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Coming to Chicano Literature From the Outside: a review of “Bless Me, Ultima”


On my last trip to the U.S.A. I did what I always do: spend waaaay to many hours in bookstores. Bookstores provide me with so much comfort. Just being around books instantly relaxes me. Who knew that words written on paper could bring so much peace?

I am always looking for something new. It is partially from a literary FOMO, but also because I believe books can teach you a lot. Every country has their own amazing authors.

I knew that chicano literature existed. If you study modern literature, or especially post-colonial literature, then these sorts of genres come up. Chicano literature, on the surface, however, felt so far away from anything I ever knew growing up in Australia. I wasn’t sure how I would, and/or if I could connect with it. The cultural and racial dynamics of a country are always complicated to understand. And just as I presume many Americans don’t read a lot of Aboriginal and/or migrant Australian literature or understand the dynamics of race in Australia, I don’t know many Australians familiar with Mexican literature, or Mexican American literature and the race dynamics. So when I found myself wandering the Mexican literature isle at Barnes and Noble, I figured that I should see what these chicanos had to say. Bless Me, Ultima caught my eye.

I’ve heard and read from many people, critics included, that Rudolfo Anaya’s novel is a seminal text for chicano literature. Anaya is also famous as one of the U.S.’s foremost chicano authors. On the blurb of Bless Me, Ultima, Anaya is described as the father of chicano literature in English. His novel, his presence as an author seem to have given him and many of his works, the title of “classic”.

The things that stand out for me in Anaya’s book is the cross-pollination (for lack of a better term) of Catholicism and Mexican/indigenous faith. Both concepts are foreign to me. Catholics make up roughly a quarter of the Australian population. And like many countries, it is rare to see cross overs between faiths. I had heard of Catholics as a child, not really knowing what they were. They had separate private schools though and this made me weary of them as a child.When I went to Italy on exchange in high school, my public high school had combined the trip with a nearby catholic school. I was quickly made to feel an outsider for not being catholic and also not being able to really define my faith… as a 14 year old. Much like Florence in Anaya’s novel, I was an outcast for not being Catholic (although, I would argue that Florence was a lot more self-aware in his beliefs than I was/am). I was sniggered at for entering the Vatican city, whilst being a non-catholic. My fellow exchange students laughed and joked about not coming to close in case the roof fell in. I was accosted by my fellow students for taking pictures of ‘their’ saints. The family I stayed with were atheists. Each Sunday, after mass, the students would get a saint card. The card was their saint for the week. They were supposed to pray to that saint and ask for the saint’s blessing. I didn’t go to church, so I didn’t have a saint. On Monday morning, when everyone would proudly reveal their saint… I was always empty-handed.

The character of Ultima was my favourite. Through her lines in the novel, I felt like she was speaking something to me that I always had inside of me: the earth and what grows on it are beautiful things to be respected, cherished, and cared for. This focus on the natural world is something that is common across indigenous cultures and reminds a lot of the teachings I have learned from different aboriginal figures in my local community in Australia. The earth is something to be treasured, not taken for granted. Whether you consider Ultima to be a witch, healer, or even hippie doesn’t detract from her message that the earth is a powerful thing. Much more powerful than we give it credit for.

So when I started to read Bless Me, Ultima, I thought that it would be hard to connect with the story because of the foreignness of the novel. However, when I finished the novel it just made me realise that we are really not so different. If you read enough books, you start to realise how close we truly are. It is actually our ignorance that makes us think the people across the river, mountain, valley, or even ocean are so different from us. Never underestimate the power of how connected we really are.

What Chicano authors have you read? As always, share the reading love.