"I see a mosaic pattern (Aztec-like) emerging, a weaving pattern, thin here, thick there . . . This almost finished product seems an assemblage, a montage...now appearing, now disappearing in a crazy dance. The whole thing has a mind of its own, escaping me and insisting on putting together the pieces of its own puzzle with minimal direction from my will." – Gloria Anzaldua.
English 380A, Winter 2011
Professor Deborah Miranda

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

An Exploration of Owl and La Bruja

In his novel Bless Me, Ultima, Rudolfo Anaya weaves together pagan spirituality and Catholicism, allowing each a place in his characters’ consciousness and effectively creating a space where magic and witchcraft are very much parts of his characters’ realities. I was intrigued by several of the myths in the text, as well as by the scenes of magic involving Ultima and the Luna family. I wanted to find out more about Mexican ‘bruja’ (witch) myths, particularly the relationship between witches and owls referenced in the story, so I decided to do an internet search to learn more. Because I recognized owls as a symbol typically associated with magic (Hedwig and Harry Potter immediately came to mind), I decided to also do a broader search on owls and magic outside of Mexican myth.

My search brought me to a site called “The Owl Pages: World Owl Mythology” which alphabetically listed countries and briefly outlined the relationship between magic and owls in each one’s particular tradition. For the most part, owls represent an evil portent. For example, “the Swahili believe the owl brings illness to children,” and in Cameroon the owl is “too evil to name” and known only as “the bird that makes you afraid” (http://www.owlpages.com/articles.php?section=Owl+Mythology&title=World). However, in Bless Me, Ultima, the owl that comes with the curandera Ultima is a positive creature, whose “soft hooting was like was like a song....[that] calmed the moonlight hills and lulled [the children] to sleep” (14).

However, traditionally, the Mexican bruja is believed to have shapeshifting capabilities, transforming into the owl in order to more effectively spy on her victims. Thus, I am inclined to believe that the safety and security offered by the owl in the story (which is intimated to be the shapeshifting of Ultima) is a creation of Anaya’s in his desire to create a positive shaman character “who uses her positive power to do good” (viii). As Anaya says, “‘witches are people whose work may be viewed as good or evil, depending on the needs of those who ask for their assistance” (viii).

Journal #3 Dreamscapes

Tony struggles with the cultural differences between his generation and that of his parents, but finds middle ground in his dreams. The contest between native religion and Catholicism becomes especially visible by examining Tony's relationship to his mother and father. He feels both sides of his blood pulling him in different directions. His mother wants him to be a priest, but his father believes that his blood is wild and cares much less about his involvement in the church. At the end of Chapter Once, Tony has a dream that provides a visualization of the forces he feels inside himself. As his father and mother argue over which side of the family he takes after, Tony watches as, "[the lake] cracked with the laughter of madness as it inflicted death upon the people...The cosmic struggle of the two forces would destroy everything!" (Anaya 126). This conflict characterizes the struggle between the Luna priests and his father's pagan heritage. Tony faces pressure from both sides of his family because both wish for their ways of life to carry on past themselves. The result of this pressure, however, leaves Tony without an identity of his own. Instead, he has nothing but chaos and moral systems that seem to clash with each other.

Tony's dreams, though often filled with frightening imagery, often function to resolve the external conflicts that result from a changing culture. While he appears to pull away from the Catholic faith Tony maintains ties to the church and continues to work towards his first communion. At the end of this dream, Ultima reveals that, "The waters are one...You have been seeing only parts, she finished, and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all" (Anaya 126). The messages conveyed by Catholicism and the Golden Carp are, in fact, basically the same. They both preach the importance of avoiding sin, but more importantly both religions have dire consequences for those who continue to sin. This vision of religion allows Tony to break free of the battle between the two sides of his family as he realizes that he is a combination of the two. He remains free to live a life without sin by choosing either path. His new identity does not need to deny any part of himself, but rather accept and live both parts to their fullest.

The Notion of Dreams in Bless Me, Ultima - Journal #3

Rudolfo Anaya's Bless Me, Ultima is a powerful work that traces a young boy's journey from childhood to adulthood in the midst of a culturally divided world. Anaya uses the method of exploring Antonio's dreams in order to reveal his ultimate transformation. The first dream the reader relives with Antonio is the retelling of his birth. This dream introduces the internal conflict throughout the entire novel of Antonio's destiny; will he become a Luna priest and fulfill his mother's dreams, or will he follow the Marez route and experience the freedom of the llano? Even at such a young age, the little boy is distressed and bothered by his future. He wants to make his family happy, yet is pulled in a myriad of different directions to the point where he, at times, forgets who he is completely.

Antonio's next dream suggests a similar conflict, yet the emergence of Antonio taking control of his own destiny. In this dream, he encounters his three brothers finally home from the war and speaks to them about the future. First, he reminds them that "We must all gather around our father," yet later, he takes on a more religious role by speaking "to the presence of the river [so that] it allowed my brothers to cross with their carpenter tools to build our castle on the hill" (28). While Antonio is still unsure at this point what he wants to become, he is at least starting to make his own decisions, even if they may represent his parents' wishes. Yet by actively defending his father, and then his mother, rather than passively waiting for his life to pass him by, Antonio is beginning to come into his own.

The dreams that follow often involve Antonio's brothers and decisions made by his part to either represent his mother or father's way of life. It's true that he frequently goes back and forth, but the activism of Antonio trying to pursue a future is a credibility to his emerging maturity. One of the later dreams he has after he sees the golden carp shows the beginning of a blending of the two distinct cultural identities for Antonio. Ultima, the character Antonio relates best to and learns the most from in the novel, comes to the little boy during a moment of family tension. She soothes him, reminding him that "the sweet water of the moon which falls as rain is the same water that gathers into rivers and flows to fill the seas" (126). In other words, the seemingly opposing cultures of his mother and father are inherently connected and maybe Antonio doesn't have to choose at all. At this point, Antonio is beginning to understand that it is up to his to formulate his own destiny and be who ever he wants to be.

Bless Me Ultima: The Choice

The struggle to find one’s true identity is a recurring theme in the novels that we have read including Pocho,…And the Earth did not Devour Him, and Bless Me Ulitma. However, Bless Me Ultima differs from the others in that the protagonist, young Antonio, need not choose between assimilation to the American culture or his own Mexican heritage. Instead, he must make a choice between the two factions within his own blood – the Lunas and the Márez.

Throughout the novel, Antonio battles within himself and his family to find his true destiny. Will he be a Luna priest, satisfying his mother, or a Márez wanderer, emulating his father? The two sides of his spirit battle continuously during his young life, pulling at him until he questions everything, including his religious beliefs. Antonio’s encounter with the golden carp and his various doubts in God bring him to the culmination of his insecurities in his dream halfway through the novel. The choices lay distinctly before him: his mother or his father, a priest or a free-spirit, the moon or the sea, Catholicism or Paganism, and innocence or knowledge. Tormented by his divided self, it is not until Ultima offers an alternate solution that Antonio can rest peacefully. “The waters are one, Antonio,” she states calmly, showing that without the Lunas, there can be no Márez, and without the Márez, there can be no Lunas (113). Rudolfo A. Anaya uses the character of Ultima to reveal the true solution to Antonio’s predicament: the final answer is not to choose one or the other; it is the choice to choose to be both.

In the end, the novel raises the question of destiny. How much of one’s future and choices are dictated by birth, fate, and chance, and is it a possibility to choose your own path? Though Anaya offers a different dilemma than Rivera or Villarreal, he stays true to Chicano/a literature by showing that a single, pure identity can be composed of many different selves.

(Gabriel Marez’s) Dreams Deferred in Bless Me, Ultima (Journal #3 Max Chapnick)

“What happens to a dream deferred? / Does it…fester like a sore - / and then run?”In Bless Me, Ultima Antonio’s dad, Gabriel, spends much of the book lamenting the fall of the “llano” way of life and wishing that he can move his family west. Gabriel’s dream represents the pre-colonizer lifestyle of American Indians, living off the plains, free from the constraints of technology and ownership. But though Gabriel is forced to leave his dream behind in order to support his family, he never really lets go of his dream – he defers it, to the future and onto his sons.

Gabriel, like Richard’s father of Pocho is depressed by his unrealized dream. Antonio’s brothers, when they come back from the war, fail to realize Gabriel’s dream and deal him another blow. How does this finally break Gabriel’s spirit? Towards the end Gabriel says, "Perhaps it is time we gave up a few of our dreams - " (261) Does Gabriel become an even better father when he seems to give a little more room to Antionio than he does to his older brothers?

In the interview at the back of the book Rudolfo Anaya responds to criticism that, “Some say I romanticized the hard times...” (284) Though the economic poverty of Antonio and his family are not main themes in the novel, how does Gabriel’s deferred dream reflect their economic situation? Could Gabriel Marez’s dream be a direct effect of the capitalist concept of ownership on a nomadic cowboy culture that existed before American ranchers?

But is Gabriel’s deferred dream just a consequence of minority poverty in what seems to be a country of opportunity, see A Raisin in the Sun? Or does it also contain specifically Marez, or broader Chicano qualities? Is the migratory impulse of the Marez a cultural phenomenon for Chincos?

Though Andrew, Antionio’s brother, at first feels bound to stay with his family by duty to his mother and in order to get a better education, he ultimately takes the path of the others, to flee and to move. Ultima reflects, "The same wandering blood in his veins was in his sons" (76). Whether “Marez blood” or the incident with Narciso causes this change in heart, it shows that the instinct to flee is strong. Will Gabriel or his three oldest sons ever control this instinct? Moreover will they ever be happy staying in one place? Does Gabriel ever fully recover from his deferred dream or is a part of him gone forever?

Earth, Wind, and Fire: Nature and the Presence of the River in Bless Me, Ultima

This is an hopelessly corny observation, but much of the natural imagery in Bless Me, Ultima has an almost Pocahontas like quality to its understanding of the earth. I was continually reminded of the lyrics in the Disney song, “Colors of the Wind” during our reading:

“But I know every rock and tree and creature

Has a life, has a spirit, has a name...

Can you sing with all the voices of the mountains?

Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?”

Through Ultima, Antonio will learn to sing with all the voices of the mountain, to paint with all the colors of the wind. Ultima teaches him to “listen to the mystery of the groaning earth and to feel complete in the fulfillment of its time” (16). Ultima’s connection to the earth and its inhabitants extends far beyond what Antonio’s parents can fathom. For the Marez, the land is something to be free from; for the Luna, it is a something to harvest, to respect as an intrinsic part of their culture and traditions. It is only Ultima who sees the earth as its own entity, who can talk to its plants and understand its ways as a feeling body.

While his father is wild, a Marez, a man of the sea and the ocean, it is the river that best suits Antonio’s and Ultima’s introspective natures. Antonio had been afraid of “the awful presence of the river, which was the soul of the river, but through her [he learns] that [his] spirit shared in the spirit of all things” (16). The river is symbolic not only because of its baptismal properties (Lupito is soaked through by “the holy water of the river” as he dies), but its flow is also representative of the earth energy that Antonio must learn to harness in order to let his spirit truly take flight (24).

God's Forgiveness in Bless Me, Ultima (Journal #3 Eleanor Kennedy)

Like the other Chicano novels we have read thus far, Bless Me, Ultima is a book which is greatly concerned with religion and its changing meaning for youth as they grow and learn. Antonio, like Richard and the narrator of And the Earth Did Not Devour Him, faces struggles and backlash when it comes to his understanding of God.

After witnessing the death of Lupito, Antonio wonders what will happen the dead man in the afterlife. He questions whether Lupito will wind up in hell or purgatory or be forgiven. But before he can consider this thought for too long, he decides, "But God doesn't forgive anyone," (30). This viewpoint is somewhat surprising for a boy whose been raised in the Catholic faith, a tradition in which Confession and forgiveness is key.

Antonio is not able to hold on to this belief for long, however. When he expresses his concerns to Ultima, she rebuffs him by saying, "...you must never judge who God forgives and who He doesn't -" (36). Why might Anaya include these two contradictory statements within just a few pages of each other? It could be a commentary on the confusion inherent in Antonio's Catholic upbringing. Antonio appears to have a flawed and discomforting view of his religion, and these contradicting influences clearly don't make things any better.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Magic and the Church in Bless Me, Ultima (Journal #3 by Rachel Urban)

Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima portrays a young boy who must navigate his often-times dichotomous culture. On one hand, the people in his life are extremely religious, as they are firm Catholics. But on the other hand, a more pagan religion, a religion of the land, is what everyone turns to when Catholicism fails. After the healing of his uncle, Tony recounts “I had been thinking how the medicine of the doctors and of the priest had failed. In my mind I could not understand how the power of God could fail. But it had” (Anaya 111). Whereas the practicing of the pagan religion yields tangible results, believing in Catholicism to solve problems does not produce any physical evidence. When Tony sees the golden carp, he describes it as witnessing “the appearance of a pagan god” (Anaya 119).

As a reader, I was surprised at how much the indigenous practices were focused on in this novel. In comparison to Rivera’s and Villarreal’s books, the story in Bless Me, Ultima becomes less realistic with the tangibility of witchcraft and magic. Why would Anaya choose to make pagan practices such a dominant theme of the story? Does this make his story less creditable as a realistic portrayal of the struggles Mexican-Americans face?

Tony’s age must account for some of the larger-than-life qualities of the novel. He is only in the first grade for the majority of the book, so his surprisingly high intelligence level that he has at his age level could lure the reader into a false trust in his accuracy as a narrator. Also, there is hope at the end of the first eleven chapters that the stark contrast between Catholicism and paganism will be reconciled in the future. In Tony’s dream, Ultima tells him, “You have been seeing only parts... and not looking beyond into the great cycle that binds us all” (Anaya 126). Whereas Richard in Pocho and the boy in Rivera’s novel merge Catholicism and the indigenous practices of their culture in their minds rather quickly, Anaya chooses to portray more of the struggle and leaves hope at the end of chapter eleven for the resolution to occur. But this will not come about in Tony’s life without a struggle.