonio is an innocent boy, unaware of the dangers and tragedy of life. As the novel progresses, Antonio becomes more and more cognizant of the good and evil present in the world. By the end of the book, Antonio no longer possesses his innocence but has replaced it with wisdom and maturity.
Antonio’s transition from innocence to experience is highlighted through specific trials over the course of the novel. The first of these trials is Lupito’s murder, which sparks Antonio’s anxieties about sin and punishment. The murder of Narciso is another key moment in the novel, forcing Antonio to witness yet another death and also assume the role of a priest to give the dying man comfort. The remainder of Antonio’s innocence is lost with the accidental drowning of Florence. One of Antonio’s closest friends, Florence constantly reminded Antonio that a compassionate God could not exist in such an evil world. With his death, Antonio begins to question whether or not he can believe in a God who could allow Florence to die.
As Antonio feels the loss of his innocence, he looks to religion to answer his concerns. He hopes that his first communion will finally answer all of his questions but is disappointed when God remains silent to him. Feeling betrayed by the Christian God, Antonio looks to the Golden Carp and Ultima’s skills to help him reconcile his loss of innocence with his development as a young man. Antonio's mother associates the loss of innocence with sin and corruption, but Antonio eventually understands that loss of innocence is a crucial part of growing up.
Anaya uses his novel to introduce the reader to several conflicting cultures in Antonio’s childhood. First of all, Antonio’s early life is defined by the conflict between the Luna and the Marez, the two sides of his family. While the Luna are devout farmers who worship the earth and the moon, the Marez are free-spirited cowboys who are devoted to horses and the sun. Because Antonio’s three older brothers have already chosen the roaming life of the Marez, Antonio is expected to follow the path of the Luna and become a priest. However, Antonio is unwilling to make a decision either way and feels a great deal of pressure weighing on his destiny. Eventually, Ultima teaches Antonio that identity can be a combination of cultures and that he does not have to pick one side of the family to follow.
Another cultural conflict is emphasized through the tensions between Antonio’s life at home and life at school. At home, Antonio speaks only Spanish and follows the cultural expectations with which he has grown up. When Antonio goes to school, he is forced to experience the English-speaking academic world of the rest of the United States. He must learn to speak English and interact with children who are not from the same culture as he is. Although Antonio’s mother is extremely proud of his opportunity to learn English, Antonio finds that his schoolmates are less accepting of his own culture.
Antonio ultimately learns that he is able to accept elements of every culture when he creates his own identity and follows his own path to adulthood. Ultima assures him that not every type of faith is mutually exclusive, and Antonio is able to use the same lesson in dealing with the conflicting cultures in his life.
The conflict between good and evil in the novel is characterized through the relationship between Ultima and Tenorio. From the start, Ultima is described as the moral compass for the novel, protecting her community from the curses of evil witches. Tenorio, on the other hand, takes his place as Ultima’s arch-nemesis who shares his wicked daughters’ penchant for cruelty and evil. The battle between these two characters perpetuates the majority of the plot in the novel and, although both characters die at the end, Ultima’s goodness and Tenorio’s evilness are maintained.
However, as Antonio himself discovers, good and evil are not so easy to distinguish. Although Ultima performs many good deeds, she kills two of Tenorio’s daughters with her counter curse, using pagan powers that go against Catholic beliefs. The incident with the holy cross in Chapter 12 brings to light additional questions about Ultima’s “goodness” in the eyes of the church. Tenorio’s true evil is equally difficult to determine; his attempts to murder Ultima are only the result of his wish to avenge his daughter’s death. In some novels, a mourning father who seeks revenge would be the hero, rather than the antagonist. In both cases, neither character is easy to define as wholly good or wholly evil.
Near the end of the novel, Anaya explains that the goodness of a person is determined solely by his or her actions. Within this framework, Ultima still possesses much more "good" in her nature than Tenorio does. However, it is clear that good and evil cannot be distinguished in a clear-cut way, and this is one of the more important lessons that Antonio learns about life.
Myth is a very important theme in the novel because it is an underlying presence in the culture that surrounds Antonio. He comes across many different kinds of myths over the course of the book. Some of these come specifically from Native American culture, such as the story of the Golden Carp, while others come from a more general culture of pagan beliefs about the natural world, such as Ultima’s views toward plant life. The combination of these myths with Catholicism is a direct result of the colonization of New Mexico by Spanish colonists. As the colonist communities began to blend with the communities of Native Americans, the result was an amalgamation of cultures in which these myths maintained their importance alongside Catholic doctrine.
The myth of the Golden Carp, in particular, outlines a new set of beliefs for Antonio that he had never considered before. Although these beliefs initially seem to conflict with his Catholic upbringing, Antonio grows to realize that the Golden Carp simply offers a different perspective to the world than Catholicism. Neither is better than the other, but a combination of both is the way to find a satisfying faith. In the same way, Ultima’s explanation of the spirit in the natural world and the presence of the river allow Antonio to gain a broader scope of understanding.
In the book, Antonio’s discovery of these myths helps him to develop his own understanding of faith. By combining the beliefs that he learns from Christianity with the ideas he develops from the Golden Carp and from Ultima, Antonio is able to choose his own path, developing his own identity from all of the religious and cultural ideas available.
Antonio’s relationships with his brothers, his parents, and his uncles are extremely significant throughout the novel. Because Antonio comes from such a tightly-knit family, he feels a great deal of pressure coming from every side when it comes to determining his future. While his mother and his Luna uncles want him to become a farmer priest like their side of the family, his father and Marez uncles want him to become a vaquero like them. Antonio feels an obligation correspond to these desires, but he also wants to follow in the footsteps of his older brothers, all of whom he views in an idealized way. Antonio is especially willing to model himself off of the example of Andrew, and he is hopelessly disappointed to discover that his favorite brother is not actually worthy of such veneration. While Antonio strives to emulate his brothers, his brothers in turn have their own expectations for him. Because they chose to follow the lifestyle of the Marez, they have decided that Antonio must follow the Luna side of the family, simply to maintain the balance and fairness between the two families.
It is only after Ultima arrives that Antonio is able to gain some independence from the obligations he feels in his family. This freedom is largely due to the fact that Ultima is not an actual member of the family: she brings a freeing outside perspective to his future and does not have any ulterior motives when it comes to aiding his development as an individual. With Ultima’s help, Antonio is able to extricate himself from the oppressive expectations of his family and make his own decisions about his path in life.
Throughout the book, Antonio’s father hopes to fulfill his dream of moving to California with his sons. Because he had to give up his vaquero lifestyle to move to Guadalupe, Gabriel views this dream as his last remaining hope for contentment in life. Ever since his sons were children, Antonio’s father has expected them to follow his dream as well. When Antonio’s brothers return from war, Gabriel believes that the time for his dream is finally at hand, but he is dismayed to discover that his sons have no interest in California and wish to pursue their own dreams. This conflict must come to a breaking point when Leon, Eugene, and eventually Andrew abandon their father's dream in order to move to Las Vegas and seek their fortune.
Similarly, Antonio’s mother dreams that Antonio will be a priest to lead her Luna people back to the stability that they had once known. As a woman, Antonio’s mother could never hope to take this position herself, and she must see her dreams realized through her youngest son. Moreover, Maria chooses to shape her dream as she sees fit: instead of telling Antonio that the Luna priest was also the father, she creates a holier vision of a priest who remains physically pure. Although Maria’s dream is not rejected to the extent that Gabriel’s dream is, it still comes into conflict with Antonio’s eventual decision to pursue his own dreams. By the end of the novel, we are still unclear as to what path Antonio will follow in life; as a man of learning, he could be a priest to the Lunas or he could be something else. Either way, it is clear that Maria will be forced to acknowledge Antonio's independence at some point later in his life.
In both cases, the children in the Marez family are forced to grow up under the shadow of their parents’ dreams. Neither parent intends to oppress their children with their expectations, but both Gabriel and Maria have a difficult time accepting that Antonio and his brothers must lead independent lives.
Although World War II does not play a large role in the events of the novel, it is extremely significant in the way that it shapes certain characters. As the novel opens, the Marez family is incomplete because Leon, Eugene, and Andrew are all fighting overseas. As a six year old, Antonio does not understand the political issues that perpetuated World War II, but he does recognize the strain that his brothers’ absence places on the family. When the brothers return and the family is once more complete, things have still changed from the way that they were. All three men are suffering from post-traumatic stress from their experiences during the war. Because of the horrors that they experienced in the war, none of Antonio’s brothers are able to integrate themselves back into the quiet life of Guadalupe; Antonio describes them as “dying giants” because they can no longer cope with the life that they left behind when they went to war. Their decision to leave Guadalupe is indirectly linked to their experiences in the war.
The war also appears indirectly in one of the very first traumatic experiences described in the book: Lupito’s death. Like Antonio’s brothers, Lupito is also a veteran of the war, and he has a much more severe case of the “war sickness.” His war sickness becomes so overwhelming that he murders the sheriff of Guadalupe and ends up with a standoff at the bridge. As Antonio’s close observation of Lupito shows, Lupito does not intend to kill any of the men of the bridge; instead of firing at them, he shoots in the air to draw their fire. Lupito is so hopeless from his experiences in the war that he essentially chooses to commit suicide, placing himself in a position to be shot by the men on the bridge. This particular incident is Antonio's first step to discovering the horrors of the world, and because of it, Antonio’s innocence is also a victim of the war sickness and World War II.
Antonio Márez - The precocious protagonist of Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio is six years old at the beginning of the novel. Antonio is serious, thoughtful, and prone to moral questioning, and his experiences force him to confront difficult issues that blur the lines between right and wrong. He turns to both pagan and Christian ideologies for guidance, but he doubts both traditions. With Ultima’s help, Antonio makes the transition from childhood to adolescence and begins to make his own choices and to accept responsibility for their consequences.
Read an in-depth analysis of Ultima.
Narciso - The town drunk. Narciso is good friends with Gabriel because they both share a deep and passionate love for the llano. Narciso demonstrates a strong appreciation for the richness of the earth—his garden is a lush masterpiece full of sweet vegetables and fruits. Narciso respects and loves Ultima deeply. Tenorio kills him because he supports Ultima.
Tenorio Trementina and his three daughters - Tenorio is a malicious saloon-keeper and barber in El Puerto. His three daughters perform a black mass and place a curse on Lucas Luna. Tenorio detests Ultima because she lifts the curse on Lucas. Soon after she does so, one of Tenorio’s daughters dies. Hot-tempered and vengeful, Tenorio spends the rest of the novel plotting Ultima’s death, which he finally achieves by killing her owl familiar, her spiritual guardian.
Cico - One of Antonio’s closer friends. Unlike most of Antonio’s friends, he is quiet and gentle. Cico exposes Antonio to yet another belief system when he takes Antonio to see the golden carp, a pagan god who lives in the river.
Antonio’s friends: Abel, Bones, Ernie, Horse, Lloyd, Red, and the Vitamin Kid - An exuberant group of boys who frequently curse and fight. Horse loves to wrestle, but everyone fears Bones more because he is reckless and perhaps even crazy. Ernie is a braggart who frequently teases Antonio. The Vitamin Kid is the fastest runner in Guadalupe. Red is a Protestant, so he is often teased by the other boys. Lloyd enjoys reminding everyone that they can be sued for even the most minor offenses. Abel, the smallest boy in the group, frequently urinates in inappropriate places.
Lupito - A war veteran who has been deeply mentally affected by the war. After Lupito murders Chávez’s brother, the local sheriff, in one of his deranged moments, Lupito is killed by a mob in front of young Antonio. Lupito’s death provides the impetus for Antonio’s serious moral and religious questioning.
Andrew, Eugene, and León Márez - Antonio’s older brothers. For most of Antonio’s childhood, his brothers are fighting in World War II. When they return home, they suffer post-traumatic stress as a result of the war. Restless and depressed, they all eventually leave home to pursue independent lives, crushing Gabriel’s dream of moving his family to California.
Deborah and Theresa Márez - Antonio’s older sisters. Most of the time, they play with dolls and speak English, a language Antonio does not begin to learn until he attends school.
Antonio’s uncles: Juan, Lucas, Mateo, and Pedro Luna - María’s brothers are farmers. They struggle with Gabriel to lay a claim to Antonio’s future. They want him to become a farmer or a priest, but Gabriel wants Antonio to be a vaquero in the Márez tradition. Antonio’s uncles are quiet and gentle, and they plant their crops by the cycle of the moon.
Father Byrnes - A Catholic priest who gives catechism lessons to Antonio and his friends. He is a stern priest with hypocritical and unfair policies. He punishes Florence for the smallest offenses because Florence challenges the Catholic orthodoxy, but he fails to notice, and perhaps even ignores, the misbehavior of the other boys. Rather than teach the children to understand God, he prefers to teach them to fear God.
Chávez - Chávez is the father of Antonio’s friend Jasón. He leads a mob to find Lupito after Lupito kills Chávez’s brother, the local sheriff. He forbids Jasón to visit an Indian who lives near the town, but Jasón disobeys him.
Jasón Chávez - One of Antonio’s friends. He disobeys his father when he continues to visit an Indian who lives near the town, but Jasón disobeys him.
Jasón Chávez’s Indian - A friend of Jasón’s who is disliked by Jasón’s father. Cico tells Antonio that the story of the golden carp originally comes from the Indian.
Prudencio Luna - The father of María and her brothers. He is a quiet man who prefers not to become involved in other peoples’ conflicts. When Tenorio declares an all out war against Ultima, he does not want his sons to get involved, even though Ultima saved Lucas’s life.
Miss Maestas - Antonio’s first-grade teacher. Although Antonio does not speak English well, Miss Maestas recognizes his bright spark of intelligence. Under her tutelage, Antonio unlocks the secrets of words. She promotes him to the third grade at the end of the year.
Rosie - The woman who runs the local brothel. Antonio has a deep fear of the brothel because it represents sin. He is devastated when he finds out that his brother Andrew frequents it.
Samuel - One of Antonio’s closer friends. He is also the Vitamin Kid’s brother. Unlike most of Antonio’s friends, Samuel is gentle and quiet. He tells Antonio about the golden carp.
Téllez - One of Gabriel’s friends. He challenges Tenorio when Tenorio speaks badly of Ultima. Not long afterward, a curse is laid on his home. Ultima agrees to lift the curse, explaining that Téllez’s grandfather once hanged three Comanche Indians for raiding his flocks. Ultima performs a Comanche funeral ceremony on Téllez’s land, and ghosts cease to haunt his home.
Ultima’s teacher - Ultima’s teacher was also known as el hombre volador, or “the flying man.” He gave her the owl that became her spirit familiar, her guardian. He told her to do good works with her powers but to avoid interfering with a person’s destiny. The invocation of his name inspires awe and respect among the people who have heard about his legendary powers.
Miss Violet - Antonio’s third-grade teacher. She does not speak Spanish.