Teaching Bless Me, Ultima
by Amelia M.L. Montes
Welcome to Rudolfo Anaya week! La Bloga is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of Bless Me, Ultima by taking each day this week to focus on the important impact the novel has had for readers and writers and in the formation of Chicana and Chicano literature.
Bless Me, Ultima’s publication in 1972 contributed to an already growing body of Chicana and Chicano literature. Since 1972, Bless Me, Ultima has also inspired and encouraged a new generation of writers to continue exploring various dimensions of the “coming-of-age” story or the “bildungsroman” as it is more technically called. The German word “bildungsroman” means “formation” or “educational novel." And this is what Bless Me, Ultima is about: the “formation” or “education” of a boy named Antonio Márez y Luna.
This book, for me, came at a time when I was figuring out my own “history” and forming my own identity. One aspect to the novel is the significance of Antonio’s last name (“Márez” and “Luna”) which represents, as Professor Juan Bruce-Novoa has written, “two identities.” Novoa writes: “Antonio is not torn between an Anglo and a Chicano world, but between two ways of being Chicano, ways which the Chicanos involved cannot, or will not, bring into harmony . . .” Novoa goes on to say that it is Ultima who encourages Antonio to avoid the familial fighting and instead she tells him to concentrate and “search for the harmony in creative union, not the disintegration of focusing on difference.”
My own growing up was one of spending summers in Mexico con familia, understanding their concerns and joys, and similarly understanding my Mexican American familia here. I saw family members in Mexico struggle with their sexual identities there while I tried to figure out my own too all the while reading so many interesting stories and novels from Mexican and Chicana/Chicano authors I could find at the time. Intracultural struggles of identity formation is what I experienced and what all of us experience on various levels. Bless Me, Ultima and the character of Ultima, specifically, gave me the courage to trust in myself: to continually search for that which brings forth various levels of complex harmony instead of disintegration. And that is what literature does. Literature brings us closer to an understanding of who we are in all our complexities while appreciating the aesthetic qualities of literary craft. Literature saves lives because it provides a space of contemplation for critical thinking.
For over 25 years, I have had the privilege to witness students reading and discussing Anaya’s work, picking out aspects to the novel I never had thought about before! They have done readings of the novel in conversation with Shakepeare’s The Tempest (and isn’t it interesting that The Tempest has been banned in Arizona!). They have given a queer reading of the text using Arturo Islas’ novel, The Rain God: A Desert Tale and Emma Perez’s Gulf Dreams. They have presented transnational readings of Bless Mi Ultima with British novelist, Jeannette Winterson’s, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit.
How then do I figure out what books to read in a class that includes Bless Me, Ultima in order to facilitate stimulating discussions, high critical thinking? Choosing books for a course is always exhilarating and daunting. The daunting aspect to the “creation” of a course book listing is the continual overwhelming feeling that one will never get to read everything, that there are so many books (how does one choose?), that the books chosen may not gel as a body of work, that I will forget the one book that would have made the entire listing perfect! Loving literature and keeping in mind the power of literature helps allay these worries. The exhilarating feeling really permeates the entire process. Why? Because the process is a meditation in literary feasting, in considering all the many voices that describe our Chicana and Chicano/Latina and Latino identities, perspectives, and concerns.
The listing and descriptions below are only just a few of the works I use in the classroom that work very well with Bless Me, Ultima. These are novels, short stories, and I am also listing critical theoretical works which would work in a high school senior advanced or honors course and in the college classroom.
Bless Me, Ultima can be taught in junior high and high school and at the college level. At the junior high and high school level, I have taught this book with Sandra Cisneros’ House on Mango Street, Luis Rodriguez’ Always Running: La Vida Loca: Gang Days in L.A.; José Antonio Villarreal’s book, Pocho; and Ana Castillo’s novel, So Far From God.
At the senior high school and college levels, Gloria Anzaldúa’s exceedingly important work, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza is a necessary discussion with Anaya. Helena María Viramontes’s novel, Under the Feet of Jesus and the anthology Telling to Live: The Feminist Testimonios by The Latina Feminist Group; Norma Cantú’s Canícula: Snapshots of a Girlhood en la Frontera; Alicia Gaspar de Alba's The Mystery of Survival and Other Stories; The Last Generation (and also various plays) by Cherríe Moraga opens up very diverse discussions regarding “coming of age” from Chicanos/Latinas and Latinos experiencing a multitude of geographic/cultural perspectives as well as familial and political histories.
At the university level for graduate students I have facilitated exciting and complex Bless Me, Ultima discussions with the works I just mentioned in the previous paragraph—and I add to that John Rechy’s City of Night; Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Sandra Cisneros’ Woman Hollering Creek and Caramelo; Emma Perez’ Forgetting the Alamo, Or, Blood Memory; Achy Obejas’ Days of Awe. And with these discussions, a background in theory is helpful which I do with Chela Sandoval’s important theoretical work, Methodology of the Oppressed and Eden Torres’ Chicana Without Apology.
There are more, many more works that I am missing, that you may be thinking of as you are reading this. Please add to this list! I encourage you all to take pleasure in these readings, take the time to read, contemplate, and discuss the importance of our many Chicana/Chicano and Latina/Latino voices!