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Teaching Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya

Synopsis: Bless Me, Ultima is a fictional, yet autobiographical, bildungsroman story of Antonio, whose life mirrors the childhood of author Rudolfo Anaya. Antonio is six years old when the curandera Ultima comes to live with his family. As a young child, Antonio is a direct witness to the constant battle between good and evil, which leads him to question his own beliefs about his family, his religion, and his future. Ultima leads Antonio to a greater understanding of himself and the world around him.

Challenge #1: Is this a true story??? Inquiring Minds Want to Know!
My inquisitive sophomore students will undoubtedly want to know if this is a "real" story. They want to know if these events really happened because somehow there is validity for them in reading a "real" story. There are many incredible occurences in the book, such as the healing of Antonio's uncle by Ultima's powers, the haunting and un-haunting of Antonio's neighbor's house, and the mysterious deaths of women accused of devil worship, somehow coinciding with the clay dolls Antonio is forbidden to touch in Ultima's room. Ultima herself is an enigma.

To begin, students will need to understand what the word "curandera" means. It comes from the Spanish word curar, to cure or heal. A curandera, then, is a healer. Traditionally, curanderas are called upon to heal both physical and spiritual ailments. In the novel, Ultima is revered as the epitome of wisdom and truth by many in the community whom she has helped directly or indirectly over the years. However, she is also accused of witchcraft, or "brujeria," after she heals Antonio's uncle of the curse of the Trementina sisters and the sisters become ill and begin to die. Her ways of healing through herbs, rituals, and ceremony, are mysterious. For students rooted in the scientific world, this may be hard to swallow. To believe, or not to believe?

As Antonio grows, he begins to question everything. Although he is sure of the existence of good and evil in the world, he is not so sure what to believe in. He wants to fulfill his mother's wishes of full devotion to the Catholic church, and he desperately seeks understanding, hoping for enlightenment in the taste of the Eucharist during his first communion. However, Antonio is also intrigued by the story of the golden carp, who is also a god, and the presence of the river. Antonio is grappling with issues we have all struggled with, or will struggle with in the future: Is there a god? Who or what is it? What is real in the physical world? What is real in the spiritual world? Can all these beliefs exist in harmony?

Antonio's dreams are another point of discussion. Many dreams described by Antonio are prophetic or symbolic, and they leave Antonio's head spinning. Ultima understands the world of Antonio's dreams, and it seems the two have kindred souls. Is that possible? Ultima also uses Antonio as a sort of medium for the cleansing of Antonio's uncle's soul. Can this actually happen?

High school students may have strong opinions on a lot of subjects, but most are still trying to decide exactly what it is that they do believe in. A great pre-reading exercise is a survey for students, which would inevitably open up a discussion of these ideas before the reading begins. You might begin by asking students to take an individual survey in which they respond strongly agree, agree, disagree, and strongly disagree to statements such as "ghosts are real and live among us," "dreams can be prophetic," "a real battle between good and evil is taking place in our world," "witches can cast spells over people," "some people have powers to see the future," etc. After students have completed their survey, play a four corners game in which each corner of the room represents a response (strongly agree, agree, disagree, strongly disagree). Once they have moved to their corner (and are with other students who share their response), ask each small group to explain their reason for responding in that manner. Although the four corners game is popular with my students because it gets them moving around the room, constantly forming new groups to support their opinion, the same survey could be used for a traditional small or large group discussion.

Ultimately, Antonio is unable to resolve all of his questions, but he finds peace without needing complete understanding of the world around him. Students will have to decide for themselves as well.

Challenge #2: ¿Hablan español?

Although Bless Me, Ultima is written in English, the author often chooses to includes Spanish words and phrases, especially in dialogue. This use of Spanish adds to the setting of the text and also the realism of the characters, as Antonio tells the reader in the beginning of the novel that he had not learned any English before going to school. It is easy to forget that Antonio's family and friends speak primarily in Spanish since we are reading the novel in English. It may be valuable to actually ask students why they think the author sometimes chooses to use Spanish in characters' dialogues. The question should open up a discussion about word choice and the importance of language to portray culture.

Author Flannery O'Connor said, "Anyone who has survived childhood has enough material to write for the rest of his or her life." In order to help students understand the importance of language and culture as a part of Antonio's childhood, ask them to do some creative writing about their own childhoods. Bring in some milk and cookies and give students time to write down memories and stories from their past. Ask students to make lists of tastes (peanut butter sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, orange popsicles), smells (chlorine, lever 2000, fresh cut grass on Saturday morning), words ("it's all fun and games until somebody gets their eye poked out..."), and objects (jelly shoes, sidewalk chalk, the barbie red corvette) tied to their family or childhood. Students might even want to write a "Where I'm From" poem using these sensory images from childhood (see example in Additional Resources). Help students to stumble upon the richness of their own culture and discover the importance of preserving memories. Students love to share stories about themselves; this may also open them up to Antonio's story. Again, this also opens the discussion of why Anaya chooses to use Spanish words and phrases as he narrates Antonio's childhood.

The Spanish language program is a dynamic and growing program in the high school where I teach. Incidentally, many of my students are excited about the inclusion of Spanish in other areas. It's a chance for them to "be the expert" through their ability to understand the words by themselves and apply their knowledge. Students are so proud of themselves when they discover words they know; it helps them see the value of what they have learned. On the other hand, students who have no experience with Spanish or the Chicano culture may struggle with some of the dialogue. There are not so many Spanish words that a student would become frustrated with the text and find it too difficult to read, but we can't forget the students in the French and German programs who may feel a little left out. The Austin Public Library has published a set of discussion questions for readers of Bless Me, Ultima. If you scroll down the page, they have also included a list of translations for the Spanish words in the book, which may be helpful for both teachers and students. (They have, however, left out most of the explicatives and curse words uttered by some of Antonio's friends at school. Students will have to figure those out on their own.) For students who are struggling, they might want to make a bookmark of some of the common Spanish phrases and their English translations for a quick reference.

Additional Resources:
The Expanding Canon: Teaching Multicultural Literature in High School: Rudolfo Anaya: This site includes an audio clip of Anaya, as well as a Q and A interview with the author and some notes about key concepts and phrases in Bless Me, Ultima.

Web English Teacher also features a page on Bless Me, Ultima. Their site provides links to lesson plans and activities for various grade levels.

"Where I'm From" example
Where I’m From by George Ella Lyon
I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush,
the Dutch elm
whose long gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls and the pass-it-ons,
from perk up and pipe down.
I’m from He restoreth my soul with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost to the auger
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.
Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.

I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded–
leaf-fall from the family tree

page by Lindsay Steenbergen