Paul's Reviews > Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya
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it was ok
bookshelves: fiction, banned-book

Actual rating: 2.5 stars.

This is a hard review to write. I read Bless Me, Ultima because it is frequently challenged, often banned, sometimes even burned. I read it because it has been banished from Tucson classrooms and school libraries. I read it because I live in a majority Mexican-American community in a part of Arizona that until relatively recently was still part of the state of Sonora, Mexico. And I read it because many readers have praised it.

Anaya wrote his novel in 1972. Copies were confiscated and burned at a New Mexico school less than a year later. Burning, it turned out, was not to be a one-time aberration: Bless Me, Ultima has fed the flames again and again: the most recent incident happened in Norwood, Colorado, in 2005.

My awareness of what is sometimes called Chicano pride literature began in January 2012, when Tucson Unified School District administrators cancelled Mexican-American Studies classes in mid-session, pulling novels and textbooks from students' and teachers' hands and packing them in boxes labeled "banned books," a story that resulted in international outrage and made Arizona a laughingstock. Bless Me, Ultima was one of TUSD's targets.

Why do non-hispanics hate this novel? The most-often cited reason is that it contains profanity, violence, and sexuality. It is true that the novel contains two instances of the word "fuck." More if you translate the word "chingada," which appears so many times that if you were to eliminate all the other words, you'd still have 20 pages of chingada. Also, the kids in the story call each other "cabrón" a lot. And there is violence. But if there's any sex I must have missed it.

Other challenges spell out what I consider to be more likely objections: the story is irreverent toward Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular, full of pagan mysticism, and frankly pro-magic (in that Ultima is a practicing medicine woman who uses her arts to stymie and even kill witches). Which is all true, but neither here nor there in a society that respects the separation of church and state (don't we all wish).

Arizona State Schools Superintendent Tom Horne dared speak what I believe to be the real reasons behind white antipathy toward Bless Me, Ultima. In interviews leading up to the infamous TUSD book bannings he characterized Mexican-American studies and the books used in those classes as “civilizational war” and stated that in his view the histories of Mexican-Americans and Native Americans are not based on “Greco-Roman” knowledge and thus not part of Western civilization. Oh, yes, he really did say that.

So there you have the reasons Anaya's novel generates so much hate. Now I come to the hard part, explaining why I didn't get much out of reading it. I'll refer back to the 20 pages of "chingadas" and "cabróns," and a host of other Spanish and Indian words sprinkled throughout the narrative: yes, it's worth it to note that Mexican-Americans living near the US/Mexico border use many Spanish and Indian words in everyday speech, but after a while I began to feel somewhat put upon by all this multiculturalism.

Antonio keeps telling us Ultima is not a witch, but she has an owl as a familiar and she casts counter-spells against three known brujas (witches), killing two of them before she herself is killed ... not directly, but by the father of the witches, who kills the owl and thus Ultima. So she's a witch. C'mon.

Apart from Antonio and Ultima, the other characters are paper cutouts, acting and speaking in predictable ways. It was interesting to see Antonio begin to question the teachings of the church and to embrace the paganism of Ultima and the mysterious golden carp, but that was all the excitement the novel offered, and Antonio's doubts grew tiresome after much repetition.

It's an okay story. I question how relevant it is to today's readers, but as a cornerstone of Mexican-American literature it is undoubtedly important. I'm glad I read it, but having read it, I remain far more interested in the reasons white people hate it than I am in the novel itself.
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Reading Progress

February 24, 2013 – Shelved
February 24, 2013 – Shelved as: fiction
February 24, 2013 – Shelved as: banned-book
April 23, 2013 – Started Reading
April 28, 2013 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-13 of 13 (13 new)

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message 1: by Lea (new)

Lea Wonderful review, as always!


Susan Q Bless Me, Ultima is not a part of Mexican-American Literature. It is a part of Southwestern Literature. Both Anaya and his parents were born in New Mexico. I am not Hispanic, but I used to teach this novel in my English classes throughout the '70's. For many of the students it was the first time they got through an entire novel. In other cases, the parents swiped the book from their kids so they could read it themselves. People from New Mexico, not just Hispanics love this novel because it speaks to the life they know. Non-hispanics also love it here. Perhaps it didn't grab you because life is different in Arizona border towns than in New Mexico where so many people are descended from the Conquistadores who arrived in the 16th and 17th centuries and who were then cut off from their culture for generations, until after the Spanish American War. Their unique culture is what Anaya grew up with and what he portrays in Bless Me, Ultima. I have never heard of this book being banned in New Mexico, though Harry Potter was banned and burned in one small southern New Mexico town. Somehow Ultima, the book and the character, are much loved in New Mexico.


Paul Thanks, Susan, for sharing your perspective and knowledge with me. I think it's an important book, and one that should be taught. I did some research on banning and burning attempts, and there was at least one such burning in Clovis. I look at Sherman Alexie's Diary of a Part-Time Indian as a similar case. It's frequently the target of banning attempts, and very often in school districts with large Native American populations. Go figure. I don't get it myself.


Susan Q Well, you are no doubt correct about the Clovis banning, but otherwise, I think New Mexico warmly received Bless Me, Ultima. Clovis is right on the border with Texas and New Mexico is a huge state with a lot of almost unoccupied land between cities, so Clovis is a bit more like Texas than most New Mexico cities. Still, I think that, in general, Bless Me Ultima is very popular in New Mexico. Towns in the southern part of New Mexico and on the border with Texas may not be like the rest of the state all the time.
I know the writer Alexie Sherman, but not his book Diary of a Part Time Indian. Was it banned in New Mexico? Certainly not in my part -- near Santa Fe. Alexie Sherman is generally popular among Native Americans. I wonder which towns didn't like it.
Frankly, book banning is not common in Northern New Mexico, but is not unheard of in the southern part and on the border with Texas, at least as I hear from you.
Can't remember which town banned and burned Harry Potter, but here in Northern New Mexico, curanderas with a touch of brujeria are deeply respected by many.


Paul Susan, I write a regular column about banned books for Daily Kos (and also for my personal blog). Mostly it consists of news roundups and brief commentary, but I also review banned books I've read. Sherman Alexie is, for some reason, a target of book banners all around the country these days, and he's featured in my column many times. My column is titled You Can't Read That!, and you can find it at http://www.dailykos.com/blog/pwoodford and http://pwoodford.net/blog/.


Susan Q Thanks! I will check it out. Thanks. Betty


message 7: by Jay (new) - added it

Jay Thank you all here for giving a background and perspective regarding the book. I loved the movie and immediately want to read the book but you know both the experiences can be drastically different.


message 8: by Ashtyn (new)

Ashtyn Elle Pacino Your review doesnt do rudolfo anaya any justice he is brilliant in description and expressing culture


message 9: by Dan (new)

Dan Panzanella Nice spoiler there, thanks.


Rosco Betunada parece que vd. no tiene un sentido de maravillarse ~


Chelsea Susan Q, I agree that it takes place in the southwest but you can't just rebrand it because it makes it more appealing or accessible to non Hispanic readers. It is Chicano and saying otherwise can be damaging. People should be able to see and identify themselves in literature and not have it washed out. In the way that Black Panther is important for representation, so is Bless Me Ultima. As a non Hispanic who is reading this book I recognize that this book was not written for me and there are things in it that I can't relate to, which is what people who aren't white I imagine have to deal with every day. At the same time I sat there with my Google translate app open so I could try because understanding each other is the first step towards working together. It is a coming of age story, and everyone can relate to that in some way. In fact some aspects reminded me of The Round house by Louise Eldritch and the house at the end of the lane by Neil Gaiman. There is that essential part of seeing the world as more than what your parents control and learning to think instead of listen. I haven't finished it yet but since I was dumb enough to read reviews before I was finished that one is on me. 😑


Ms.pegasus Excellent review, Paul. The objections to the book really speak to the power of the writing and the unexpected viewpoint. Moreover, your review has stimulated some spectacular comments and a wide range of reactions. This book wasn't for me, but I'm glad I read it. It is an important piece of literature.


message 13: by Kate (new) - added it

Kate You know, it's not too late to let people know about your spoiler. Please do them that favor since it's too late for me.


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