Ultima, or La Grande, from Rudolfo Anaya’s first novel, Bless Me, Ultima, is from a world that I know; a world to which I can relate. Many people know her as the curandera that she is while many call her a bruja. What’s the difference, one might ask. Well, the Spanish word curandera comes from the verb curar which means to heal or to cure. Healing and curing have positive connotations, as does the word curandera. However, bruja, refers to a witch, a practitioner of Black Magic, a sorceress, someone who works for evil gain. That word is definitely negative in all it connotes.
Growing up, I knew that my mom would go to a curandera before she would go to a medical doctor. She used the herbs recommended by those healers when she could do it on her own. Later, she would take us to sobadores, also a type of curandero, when we hurt a bone or a muscle. When mal de ojo (evil eye) was suspected, off we went to the curandero. Later in life, there were other visits to curanderos, in search of things no one could bring. It’s a world I know. Perhaps that’s why I took such a liking to Ultima when I first read the book in college over forty years ago.
In the novel, Ultima is a curandera who, as most other curanderas, has practiced healing with herbs and medicinal plants, midwifery, a type of non-medical chiropractice, and spiritual healing her whole life. In the llano (the plains) where she lives, there were no medical doctors so the curanderas took care of people’s medical needs. She has traveled throughout the small villages in New Mexico performing her job as needed. Now, after a long life helping others, she is old and has been left to live alone in a dying village where there is no one to help her. As change has come to the llano, people have left the area and others have come in. Now there are medical doctors and the people and their beliefs are changing. Those that don’t know of Ultima’s good deeds fear her powers and brand her as a bruja. They look down on her and avoid her. She is ostracized.
Enter the Mẩrez family. María, a devout Catholic nonetheless, has a deep sense of gratitude for Ultima as Ultima was the midwife for all of her children and a friend to her when she married and left the town she lived in to live on the llano. María and her husband, Gabriel, decide that they will have Ultima come live with them for her remaining days. When she arrives, she feels a strong bond with Antonio, the youngest son. He’s almost seven when she arrives. Along with Ultima, an owl arrives. An owl that seems to always be present, even when Ultima is not. The owl seems to be tied to Ultima and to her knowledge of curanderismo. He is her protector.
When he goes to school, Antonio is made fun of because a bruja lives with his family. He defends her vehemently. When he’s not in school, he spends most of his time with Ultima, accompanying her to pick her herbs and other medicinal plants and to heal those that need healing. Ultima teaches Antonio that all things are alive: plants, herbs, weeds, trees, flowers, the wind, the moon. She teaches him to respect all things and all people. Antonio learns to address the plants and herbs before picking them. He learns to ask for permission to pick them and asks them to be good medicine for healing the sick.
Ultima is obviously a good force in the Mẩrez family. Then one day, María’s brother, Pedro comes from town with news that their youngest brother, Lucas, has taken ill and is dying. They have sought the help of the medical doctor in town and of the priest. No one can help him. Lucas got sick right after coming across a trio of local witches while they were doing a black magic ritual. He watched them in hiding but then they discovered him. Lucas ran away, but the witches saw who he was. Within a couple of days he was sick. The witches’ father, Tenorio, is the barber in town; his daughters collected hair after a haircut and performed some kind of a curse. Ultima listens as Pedro tells the story and she quickly gathers her bag and says they are wasting time. It may already be too late to save Lucas. She says she will go and try to heal Lucas but Antonio must come with her. Antonio agrees to go help her heal his uncle. When they arrive in the town, everyone appears to be afraid of Ultima. She and Antonio go to see Tenorio. She warns him that she is about to reverse the curse and that his daughters should lift it on their own or they will be victims of the reversal. Tenorio laughs at her, denies that his daughters are witches, and then he accuses Ultima of being the witch/bruja.
Ultima mixes a cure and forces Lucas to drink it. In the night, Lucas is writhing in pain and so is little Antonio, who sleeps on the floor next to his uncle and seems to be experiencing the same pain his uncle is having. Ultima encourages Lucas to cough up the curse. Finally, Lucas is able to cough up a huge ball of hair with green slime. Ultima quickly takes the ball of hair and wraps it in a cloth along with three clay figures, representing the three witches that cursed him. Instantly, Lucas is fine. The bundle with the hair curse and the effigies of the witches is buried at the site where they performed their black magic ritual. Ultima and Antonio return to the llano and all is fine for a few days. Then Tenorio comes to accuse Ultima of witchcraft because one of his daughters has died. He brings a group of men with the accusation. The owl protects Ultima from the men by attacking Tenorio in the eyes, blinding him. The group disperses but they know it’s not over yet.
Ultima continues with her healing. She is respectful of the church even though they don’t respect her beliefs. She is respectful of the medical doctors and their medicines even though they don’t respect her or her medicines.
Ultimately, Ultima dies when Tenorio comes to attack Antonio and shoots the owl.
So was she a good healer or an evil witch? There are many dualities in the story. It is a story of good and evil, young and old, organized religion and native wisdom. It is a story of the old ways giving way to the new thinking, even though it is not always right. I see Ultima as a positive force, a wise woman. She does only good and is not afraid to fight against evil when she has to. In her own
words to Antonio, “…good is always stronger than evil…the smallest bit of good can stand against all the powers of evil in the world and it will emerge triumphant.” This is what she teaches him. This is what she believes and how she has lived her life. She’s not an evil bruja. She’s a wise woman that knows the ways of nature and how to use them and respect them.
The novel itself is a very important one in Chicano literature. In fact, it was the first published work of real Chicano origins, showing how the old ways live in the culture even though the people have assimilated and taken on the ways of the society they live in. It shows the wisdom of respecting others’ beliefs and rights and not trying to force anyone to change against their nature. It’s an important novel to a lot of us living in the southwest that have seen our ways disappear, forced to the back rooms in secrecy, as if they were evil, instead of wise ways. Originally published in 1972, it has quickly caught on and is now taught in classrooms learning about multiculturalism. It has also been challenges because of the content and banned from certain curriculums. It has also been a Big Read selection and won numerous awards.