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The novel is narrated in the first person by Antonio. He is writing of his childhood, specifically the summer Ultima, a curandera (healer) came to stay with his family and chose him as a disciple to learn curandismo (the practice of healing). This narrator is reverent toward Ultima and toward his mother María Luna's adoration of the Virgen de Guadalupe. Later, when he describes the official practice of Roman Catholicism, he adopts an ironical tone. It is important for the reader to recognize the narrator's varying emotional distance from the actions he describes since it colors the way he shapes the events and the way he wants the reader to evaluate them.
The Spanish words are usually explained in context. Anaya leaves them in the text of the novel to give it a sense of the language-consciousness of Spanish. Nevertheless, as Spanish words come up in the text, they will be defined in the parentheses and, if necessary, further in notes.
"Ultima" is a Spanish word meaning ultimate or "the end." When Antonio says he will begin at the beginning that came with Ultima, he is touching on a very significant time concept. Ultima is for Antonio the unification between the beginning and the end. Time stands still with her. Antonio almost sees her as a sort of deity.
"Llano" is a word meaning plains or prairie. It is a dry grassland. Antonio's father is from the llano. The Márezes are descendants of the vaqueros, the Mexican cowboys. Márez takes its root from the word for sea. Since the Spanish conquistadores came from the sea, the Márez name shows its roots in the sea. The Lunas on the other hand are firmly rooted to the land. Luna is the Spanish word for moon. The Lunas are farmers and practice the ancient method of farming according to the cycles of the moon.
A "curandera" is a healer, specifically a female healer. (In the Spanish, gender is indicated by an "a" for female or "o" for male attached to the ends of words). She exists in harmony with the rhythms of the earth. Because she does, she can use the powers of the earth to heal people. She uses herbs and incantations. Her opposite is the bruja or witch. Brujas do not exist in harmony with the earth, but they still use the powers of the earth to do what they want. They make people sick by cursing them with evil.
The two sides of Antonio's family are the Lunas, who are farmers and have traditions going back to the Aztecs, and the Márez, who are vaqueros and have traditions going back to the Spanish conquistadores of the sixteenth century. Because they are two seemingly irreconcilable traditions of the people of New Mexico, they are in constant antagonism. Anaya places Antonio in the middle of this antagonism. Ultima is a unifying force and she provides hope for the reconciliation of Antonio's two heritages. When Antonio finds out his dream is a true vision of his birth, he says "Ultima knew" He probably means, Ultima knew about his destiny since it was she who knew where his birth cord is. That destiny has to do with his decision of whether to follow the ways of his father or his mother's families.
Syncretism is a word which describes the practice of combining two traditions that are usually considered to be irreconcilable. The ancient form of spirituality called curandismo is a syncretic practice. It descends from the religious and medicinal practices of pre-Columbian Native Americans, but it also venerates the Virgin Mary of Roman Catholicism brought to the Native Americans by Columbus and other Spanish explorers. Anaya shows that Roman Catholicism did not fully eliminate the religion of Native Americans. Instead, it combined with that pre-existing religion to make a mixture of the two.
In chapter one, Antonio sees Ultima's owl carry the Virgen de Guadalupe to heaven. The owl comes from the sympathetic magic of the ancient religion of Native Americans. The owl is the animal spirit of Ultima. They exist in sympathy. Whatever happens to one, happens to the other. Wherever one goes, the other follows. The owl is Ultima's protector. Here, the owl encounters Antonio's other dominant tradition, Roman Catholicism. The owl works closely with the Virgen of Guadalupe.
The Virgen is one manifestation of the Virgin Mary. According to Roman Catholics the Virgin Mary sometimes makes herself manifest to particular people. In the case of the Virgen de Guadalupe, she made herself manifest to a peasant man near the Guadalupe River. He told others and a shrine was built in her honor. The Virgen de Guadalupe is venerated especially in Mexico, Texas, New Mexico.
Antonio's dream also resolves a problem he seems to have with Catholic theology. If an infant dies before it is christened--forgiven for the sins it carries from its ancestors Adam and Eve--its soul goes to Limbo, a place before heaven. The infant's family prays for its soul until the infant is allowed to enter heaven. In his dream, the owl carries these infants to heaven, clearly a violation of Catholic doctrine. Yet, in a syncretic tradition the two elements, the owl and the Virgen, operate together for the good.