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National Endowment for the Arts 



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a. Museunriand Library 


Bless Me, Ultima 





Rudolfo Anaya's 

Bless Me, Ultima 



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■•;.:;., Museum.n d Library 





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Washington, D.C. 20506-0001 
(202) 682-5400 

Works Cited 

Passages from BLESS ME, ULTIMA. Copyright © 1972 by Rudolfo Anaya. Published by Warner Books in 
1994. First published by TQS Publications, Berkeley, CA. By permission of the Author 
and Susan Bergholz Literary Services, New York City and Lamy, NM. All rights reserved. 

BLESS ME, ULTIMA. Copyright (c) 1972, 1999 by Rudolfo Anaya. Published by Warner Books in 1999. 
First published by TQS Publications, Berkeley, CA. This Warner Books Edition was published by arrangement 
with the author. All rights reserved. 


David Kipen, NEA Director of Literature 

Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education 

Writers: Catherine Tousignant and Erika Koss with Liz Edgar Hernandez for the National Endowment for the 

Arts, with a preface by Dana Gioia 

Series and Image Editor: Liz Edgar Hernandez for the National Endowment for the Arts 

Graphic Design: Fletcher Design /Washington D.C. 

Photo Credits 

Cover Portrait: John Sherffius for the Big Read. Page iv: Bcxik cover of Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya © 
1972, used with permission of Warner Books, a division of Hachette Book Group USA; New Mexican 
landscape, © George H. H. Huey/CORBIS. Page 1: Dana Gioia, image by Vance Jacobs. Inside back coven © 
Marion Ettlinger. 

Table of Contents 

Introduction 1 

Suggested Teaching Schedule 2 

Lesson One: Biography 4 

Lesson Two: Culture and History 5 

Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6 

Lesson Four: Characters 7 

Lesson Five: Figurative Language 8 

Lesson Six: Symbols 9 

Lesson Seven: Character Development 10 

Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 11 

Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novel 12 

Lesson Ten: What Makes a Great Book? 13 

Essay Topics 14 

Capstone Projects 15 

Handout One: New Mexican Catholicism 16 

Handout Two: The Spanish Language 

and the Magic ofWords 17 

Handout Three: The Land of Enchantment 18 

Teaching Resources 19 

NCTE Standards 20 


Author of Alburquerque 



—Denver P°$< 

"I was happy with Ultima. We 
walked together in the llano and 
along the river banks to gather 
herbs and roots for her 
medicines... .She taught me to 
listen to the mystery of the 
groaning earth and to feel 
complete in the fulfillment of its 
time. My soul grew under her 
careful guidance." 

— Antonio in Bless Me, Ultima 


National Endowment for the Arts 


Welcome to the Big Read, a major initiative from the National Endowment 
for the Arts. Designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American 
culture, the Big Read hopes to unite communities through great literature, 
as well as inspire students to become life-long readers. 

This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through 
Rudolfo Anaya's classic novel, 8/ess Me, Ultima. Each lesson has four 
sections: focus topic, discussion activities, writing exercises, and homework 
assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects and suggested 
essay topics, as well as handouts with more background information about 
the novel, the historical period, and the author. All lessons dovetail with 
the state language arts standards required in the fiction genre. 

The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews, 
commentaries, and excerpts from the novel, the Big Read CD presents 
first-hand accounts of why Anaya's novel remains so compelling three 
decades after its initial publication. Some of America's most celebrated 
writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to make these 
Big Read CDs exciting additions to the classroom. 

Finally, the Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with 
interviews, booklists, timelines, and historical information. We hope this 
guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while 
introducing them to the work of a great American author. 

From the NEA, we wish you an exciting and productive school year. 

£5Lufc Mjtfc^ 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman, National Endowment for the Arts 

National Endowment for the Arts 




Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

Activities: Listen to the Big Read CD. Create a 
biographical portrait of Anaya and describe 
the New Mexican landscape. 

Homework: Chapters Uno and Dos (pp. I -26).* 


Day Two 

FOCUS: Culture and History 

Activities: Listen to the Big Read CD and 
read Handouts One and Three. Discuss the 
multicultural nature of New Mexican heritage, 
and the ways the Spanish and native cultures 
both conflict and coincide. Write about myths 
in your own culture. 

Homework Chapters Tres, Cuatro, and Gnco 
(pp. 27-50). 


Day Three 

FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View 

Activities: Discuss and write about the many 
influences on Antonio's point of view, 
examining how the beliefs of other characters 
affect his thinking. 

Homework Chapters Seis, Siete, Ocho, Nueve 
(PP 5 1 -82). 


Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

Activities: Read Handout Two. Discuss the 
ways language creates character, and write 
about the confusion Antonio encounters as 
he tries to find his place in a grown-up world. 

Homework Chapter Diez (pp. 83- 1 05). 


• Page numbers refer to the Warner Books. 1 994. edition of 
Btess Me. Utoma 

Day Five 

FOCUS: Figurative Language 

Activities: Discuss how Anaya describes the 
earth with human traits. Write a paragraph 
using figurative language. 

Homework Chapters Once, Doce, and Trece 
(pp. 106-142). 


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Day Six 

Day Nine 

FOCUS: Symbols 

FOCUS:Themes of the Novel 

Activities: Analyze the symbolism of Ultimas 

Activities: Discuss themes of innocence and 

owl, the river, and the golden carp. 

knowledge, nature, and language and identity. 

Homework: Chapter Catorce (pp. 143-176). 

Homework: Chapters Veintiuno and Veiniidds 

(pp. 236-262). ! 


Day Seven 

FOCUS: Character Development 

Activities: Discuss the ways in which the roles 

10 | 

Day Ten 

FOCUS:What Makes a Great Book? 

of Andrew, Narciso, and Tenorio change in the 

Activities: Explore the qualities of a 

novel. Write about what Antonio learns 

great novel. 

concerning the strange ways of men. 

Homework: Work on essays. 

Homework: Chapters Quince, Dieciseis, and 

Diecisiete (pp. 1 77-202). 


Day Eight 

FOCUS:The Plot Unfolds 

Activities: Discuss the sad and terrifying 
events that unfold quickly in the previous 
night's reading. Write about patterns of 
repetition and variation in the plot. 

Homework: Chapters Dieciocho, Diecinueve, 
and Veinte (pp. 203-235). 

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The authors life can inform and expand the readers understanding of a 
novel. One practice of examining a literary work, biographical criticism, 
looks through the lens of an author's experience. In this lesson, explore the 
authors life to more fully understand the novel. 

Rudolfo Anaya was raised on the edge of the New Mexican plains, 
surrounded by gullies and hills, mesquite and juniper trees. He spent 
summers playing along the river and the rest of the year studying at a 
school in town. Anaya grew up with his sisters. Three older brothers fought 
overseas in World War II. His father worked on ranches as a cowboy or 
vaquero while his mother stayed home to raise the family. They moved to 
the barrios of Albuquerque when Anaya was a teenager. Here, he began to 
explore the pueblos and understand his Native American roots. 

Growing up as a Mexican-American in the 1940s and 1950s, Anaya reflects 
the multicultural and spiritual heritage of New Mexico. He says: 

We believe the region is a spiritual corridor; the earth nurtures us, and our deities can 
be invoked for the good of the community. Here, Native Americans have been saying 
prayers and keeping the world in balance for thousands of years. It's difficult to make 
a living here, but beneath the daily struggle there exists a fulfilling spiritual sense. 
This is a sacred space for us. (Warner Books trade paperback, p. 285). 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to the CD and read Anaya's interview in the Reader's Guide (pp. 1 0-1 I). 
Have each student recall one interesting thing he or she heard on the CD or read 
in the interview, and then explain why that detail or statement captured his or her 
attention. Then have the class collaborate to create a biographical portrait of 
Anaya. What do we know about him? What kind of man is he? What are the most 
important events in his life? How might they have motivated him? 

Writing Exercise 

Have students view images of the New Mexican landscape such as the one in the 
Reader's Guide. Have students write a poem or a paragraph that captures and 
describes the emotional tone of this landscape. What kind of place does it appear 
to be? How does the viewer feel, looking at the photograph? 

H Homework 

Read Chapters Uno and Dos. What do Antonio's dreams reveal about his 
personality, his fears and his desires? 


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Lesson Two 


Culture and 

Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at 
the heart of the novel. Studying these contexts and appreciating the intricate 
details or the time and place can assist us in comprehending the motivations 
or the characters. In this lesson, use cultural and historical contexts to begin 
to explore the novel. 

The novel embraces myths from New Mexican cultures. Bless Me, Ultima 
presents myths, magic, and miracles on many levels, drawn from Spanish 
and Catholic traditions, as well as from native peoples who lived in New 
Mexico long before the conquistadors and their priests arrived from Europe. 
The survival of these myths from various traditions testifies to New Mexico's 
multicultural heritage, borne out of long struggles among disparate peoples 
who fought for centuries over land, religion, and sovereignty. 

At the end of World War II, America modernized rapidly and the vaquero 
culture began to disappear. Mass production drew rural people away from 
tanning to jobs in the cities. The G.I. Bill offered promise of social and 
geographic mobility by providing college education and housing to returning 
soldiers. Yet post-war America was also full of threats. The Cold War 
intensified between the United States and the Soviet Union, as a nuclear 
arms race escalated international tensions. New Mexico served as a testing 
and development site for these weapons, shrouded in mystery and secrecy. 
Like much of the rest of America, New Mexicans struggled to retain cultural 
traditions while meeting the demands of post- World War II society. 

Discussion Activities 

Listen to the CD — What is a curandera, and what is her role in the pueblo 
communities of New Mexico? How does this approach to healing compare with 
your beliefs about illness and healing? 

Distribute Handout One and Handout Three. Ask the students to discuss the 
history of New Mexico as one of both cultural conflict and cultural exchange. 
Where do the religious beliefs of Catholic explorers and Native Americans 
overlap? Where do they diverge? 

Writing Exercise 

Have students identify important myths in their own cultures, either local or 
national. Invite them to write an essay that recounts a myth in their own words, 
and then discuss what religious or cultural values the myth addresses. Why is this 
story useful or meaningful in their culture? 

Ca3 Homework 

Read Chapters Tres, Cuatro, and Cinco. Why does Antonio's uncle say that there is 
hope for the young protagonist? 

National Endowment for the Arts THE BIG READ • 5 


and Point of 

The narrator tells the story with a specific perspective informed bv his or 
her beliefs and experiences. The narrator can be a major or minor character 
within the novel. The narrator weaves her or his point of view, including 
ignorance and bias, into the telling of the tale. A first-person narrator 
participates in the events of the novel using "I." A distanced narrator (often 
not a character) does not participate in the events of the storv and uses 
third person (he, she, they) to narrate the story. The distanced narrator can 
be omniscient, able to read the minds of all characters within the novel. 
Ultimately, the type of narrator determines the point of view from which 
the storv is told. 

Bless Me, Ultima is narrated by Antonio from the first-person point of view. 
\X e see and experience all the novel's events through Antonio's eyes. 
Antonio is very young when the story- opens, only six years old. His point 
of view remains limited because he does not fully understand much about 
the world, especially why people act as they do. Antonio's narration is at 
times observant and at times perplexed about what he sees and hears. He 
narrates the novel in English and Spanish, moving between the two 
languages while discovering his multicultural identity. He learns about the 
spirituality" of Catholicism from his mother, and the spirituality of nature 
from Ultima. He inherits the dream of freedom from his father and 
brothers. His point of view and narration move among these influences, 
which sometimes conflict. 

Discussion Activities 

As he tells the story, how does Antonio make sense of the conflicts he 
encounters? Does he seem to prefer the world and viewpoint of his mother and 
her brothers, his father and the vaqueros, Ultima, or some other influence? What 
about each of these points of view appeals to Antonio, makes him feel curious, 
excited, or secure? Which of these influences seems dominant in his eyes? What 
things in particular are confusing from Antonio's point of view, either for him or 
for the reader? 

E< Writing Exercise 

Write a paragraph that compares and contrasts Antonio's life inside the house, 
with his mother and Ultima, with the life he lives outside the house, first 
introduced on the riverbank in Chapter Dos, and later at his uncle's. How, if at all, 
do these two worlds overlap or intersect? 

□ Homework 

Read Chapters Sets, Siete, Ocho, and Nueve. Ask the students to think about the 
role of religion in their lives, or in the lives of people to whom they are close. 
How do God and morality shape Antonio? How does our sense of God and 
belief in what is right and wrong shape who we are? 


National Endowment for the Arts 



The main character in a work of literature is called the "protagonist." The 
protagonist often overcomes a weakness or ignorance to achieve a new 
understanding by the works end. A protagonist who acts with great courage 
may be called a "hero." A protagonist of dubious tenacity and questionable 
virtue is .in "antihero." Readers often debate the virtues and motivations of 
the protagonists in the attempt to understand whether they are heroic. The 
protagonists journey is made more dramatic by challenges presented by 
characters with different beliefs. A "foil" provokes the protagonist so as to 
highlight more clearly certain features of the main character. The most 
important foil, the "antagonist," opposes the protagonist, barring or 
complicating his or her success. 

The first chapter of Bless Me, Ultima sets up the friction between Antonio's 
mothers priorities in life and his fathers priorities. We expect that the novel 
will require Antonio to choose between these two ways of life. The first 
chapter introduces Ultima to the family, and her influence on Antonio's life. 

Ultimas magic and her natural healing stand as an antagonist to Antonio's 
faith in the church and the sovereign power of priests. Narciso models a 
certain kind of heroism for Antonio, although he is not respected because 
of his drinking. When Tenorio asserts himself as Ultima's enemy, his vow of 
revenge establishes a new antagonist for Antonio, who fervently defends 
Ultima's magic. 

Discussion Activities 

What does Antonio learn from his brothers and the boys at school about how to 
become a man? Why might they be incomplete models for him? 

Distribute Handout Two. Have the class discuss the use of Spanish in the novel as it 
reveals important information about certain characters, and the ability of Antonio's 
character to communicate with these different voices. Why is Antonio so 
intimidated by English at school? How does language shape identity in this book? 

Writing Exercise 

Early in the novel, Ultima tells Antonio: "The ways of men are strange, and hard to 
learn" (p. 25). Choose one of the characters from the novel and write a paragraph 
about the character that illustrates what Ultima might mean. How are the ways of 
men "strange" and why are they hard to learn? 

Describe someone in your life who has influenced your beliefs. How do the ideas 
of this person work with, or conflict with, the influences of other people in your 
life? How do you reconcile any conflicts among these influences? 

[3 Homework 

Read Chapter Diez. What do you think of Ultima's cure? 

National Endowment for the Arts 




Writers often use non-literal language to invite readers to visualize events, 
view internal conflicts, glimpse social themes, or grasp abstract concepts like 
beauty, truth, or goodness. An author uses figurative or non-literal language 
to stretch our imaginations, challenging us to decode the references and 
meanings bound within images, similes, metaphors, and symbols. Such 
devices require a reader to participate actively in the novel, as the reader 
begins to (implicitly or explicitly) interpret non-literal elements of the tale. 

Sometimes Anaya describes nature as beautiful and benevolent, while at 
other times it is frightening and dangerous. This language can reflect a 
characters mood, or foreshadow events. 

Anaya especially favors personification, which occurs when a writer 
attributes a human characteristic to a concept or object: 

"[Ultima] taught me to listen to the mystery of the groaning earth and to feel 
complete in the fulfillment of its time. My soul grew under her careful guidance ... I 
had been afraid of the awful presence of the river, which was the soul of the river" 
(p. 15). 

Here is a vivid image from Antonio's dream in Chapter Nueve: 

"I cried into the bleak landscape in which I found myself. And in the swirling smoke 
a flash of lightning struck and out of the thunder a dark figure stepped forth" (p. 71). 

Anaya also uses similes throughout his novel: 

"A man's destiny must unfold itself like a flower, with only the sun and the earth and 
water making it blossom" (p. 223). 

Discussion Activities 

What does "groaning earth" convey? How might a curandera view our relationship 
to the land? Why would Anaya choose to portray the world with human traits? 

Writing Exercise 

Ask students to search the chapters they have read for vivid images. Have them 
write a paragraph using personification, simile, and metaphor to describe one of 
those images. Ask them to read their paragraphs aloud. Are there recurring 
examples of figurative language? What deeper meaning does this repetition 

C3 Homework 

Read Once, Doce, and Trece. Why does Antonio's dream at the end of Chapter 
Once bring him peace? 


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Symbols arc interpretive keys to the text. The craft of storytelling depends 
on symbols that present ideas and point toward new meanings. Most 
frequently, a specific object will be used to reference (or symbolize) a more 
abstract concept. The repeated appearance of an object suggests a non-literal 
or figurative meaning attached to the object - above and beyond face value. 
Symbols are often found in the novels title, at the beginning and end of the 
novel, within a profound action, or captured by the name or personality of a 
character. The life of a novel is perpetuated by generations of readers 
interpreting and re-interpreting the main symbols of the novel. By decoding 
symbols, any reader can reveal a new interpretation of the novel. 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise 

A symbol is a visible object or action that suggests additional meanings. Use this 
class period to analyze three major symbols in 8/ess Me, Ultima: the river, Ultimas 
owl, and the golden carp. 

Ultima's Owl 

"In many cuentos I had heard the owl was one of the disguises a bruja took, 
and so it struck a chord of fear in the heart to hear them hooting at night. But 
not Ultimas owl" (p. 1 3). 

Antonio dreams about Ultima's owl the first night of its arrival. The owl cries its 
warning before Lupito's death in Chapter Dos, it comforts Antonio on his first day 
of school in Chapter Seis, and it cries out to Antonio in Chapter Doce. In your 
students' reading tonight, the owl will blind Tenorio in one eye (Chapter Catorce). 
After the novel's violent climax, Antonio discovers the secret of the owl's power. 

The River 

This mysterious river often figures in Antonio's dreams. It also functions as the 
venue for a number of events in the story: Lupito falls in the river after his death, 
Florence drowns in the river, and Antonio witnesses the Golden Carp. How does 
this element of nature symbolize Antonio's fears? 

The Golden Carp 

"I could not believe its size. It was bigger than me! And bright orange! The 
sunlight glistened off his golden scales" (p. I 1 3). 

Anaya creates his own myth in the legend of the golden carp. Antonio believes 
the story, but cannot reconcile it with his Catholicism, confessing, "The roots of 
everything I had ever believed in seemed shaken" (p. 8 1). After he sees the carp's 
beauty with his own eyes in Chapter Once, he wonders if a new religion can blend 
both the Golden Carp and Catholicism. 

H Homework 

Read Chapter Catorce. Despite the differences among the three symbols discussed 
in this lesson, how does Anaya use them in crucial moments of the plot to probe 
Antonio's anxieties, doubts, and fears, and therefore develop his character? 

National Endowment for the Arts 




Novels trace the development of characters that encounter a series of 
challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues and vices. 
Internal and external forces require characters to question themselves, 
overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist undergoes profound 
change. A close study of character development maps the evolution of 
motivation, personality, and belief in each character. Still, the tension 
between a characters strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader guessing 
about what might happen next, affecting the drama and the plot. 

Bless Me, Ultima begins with Antonio wondering what he will become, 
after he dreams about his birth and the fight over his future. The hopes that 
others have for him send him rushing out of the house: "I felt a cool sweat 
on my forehead and I knew I had to run, I had to clear my mind of the 
dream. [...] The white sun and fresh air cleansed me" (pp. 9-10). We, too, 
wonder what will become of Antonio as we read the novel, and the plot of 
this book is the story of his characters evolution. 

Discussion Activities 

Chapter Catorce highlights Antonio's place among various men in the novel. 
Discuss how his relationship to these three characters changes in this chapter: 


Has Andrew become an antagonist for Antonio at this point? What has become of 
Andrew? How does Andrew fail Antonio, or stand in his way, at a moment of crisis? 


How does our perception of Narciso change in this chapter? How does his death 
affect Antonio? What kind of hero has Narciso become? 


Tenorio has become a much more prominent antagonist in the novel. Why is he 
so violently driven by his vow of revenge? What causes Tenorio to suffer? Do you 
see any parallels between Tenorio's and Antonio's grief, or do they suffer for 
different reasons? 

Writing Exercise 

Return to Ultima's earlier assertion that the ways of men are "strange and hard to 
learn." Write a paragraph that looks back at this question from the end of Chapter 
Catorce. What has Antonio learned since the beginning of the novel? Are any of the 
ways of men becoming less confusing to him? Are any becoming more confusing? 

H Homework 

Read Chapters Quince, Dieciseis, and Diecisiete. Review the essay on Catholicism as 
supplemental reading to the narration of Antonio's First Communion. What is the 
significance of this ceremony for him? 

I ' THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

Lesson Eight 


The Plot 

The author artfully builds a plot structure to create expectations, increase 
suspense, and inform character development. The timing of events, from 
beginning, to middle, to end, can make a novel predictable or riveting. A 
plot, propelled by a crisis, will reach a climax, and close with a resolution 
(sometimes called denouement). Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the 
author to defy time while telling the story. A successful atithor will keep a 
reader entranced by clever pacing built within the tale, sometimes 
confounding a simple plot by telling stories within stories. 

I he plot of Bless Me, Ultima unfolds episodically and the tension builds as 
the reader wonders howTenorio's attempts to avenge the death of his 
daughter will play out. Many events in the novel have a dramatic impact on 
Antonio. His initiation into the often cruel world of adults is marked by his 
furtive observation of Lupito's murder, his first day of school, and his 
discovery of Andrew at Rosies house. By contrast, his summers with 
Ultima and on his uncles' farm form a rhythm of peace and happiness that 
counterbalances the discovery of awful truths. Antonio's spiritual 
development is profoundly affected by the appearance of the golden carp, 
Ultima's cure of his uncle, his first communion, and Narciso's request that 
Antonio hear his confession as he dies. 

Discussion Activities 

Ask students to consider the events of the three chapters they just read.The 
death of Narciso affects Antonio profoundly, and the tension increases with this 
murder.Then the brothers return but leave quickly, this time taking Andrew with 
them. Antonio has been looking forward to his first communion, but the 
ceremony leaves him feeling disappointed. Invite the class to discuss this series of 
events. What has changed after the murder of Narciso? Do we feel the novel 
building to a climax at this point? How does the class imagine that these conflicts 
and disappointments will be resolved in the end? 

Writing Exercise 

A few events occur more than once. Examples of these patterns include Antonio's 
dreams, Ultimas healing rituals, Antonio's direct encounters with death, and the 
arrival and departure of summer. Select one of these repeating events and write a 
paragraph that compares and contrasts two or three instances. 

Q Homework 

Read Dieciocho, Diecinueve, and Veinte. Why might the boys insist that Antonio play 
the priest? 

National Endowment for the Arts 



Themes of 
the Novel 

Profound questions raised by the story allow the character (and the reader) 
to explore the meaning of human life, and extract themes. Themes 
investigate topics explored for centuries by philosophers, politicians, 
scientists, historians, and theologians. Classic themes include intellectual 
freedom versus censorship, personal moral code in relation to political 
justice, and spiritual faith versus rational commitments. A novel can shed 
light on these age-old debates, by creating new situations to challenge and 
explore human nature. 

Use the following questions to stimulate discussion or provide writing 
exercises in order to interpret the novel. Using references to support ideas, 
explore the ideas Bless Me, Ultima suggests about the following: 

Discussion Activities and Writing Exercises 

Innocence and Knowledge 

Antonio wonders about the nature of innocence, and how knowledge affects it. 
He recognizes that knowledge is a form of power: 

I wondered if the knowledge I sought would destroy me. But it 
couldn't, it was God's knowledge — 

Did we ask too much when we asked to share His knowledge? 
(p. 191) 

Is it better to be innocent or to have knowledge, if comprehension of death, 
misery, revenge, and anger leads to pain? Is ignorance bliss, or is it misery? 


Antonio is powerfully affected by the natural landscape. His emotions are linked to 
the sky and the weather, a poetic technique known as pathetic fallacy. What do 
certain symbols in nature (the river, the juniper tree, and the uncles' farm) suggest 
about our relation to the natural world? Does nature seem like a cruel, 
benevolent, or indifferent force? How does respect or irreverence for nature 
contribute to human feelings, and how does this emerge in the story? 

Language and Identity 

Why does Antonio believe that words are magic? What roles do curses, vows, 
confessions, and prayers play in the lives of these characters, and in our ability to 
cope with suffering? How does language provide comic relief, as in the Christmas 
play? What does the novel's use of Spanish help us to understand about the 
characters, and Antonio's identity among them? 

CJ Homework 

Finish reading the novel, Chapters Veintiuno and Veintidos. Where does the end of 
the novel leave Antonio? What has he learned? How has he grown older or wiser 
through the course of these events? 


National Endowment for the Arts 

Lesson Ten 


What Makes 
a Great 

Novels illustrate the connections between individuals and questions of 
humanity. Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of our daily 
lives, while painting those conflicts in the larger picture of human struggle. 
Readers forge bonds with the story as the writers voice, style, and sense of 
poetry inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating opportunities 
for learning, imagining, and reflecting, a great novel is a work of art that 
affects many generations of readers, changing lives, challenging 
assumptions, and breaking new ground. 

Discussion Activities 

Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Put these on 
the board. What elevates a novel to greatness? Then ask them to discuss, within 
groups, other books they know that include some of the same characteristics. 
Do any of these books remind them of 8/ess Me, Ultima? 

A great writer can be the voice of a generation. What kind of voice does Anaya 
create through Antonio? What does this voice tell us about the concerns and 
dreams of children and adolescents? What does this voice tell us about the 
concerns and dreams of immigrants and first-generation Americans? 

Divide the class into groups and have each one choose the most important theme 
of the novel. Have a spokesperson from each explain the group's decision. Write 
these themes on the board. Do all the groups agree? 

Writing Exercise 

Select one or two things that have changed between the beginning and end of 
the novel. For example, students could choose a character, a conflict, or our 
understanding of a particular theme. Have them write a paragraph that discusses 
how and why this thing has changed over time, and then discuss what they think 
the significance of this change might be for Antonio, and for the reader. 

H Homework 

Students should work on their essays. See "Essay Topics" in the next section. 
For additional questions, see the Readers Guides "Discussion Questions." Turn 
in outlines and/or rough drafts for the next class. 

National Endowment for the Arts THE BIG READ • | 3 

The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, 
as do the Discussion Questions in the Readers Guide. Advanced students can come up with their 
own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided 

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novel. This statement 
should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons 
should be backed by references to the text. 

1 . On page 1 23, Antonio says: 

"I felt more attached to Ultima than to my own 
mother. Ultima told me the stories and legends 
of my ancestors. From her I learned the glory 
and the tragedy of the history of my people, 
and I came to understand how that history 
stirred in my blood." 

Explain how Ultima contributes to Antonio's 
ability to understand an identity of many 
heritages. What does he learn from Ultima? 
What does she teach him that his own 
relatives cannot? What does he mean when he 
says that "the glory and the tragedy" of his 
peoples history stir in his blood? 

2. Anaya has written: 

The beliefs of my traditional New Mexican 
culture are grounded in the Catholic religion 
and Spanish folktales from the Iberian world. 
These beliefs are influenced by cultural 
borrowings from the Pueblo Indian way of life. 
This culture is the backdrop for the novel. It is 
the way of life of the Nuevos Mexicanos that 
inspires my creativity. But a novel is not written 
to explain a culture, it creates its own. I create 
stories, so the reader must separate realistic 
portrayals of the culture from fiction (Warner 
Books trade paperback, page x). 

Write an essay that discusses the ways this 
novel portrays a world of its own, one that 
borrows from real culture and history. 

On page 44, Antonio says there was no saint 
he loved more than theVirgen de Guadalupe. 
In his attempt to explain why this icon is so 
important to him, he says: "God was not always 
forgiving. He made laws to follow and if you 
broke them you were punished. The Virgin 
always forgave. 

"God had power. He spoke and the thunder 
echoed through the skies. 

"The Virgin was full of a quiet, peaceful love. [...] 

"But He was a giant man, and she was a 
woman. She could go to Him and ask Him to 
forgive you. Her voice was sweet and gentle 
and with the help of her Son they could 
persuade the powerful Father to change His 

As you think about the male and female 
characters in the novel, how does this passage 
help explain the role that gender plays in 
Antonio's life? 

Write an essay in which you analyze and 
discuss the character of Ultima. What does she 
mean when she tells Antonio that the owl is 
her spirit, her "bond to the time and harmony 
of the universe" (p. 260)? What does she seem 
to know that others do not know? What does 
she want for Antonio, and how does she help 
him cope with problems? 


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Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read 
community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, 
or a bookstore. 

1 . Research the history of New Mexico, with 
special attention to the movement of various 
peoples in and out of the state. Create a 
multimedia (text, images, music) presentation of 
this history to display in a library or town hall. 

2. Identify and research the attraction of New 
Mexico to various artists, including Anaya, D.H. 
Lawrence, and Georgia O'Keeffe. Prepare 
posters that present their lives and works in 
the context of their time in New Mexico, and 
have students create paintings or stories that 
imitate the style of these artists or writers. 
Hold a sidewalk art fair and invite the 

3. Identify some of the representations of 
Mexican-Americans today, both in the national 
media and locally in your community. Have 
groups of students each select one of these 
representations and prepare a short speech 
discussing the explicit and implicit messages 
about Mexican-Americans conveyed by this 
reference, and then invite the community to a 
town meeting where the students give their 
presentations and lead a discussion about 
contemporary attitudes toward Latinos in local 
and national culture. 

4. Have the students write a play or scene that 
addresses some aspect of religious or spiritual 
conflict they see at work today, either globally 
or locally. Have them perform the scene or play 
for the community, and then lead a discussion 
about the various roles religion and spirituality 
play for them. 

5. Have students research some of the herbs and 
plants mentioned in the novel, both as features 
of the New Mexican landscape and as elements 
of traditional healing methods. Students can 
present their findings as a poster session, open 
to the community. If possible, introduce a local 
healer or shaman to the class and invite that 
person to give a talk at the poster session 
about contemporary natural healers. 

6. Re-read the myth of the Golden Carp that 
Samuel tells Antonio in Chapter Nueve, and the 
prophecy that Cico tells Antonio in Chapter 
Once. The power of the myth and Antonio's 
vision of the Golden Carp force him to 
question his faith in the singular God of 
Catholicism. Write your own myth about an 
event of breathtaking beauty. Focus on your 
skills of descriptive writing to make your 
reader believe that this phenomenon could 
really be divine. What is the backstory that 
explains this beautiful event? Does the story 
address any issues of sin, justice, fear, 
punishment, or redemption? Share the myths 
with a senior group or a local book club. 

7. Write a short story set in the future, after 
Antonio has become an adult Imagine who 
Antonio is at that time and how he would react 
to circumstances. Is he a priest, a farmer, a 
writer, a healer, a soldier, or something else? 
Where does he live? Use flashbacks and 
memories that recall the time of the novel to 
help explain why you think this future is right for 
him. Present the stories at a local Big Read 

National Endowment for the Arts 




New Mexican Catholicism 

Throughout Bless Me, Ultima, Antonio, a devout 
Catholic boy, contemplates life as a priest. While 
regularly praying, he begins his formal religious 
training in preparation for his First Communion. 
The Catholic faith, with its intricate doctrine and 
practices, plays an integral role in Antonio's story. 

One of the largest and oldest institutions in the 
world, the Roman Catholic Church dates to Peter 
the Apostle in the first century A.D. According to 
the gospels, Jesus entrusted Peter with the "keys of 
the kingdom" and gave him special authority to 
govern the Church. At the end of the fifteenth 
century, Pope Alexander VI issued a series of papal 
bulls, or letters, concerning the conversion of the 
people of the Americas from their native religions 
to Catholicism. 

In what would later become Mexico and the 
southwestern United States, Spanish priests of 
the Franciscan Order established missions in the 
sixteenth century to spread the teachings of the 
Catholic Church to the indigenous peoples. 
While many of the native peoples converted, they 
maintained some of their ancient beliefs. Native 
practices would come to intermingle with 

The Church grants special authority to the pope, 
his bishops, and their priests, since they belong to 
the legacy of Jesus' apostles. Catholicism is based 
on the belief in the Holy Trinity: the Father (God), 
the Son (Jesus), and the Holy Spirit. The Holy 
Trinity is the central mystery of the Christian faith. 

Catholics believe in Seven Sacraments, viewing 
them as signs of grace and gifts of God. The 
Sacraments parallel the phases of life: birth, 
adolescence, marriage, and preparation for death. 
In Catholicism they are Baptism, Reconciliation 

(Confession), Eucharist, Confirmation, Holy 
Orders, Matrimony, and Anointing of the Sick. 
A young person is initiated into the Catholic 
Church through Baptism, usually in infancy, 
which absolves one of original sin. Children 
at age seven or eight participate in their First 
Communion, where they receive the Eucharist 
for the first time. In the Eucharist, the body and 
blood of Jesus Christ are present in the forms 
of consecrated bread and wine, which Catholics 
eat and drink during Communion at Mass. In 
adolescence, a Catholic is "confirmed" by willfully 
accepting the Catholic faith and its traditions 
and rituals. As a young Catholic matures, it 
is important to demonstrate moral fortitude 
and commitment to Catholic ideals by doing 
good works. A strong faith means not only 
understanding the religious tenets of Catholicism, 
but also acting to reflect those beliefs. 

Antonio, as he learns more about his faith, 
questions what these tenets mean. He is further 
challenged by what appears to be supernatural — 
the Golden Carp, Ultima's owl, and Tenorio's 
daughters. Still, we see the Sacraments infused 
into Bless Me, Ultima when Antonio devotes 
himself to attending catechism and preparing for 
his First Communion. 

Prior to receiving this sacrament he must take part 
in Reconciliation, where he confesses his sins, is 
absolved by the priest, and does penance. On several 
occasions in the novel Antonio becomes a surrogate 
priest "absolving" the sins of Narciso and playing 
priest to the children in his class. He later 
participates in his First Communion, where he 
receives the Eucharist. Antonio's spiritual maturity is 
hastened both by the tragic events he witnesses and 
the supernamral elements to which he is exposed. 


National Endowment for the Arts 


The Spanish Language and the Magic of Words 

1 anguage plays an important role in Antonio's life. 
\s he learns to read and write in school, he comes 
ro believe that language has magic "There was 
magic in the letters, and 1 had been easier to learn 
the secret" (p. 76). The magic they promise is that 
of wisdom and knowledge, and Antonio hopes that 
words will reveal to him the mysteries or the world 
beyond his narrow experience and help shepherd 
his quest for understanding. 

Antonio must operate in two linguistic worlds. 
Spanish is the language of his home and family, as 
well as his early understanding of religion, nature, 
and identity. But when he goes to school, the 
teacher calls him Anthony instead of Antonio. He 
must learn to speak, read, and write in English. 
This language barrier makes him feel alienated and 
lonely at first, until he makes friends with the other 
Spanish-speaking boys. For Antonio, English 
represents the larger American world. Rill of both 
excitement and confusion. 

The many instances of Spanish vocabulary and 
dialogue in the novel illustrate the blending of two 
languages in Antonio's life. Anaya's use of Spanish 
alongside English helps to define certain characters 
and emphasize certain ideas and expressions, which 
defy translation. For readers who do not speak 
Spanish, the foreign dialogue can make reading the 
novel confusing or obscure, creating the same 
feelings of alienation that Antonio feels when he is 
introduced to English at school. 

A Spanish Glossary 

abuelo: grandfather 

arroyo: stream or brook 

ave maria purisima: a prayer meaning, "Hail, 
purest Mary" 

bruja: witch 

changp: common term used to describe a young 
boy, as in "pal" or "buddy" 

jChinga tu madrel: a curse meaning, "Damn 
your mother!" 

curandercL spiritual healer who uses herbs and 
traditional healing techniques - inherited from the 
Indian cultures of Mesoamerica 

el Diablo: the Devil 

encanto: charm, spell, or enchantment 

La Grande: a title of respect granted to Ultima, 
meaning "The Great Lady" 

hechicera: sorceress 

hijo I hijos I hijitos: son / children / little children 

el hombre volador: the flying man 

el llano: the open plain, a flat land used for raising 
cattle and keeping horses 

la luna: the moon 

el mar: the sea (the name Marez derives from 
this word) 

jMadre de Diosl: Mother of God! 

;Mira!: Look! 

muerte: death 

una mujer: a woman 

pecado: sin 

jQuepasa aqui?: What's going on here? 

suerte: fate, destiny, chance, fortune, or luck 

Te voy a mater: I will see you die 

la tristesa de la vida: the sorrow of life 

la vieja: the old woman 

National Endowment for the Arts 



The Land of Enchantment 

For centuries New Mexico, known as the Land of 
Enchantment, has drawn travelers and senders from 
all directions. The cultures of Native Americans 
and Spanish Catholics who arrived in the sixteenth 
century often conflicted. Later, this clash of 
cultures was further complicated by the 
introduction of .Anglos, who journeyed west after 
New Mexico became an American territory in 
1 850. Although these disparate peoples inevitablv 
adopted new ways of living from each other, they 
also struggled, sometimes violendy, to protect their 
freedom, language, and sovereign traditions. Thev 
often fought over land and religion. At other times, 
native peoples, Spanish, and Anglos coexisted 
peacefully and harmoniously. 

Indigenous peoples have been living in the 
southwest for thousands of years. The Pueblo 
Indians of northern New Mexico setded villages of 
small stone dwellings in what we now call the Four 
Corners region (where Arizona. New Mexico, 
Colorado, and Utah converge). These villages 
irrigated the land, tended crops, raised fowl, made 
potterv and woven baskets, and fashioned 
sophisticated tools from stone. Their lives and an 
were intimately connected with the seasons and 
resources of the land. The Navajo people traveled 
along trade routes, exchanging maize and cotton 
for bison and other materials. The Navajo believe 
that life itself is connected to the land, and that a 
balance between earth, sky, and spiritual people is 
the source of life. All living things share a common 
connection among their inner spirit, and this 
connection gives order to the world. 

The freedom to roam the land is an essential aspect 
of their well-being, and as an expression of their 
reverence for the land as a sacred being underscores 

the independence of the Navajo people, who 
retained much of their culture after the arrival of 
the conquistadors. When the Spanish brought 
sheep and horses up from Mexico, the Navajo 
people quickly adopted them for their own 
purposes. The ranchers and nomadic tribes came 
to share a love and respect fot horses and the open 
land, the llano. We see this balance of 
independence and respect for the land among the 
Spanish vaqueros, the cowboys whose legacy of 
tough-willed independence survives in our 
imaginations todav. 

From the native peoples the Spanish adopted the 
curandera, a spiritual healer who uses herbs and 
plants to cure the sick. The curandera preserves 
ancient traditions handed down from one 
generation to the next through personal teaching 
and oral tradition. The curandera is a kind of 
shaman, a person of insight and sensitivity who 
learns the healing arts from a master teacher, often 
a relative or a distinguished person of wisdom and 
age in the community. Rituals include steeping 
herbs in water to prepare special teas, or mashing 
herbs into a compress to heal wounds. Because the 
Spanish adopted these healing traditions from the 
Native Americans, the curandera also represents the 
point of intersection where culture was exchanged 
and shared by people of different religions. From 
their indigenous ancestors. New Mexicans 
inherited not only a reverence for the great spirit 
that unites all living things on earth, but also a 
desire to know this spirit intimatelv. The work of 
the curandera acknowledges the spiritual 
connections among plants, earth, people, and 
dreams, weaving a tapestry of mystery and sacred 
magic that remains important to New Mexicans to 
this day. 

I 8 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts 

leacl; in 


Augenbraum. Harold and Ulan Stavans, eds. Growing Up 
Latino: Memoirs and Stones. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993. 

Baeza.Abelardo. Man ofAztlan.A Biography of Rudolfo Anaya. 
Austin: Eakin Press. 200 1 . 

Gonzalez. Ray. ed. Muy Macho: Latino Men Confront Their 
Manhood. New York: Anchor Books. 1996. 

Hoxie, Frederick E.. Peter C. Mancall and James H. Merell, 
eds. American Nations: Encounters in Indian Country, 1850 to 
the Present New York: Routledge. 2001 . 

McBrien, Richard P. general ed. and Harold W.Attridge 
. . .[et al.], associate eds. The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of 
Catholicism. New York HarperCollins. 1995. 

Meyer, Michael C, William L Sherman and Susan M. Deeds. 
The Course of Mexican History. New York: Oxford University 
Press, 2003. 

Olmos, Margarite Fernandez. Rudolfo A. Anaya: A Critical 
Companion. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1 999. 

Web sites 

Rudolfo Anaya: 
Profile of the author from Thomson-Gale resources 

Catechism of the Catholic Church: 
The Vatican's official publication of Catholic doctrine 

New Mexican History: 


The New Mexico Tourist Board: 
New Mexico Office of the State Historian 

American Memory from the Library of Congress: 
Large database of photographs with documentation of 
Native American life and the landscape of the Southwest in 
the early 20th century 

National Endowment for the Arts 


National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards' 

1 . Students read a wide range of print and non- 
print texts to build an understanding of texts, 
of themselves, and of the cultures of the United 
States and the world; to acquire new 
information; to respond to the needs and 
demands of society and the workplace; and for 
personal fulfillment. Among these texts are 
fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary 

2. Students read a wide range of literature from 
many periods in many genres to build an 
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g., 
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human 

3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to 
comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate 
texts.They draw on their prior experience, 
their interactions with other readers and 
writers, their knowledge of word meaning and 
of other texts, their word identification 
strategies, and their understanding of textual 
features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence, 
sentence structure, context, graphics). 

4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written, 
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style, 
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a 
variety of audiences and for different purposes. 

5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as 
they write and use different writing process 
elements appropriately to communicate with 
different audiences for a variety of purposes. 

6. Students apply knowledge of language structure, 
language conventions (e.g., spelling and 
punctuation), media techniques, figurative 
language, and genre to create, critique, and 
discuss print and non-print texts. 

7. Students conduct research on issues and 
interests by generating ideas and questions, and 
by posing problems.They gather, evaluate, and 
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g., 
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to 
communicate their discoveries in ways that suit 
their purpose and audience. 

8. Students use a variety of technological and 
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases, 
computer networks, video) to gather and 
synthesize information and to create and 
communicate knowledge. 

9. Students develop an understanding of and 
respect for diversity in language use, patterns, 
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups, 
geographic regions, and social roles. 

1 0. Students whose first language is not English 
make use of their first language to develop 
competency in the English language arts and to 
develop understanding of content across the 

I I . Students participate as knowledgeable, 

reflective, creative, and critical members of a 
variety of literacy communities. 

1 2. Students use spoken, written, and visual 
language to accomplish their own purposes 
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and 
the exchange of information). 

*This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and develop 
your application of the curriculum. 


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There are so many dreams to 
be fulfilled, but Ultima says a 
man's destiny must unfold itself 
like a flower, with only the sun 
and the earth and water making 
it blossom." 

Antonio in Bless Me, Ultima 

The Big Read is an initiative of the National Endowment 
for the Arts designed to restore reading to the center of 
American culture. The NEA presents The Big Read in 
partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library 
Services and in cooperation with Arts Midwest. The Big 
Read brings together partners across the country to 
encourage reading for pleasure and enlightenment. 

A great nation deserves great art. 

'•>:• ■ .INSTITUTE al , ., 

•vi. Museum*ndLibrary 

The Big Read for military communities is made possible by