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The Spanish-speaking American citizens are the strongest minority in the USA today. Rudolfo Anaya’s novel Bless Me, Ultima is one of the earliest and finest examples of their literature. In the following contribution Graham Wilson analyses this literary work and makes practical suggestions for the advanced foreign language classroom.

A Sequence of Lessons for Rudolfo Anaya’s
Bless Me, Ultima

Graham Wilson

1. Reasons for Reading Bless Me, Ultima in the German "Gymnasiale Oberstufe"

There are several reasons why the novel is suitable for German advanced students.(1) Firstly, the moderate scope and level of the language are easily manageable for advanced pupils who have practice in reading longer coherent texts. The plot develops chronologically, and thus there are no complicated literary flashbacks.
Second, the topic of "growing up", recommended for an advanced course ("Leistungsstufe") in the most recent Richtlinien und Lehrpläne für die Sekundarstufe II – Gymnasium / Gesamtschule in Nordrhein-Westfalen: English (1999) lends itself to identification by the pupils.(2) Third, as one of the earliest examples of Chicano literature, this novel and the author himself have influenced many later writers; thus, the work is of cultural importance from a literary history point of view.
As far as literary study is concerned, the novel introduces the pupils to concepts such as 'bildungsroman' or 'magical realism', enabling the pupils to discover these elements in other works from extensive reading opportunities. The concept of multiculturalism (as recommended in the Richtlinien in NRW for year 12) also makes the novel suitable. Further, as will be seen in this essay, there is additional material by other Chicano/a authors which can be combined with the reading of this novel, thus extending the pupils’ knowledge of the ethnic group, an ethnic group which now accounts for 15% of the population of the USA. So far this ethnic group has been sadly neglected by schools in Germany.(3)

2. Brief Synopsis of the Novel and its Themes

The novel is set in the time span summer 1945 to summer 1947 and follows two years in the life of Antonio Márez and his family. At the beginning of the novel, Antonio is almost seven years old and lives with his family in a small New Mexico town. The family is fairly happy, although three of the brothers are away at war, and the mother (María) and the father (Gabriel) are very different and have almost contradictory philosophies of life. María is a devout Catholic, grew up in a farming family, and wants Antonio to go to school and become a priest; Gabriel comes from a family of cowboys (vaqueros) and wants his son to continue in that tradition and live his life on the open plains of the llanos.

An elderly folk healer (curandera) by the name of Ultima comes to live with them as the Márez family feel a great respect for her healing powers, and she and Antonio form an immediate and strong bond. They spend happy times together as they gather herbs, and she teaches him that each person must make his/her own way in life – an important feature when one considers the opposing views of the parents.

Antonio encounters much violence in his immediate surroundings. The first incident is when Antonio witnesses the death of Lupito, a soldier who has recently returned from the war, when he is shot after he killed the sheriff of the community. This first instance and all the others make Antonio think hard about sin and death, and he begins to question how God can allow such things.

That autumn two things happen which are important for family life. The first is that Antonio begins school. The first day at school is very saddening for Antonio as he is forced to speak English, a language which is foreign to him, which makes him an outcast along with the other children of Mexican American descent. Nevertheless, he soon shows himself to be a good pupil who learns fast; so much so, in fact, that he is later allowed to skip a year. The second event is the return of the brothers from the war. Although this should be a happy event, and does indeed give the parents joy, the brothers are visibly restless and traumatised by the war, and want to move away to the city to build lives of their own. Before long, they all leave home after several conflicts within the family. Again, this is a problem which Antonio desperately tries to comprehend, but like so many moral questions, it is too much for a seven-year-old boy to understand.

One day, Antonio’s friend Samuel takes him fishing and tells him the story of the Golden Carp, the ancient river god who looks after the community. He is greatly impressed by this story, especially after the two of them see the carp, but he does not know how to reconcile this belief with the Catholic faith as he learns it in his pre-Communion classes. His beliefs are further challenged when his uncle Lucas is cursed by the Trementino sisters. To Antonio’s dismay, the priest is unable to help; but Ultima is able to banish the curse. When Antonio finally takes the Communion, he expects a divine answer to all his questions and is utterly disappointed when the answer does not come.

At the end of the novel, Antonio is followed by Tenorio, the father of the Trementino sisters, who have one by one died mysteriously. Tenorio makes Ultima’s magic responsible for their death and swears revenge in any way he can. As he chases after Antonio, wanting to kill him, Antonio is able to slip away, but Tenorio kills Ultima’s owl, her alter ego, instead. This is at least the second murder Tenorio has committed – earlier in the novel he murdered Narciso for preventing him from murdering Ultima. When the owl dies, though, Ultima is doomed to die, too, because the owl is her "spiritual familiar" (i.e. her helper in the spiritual world) and thus part of her. Antonio sits by her bedside as she is dying and asks her to bless him, which she does so in the name of all that is good, strong and beautiful. Ultima’s death thus marks the beginning of Antonio’s manhood.

Themes in this semi-autobiographical novel are relevant for German pupils in the Oberstufe: growing up and the development of moral independence; cultural and spiritual identity formation; faith and issues such as Catholicism versus paganism; the plight of Mexican American families in the U.S. South-West. The novel has been criticised for the fact that many regard the spiritual development of this mere six- to nine-year-old boy as unrealistic. One must not forget, though, that the first-person narrator is the adult Antonio, who no doubt remembers the events of his childhood in a different light.(4) Pupils should perhaps form their own opinion on this matter (see lesson 16 below).

3. Didactic Assumptions

The discussion as to whether pre-reading, where the pupils are to be given two or three weeks in which they should pre-read the novel in its entirety, versus successive reading, i.e. reading the novel chapter by chapter when they are dealt with in class, must be examined before a decision is made on the part of the teacher. Although some might argue that a successive reading lends itself to the linear structure, pre-reading is preferable by far: one must know the whole novel to be able to discuss the development of the individual characters and in particular the main character, Antonio. Furthermore, pre-reading offers a variety of techniques for helping the pupils to come to terms with the reading process (e.g. reading logs) and their own personal reception of the novel – pupils should have a view in mind before they discuss various aspects in class. A thematic treatment of the novel, as suggested here, therefore presupposes that the pupils have been able to form their own opinions. Thus pre-reading is advocated here.

This pre-reading should be accompanied by the use of a reading log in which the students are encouraged to record their thoughts/impressions, any questions they might have regarding the novel, cross-references, characterisations, etc. The entries in the reading log can then form the basis of discussions and activities, and they can serve as a prompt for the reader’s memory and aid in finding sections, quotations, etc. This technique has become standard procedure in many classrooms by now; but for those not familiar with reading logs and diaries, a good summary of the technique can be found in Krück/Loeser (1997). As the authors argue, the use of a reading log can enhance the receptive process, make the pupils more aware, and serve as a memory prompt later for productive activities. Unlike the authors, though, I personally am not in favour of the idea of letting the pupils read each other’s logs. They should be a personal prompt to the memory; a pupil would not show his/her personal diary to others, and so why should he be expected to show a reading log? This also leaves scope for the pupil to organise the reading log in any way they desire.(5)

If the technique is new to the pupils, the teacher can help by giving them a task sheet like the following:(6)
- As you read, stop from time to time and ask yourself about characters and events.
- Does your reading provoke any memories from your own experience? Do you find yourself identifying with any of the characters in specific situations? Do you really like or dislike any of the characters?
- Stop every now and again and ask yourself how you think the story might develop. Write down your reasons.
- Can you picture the events and locations in your mind? You can draw pictures, plans or maps to help you.
- What do you think of the language the author uses? You could begin a list of words you think are particularly important.
- Does the author use any literary devices that you know to build up tension, to describe, to signal what might happen next, etc?
- What message do you think Anaya is trying to impart to his readers? What thematic aspects of the novel do you think are worth talking about?

It is likely that the pupils will have some difficulty with the Spanish expressions in this novel. A short glossary for German pupils can be found online at http://itss229.ed.psu.edu/k-12/ultima/SPANISH.HTM.

4. The Sequence of Lessons

This sequence is made up of 17 lessons and a suggestion for a written test/Klausur. The sequence has been constructed on a thematic basis, although this basis does in fact follow the progression of the novel to a great extent.

Unit 1: The reading process and introducing the novel (1 lesson)

Unit 2: Ultima and Antonio (Chapters 1-5) (3 lessons)

Unit 3: The family (2 lessons)

Unit 4: Antonio’s first year at school (Chapters 6-9) (3 lessons)

Unit 5: Ultima and her magic (Chapters 10-12) (2 lessons)

Unit 6: The Church (Chapters 16-19) (3 lessons)

Unit 7: Life and death (Chapters 20-22) (1 lesson)

Unit 8: Summarizing thoughts on the novel and "The Ultima(te) Collection" (2 lessons)

Unit 9: Suggested written test/Klausur

Unit 1. The Reading Process and Introducing the Novel

Lesson 1
a. Pupils are asked for their first impressions.
Here they can consult their reading diaries and say what they particularly liked or disliked about the novel, whether they found it easy to read, how it relates to their own life experience, whether they find Antonio realistic, etc.:
"I liked the novel because ..." or "I disliked the novel because ..."(7)
b. Pictures (such as that of a curandera) or a map of the area.
All of these can be found easily on the internet and might serve as an impulse for further discussion of the main themes of the novel. Interesting paintings of everyday Mexican American scenes by the Chicana artist Carmen Lomas Garza can be found at http://www.carmenlomasgarza.com. and include pictures of the work of the curandero/a.(8)
c. Test of textual knowledge of the novel (with a mixture of question types).
This should be done after an initial discussion to refresh the pupils’ memories.(9) It is not wise to take this necessary knowledge of the novel for granted.
d. A "plan of action"
can be put together for the discussion of the novel in the rest of the sequence, so that the pupils can prepare each section in more detail.

Unit 2. Ultima and Antonio (Chapters 1-5)

Ultima’s arrival signals a new era in Antonio’s life, and the bond which they formed at birth will be continued and nurtured throughout the rest of the novel. That is one reason why this first meeting is so important. When Antonio first shakes Ultima’s hand, he is seized by the wonderful sensation of a whirlwind passing around him: "She took my hand, and I felt the power of a whirlwind sweep around me. Her eyes swept the surrounding hills and through them I saw for the first time the wild beauty of our hills and the magic of the green river" (p. 12). Furthermore, he calls her by her name rather than the more respectful 'Grande'. Although Antonio is criticised by his parents for this apparent lack of respect, Ultima says that she always knew that the day would come when they would form a close bond. This first meeting signals the beginning of that close, unseen bond.

Dream sequences are central to the novel, and some will be discussed in later units. In the particular dream on pages 5-6, which Antonio has the night before Ultima’s arrival, he sees a woman giving birth to a child in a hut in the village of Las Pasturas. He recognises that he is witnessing his own birth when, after the baby is born, the relatives of the mother and father express their hopes for the future of the child in the presents they give. Each family also wishes that the afterbirth be disposed of according to family tradition: the Lunas, the farmers, want to bury it in the earth, whereas the Márez family, the cowboys, want to burn it and scatter the ashes over the open plains. However, it is the midwife who finally solves the disagreement by saying that she will bury the afterbirth herself, remarking that only she knows the child’s destiny. That midwife was Ultima.(10)

As the summer ends, Ultima teaches Antonio about the healing powers of the herbs and roots they gather on their walks. Through her he also learns of the different ways of his ancestors. In this way, Anaya uses Ultima as a mentor not only for Antonio but also for the reader, who is probably unfamiliar with the traditions of the curandera.

Lesson 2
a. Close reading of Antonio’s dream of his birth (pp. 5-6) and how it inspires Antonio to want to know more.
b. Close reading of the first meeting Antonio/Ultima (pp. 11-13) and how the two of them have an unseen bond.
c. Pupils act out the meeting.

This should be prepared by the pupils, either in smalls groups who then nominate two "actors", or in pairwork, both of whom then act out the scene.
d. Homework: rewrite the meeting or the dream from Ultima’s perspective.

Lesson 3
a. Presentation of the homework.
b. Pupils write an acrostic poem in groups either on the name 'Antonio' or on the name 'Ultima'.(11)
c. Ultima as Antonio’s mentor (Chapters 4-5).

Questions which could be discussed here are:
In what way is Ultima Antonio’s mentor? Why does Ultima refer to the herbs and roots as a "magic harvest" (p. 39)? Why do you suppose Antonio imitates Ultima’s walk? What does Ultima teach Antonio about his family?

Lesson 4
Additional parallel text: the poem "Curandera" by Pat Mora.

Pat Mora was born in El Paso, Texas, in 1942 and is an award-winning author of poetry, essays and children’s literature. One of her main themes is the development of a multicultural society (in this case Spanish and American); she has increasingly written about the woman’s role in this multiculturalism. This poem can be found online (public domain) at
or in many anthologies, especially Kanellos (2003), p. 330.
a. Pupils analyse the appearance and character of the 'curandera' in the poem and compare/contrast this to Ultima (using information from the chapter in which Antonio and Ultima first meet).
b. Class discussion: What is a 'curandera' and what can she do? Do you believe this is possible?

Pat Mora

They think she lives alone
on the edge of town in a two-room house
where she moved when her husband died
at thirty-five of a gunshot wound
in the bed of another woman. The curandera
and house have aged together to the rhythm
of the desert.

She wakes early, lights candles before
her sacred statues, brews tea of hierbabuena.
She moves down her porch steps, rubs
cool morning sand into her hands, into her arms.
Like a large black bird, she feeds on
the desert, gathering herbs for her basket.

Her days are slow, days of grinding
dried snake into power, of crushing
wild bees to mix with white wine.
And the townspeople come, hoping
to be touched by her ointments,
her hands, her prayers, her eyes.
She listens to their stories, and she listens
to the desert, always the desert.

By sunset she is tired. The wind
strokes the strands of long grey hair
the smells of drying plants drifts
into her blood, the sun seeps
into her bones. She dozes
on her back porch. Rocking, rocking.

At night she cooks chopped cactus
and brews more tea. She brushes a layer
of sand from her bed, sand which covers
the table, stove, floor. She blows
the statues clean, the candles out.
Before sleeping, she listens to the message
of the owl and the coyote. She closes her eyes
and breathes with the mice and snakes and wind.

Unit 3. The Family

The family consists of the father (Gabriel Márez), the mother (María Luna y Márez), three older brothers (León, Andrew, Eugene), two older sisters (Deborah, Theresa) and Antonio. Family life is happy on the surface: there is much love, conversation and hard work, with the kitchen as the heart of the home. Nevertheless, there is the ever-present tension between the parents due to their different backgrounds and their wishes for Antonio’s future, of which Antonio is aware. His mother wants him to become a priest, which would be in keeping with the closely-knit family life style of the Luna family and their profound spiritual relationship with the earth as farmers; but his father would dearly love him to take up the wandering life of a vaquero like the rest of the Márez family, whose love of the open plains is just as spiritual as that of the Luna family. Religion (i.e. the Catholic faith) is a matter of conflict, though, as can be seen at the beginning of Chapter 3. In this respect, the dream at the end of Chapter 2 should be analysed, in which Antonio dreams of his brothers discussing their father’s dream to build a castle in the hills. (Gabriel’s greatest wish is to save up enough money to move to California).

The three older brothers are away at war at the beginning of the novel, and their parents are very unhappy about this fact. Their return in Chapter 7 is a happy event. Nevertheless, throughout the novel we see that the war has changed them and that they have become restless, and they will eventually leave the parental home and refuse to comply with the father’s wishes (see Chapter 8 in particular).

Lesson 5
a. Pupils put together a sociogram of the whole family.

This method of working out the constellation of characters may be familiar to the pupils from other disciplines; applied to literature it is therefore methodologically attractive.
b. Close reading of Chapters 1-4 considering the family and what concerns them.
d. Homework: pupils write a very brief description of a family member without mentioning the name.

Lesson 6
a. Presentation of homework – other pupils guess who is meant.
b. Based on the close reading of Chapters 1-4 from the previous lesson, the class decides topics affecting the whole family (where to live, Antonio’s future, attitudes towards the church, etc.) and groups put together a chart showing what each family member thinks of these topics and how s/he is affected by them.
c. Presentation of results.
d. Homework: One of the conflicts in this novel is between Gabriel and his older sons. Take the position of either Gabriel or the sons and argue for that position.

Unit 4. Antonio’s First Year at School (Chapters 6-9)

Lesson 7
a. Brainstorming: our own first day/year at school. Were there any pupils who were "outcasts"?

This is an important exercise to show the relevance of literature on a universal scale. Although the novel deals with the problems of Mexican American children in the USA, there will be many pupils of diverse national origin in a typical German classroom. These pupils often have difficult first days at school, whether due to language, culture, lack of friends, etc.
b. Close reading of pages 51-59 (Antonio’s first day at school).
Pupils should pick out relevant sentences from the text. Questions to ask here would be: Why are we told that “the sun did not sing as it came over the hill” (p. 51) on Antonio’s first day of school? How do you think Antonio is feeling? Do the adults around him make this better or worse? How do the other children in the class react towards him? What does Antonio do at school on the first day; is he a good pupil? What happens at lunch time?
c. Homework: pupils search the web for information concerning the education situation of Hispanics and Anglos in US schools.
Pupils should ideally be given several days for such a webquest.(12)

Lesson 8
Landeskunde: Hispanics and their education problems.
a. Presentation of results.

Problems which could come to light here are the lower socio-economic backgrounds of many of the families, the problem of language use (whether bilingual or monolingual – different U.S. states have different projects), poor perspectives regarding jobs, etc. It is also a good idea to present the pupils with statistics and have them describe and analyse them as additional material, as is suggested in the Richtlinien for NRW.
b. Can we refer this to our own situation (immigrant children in the German education system)?
Again, this is an important transfer activity to promote intercultural awareness in our pupils.
c. Homework: write a newspaper article based on the information collected, or put together a wallchart to be presented as a poster to the class.

Lesson 9
a. Presentation of homework.
b. Parallel text – Sandra Cisneros "No Speak English" from House on Mango Street. (loss of identity, language problems, generation differences).

Mamacita is a very large woman whose husband has brought her and their child from Mexico to Mango Street. She never leaves her apartment, and refuses to learn English, pining every day for Mexico, to the disgust of her husband. Then her baby boy sings a Pepsi commercial he heard on TV, and Mamacita becomes hysterical, crying, "No speak English!" Here the use of language shows how, for Mamacita, the American dream is a nightmare. Her refusal to speak English is a refusal to assimilate herself into a culture to which she feels she does not belong. Her last link to home is the sound of its language.

Unit 5. Ultima and her Magic (Chapters 10-12)

There is always something unexplained and unexplainable about Ultima, and the fact that she seems to move between two belief systems and two worlds mean that the reader never really knows the full extent of life’s secrets. Her spiritual outlook and her healing powers are essential to the novel, making her an instrument of higher forces at work. Her character combines the elements of indigenous and European cultures (i.e. paganism and Catholicism). There are several examples of her magical powers in the novel; in these three chapters we basically witness her curing Antonio’s uncle Lucas from the curse of a witch and sticking pins in clay dolls to punish the witches (i.e. Tenorio’s daughters).(13)

The folk healers (male curandero, female curandera) are regarded as practitioners of the positive unseen forces in the society of the southwest, and their rituals also contain elements from the Catholic Church in this region, such as blessings in the name of God or the saints and the use of the cross. Though curanderos/as are regarded as being able to heal most illnesses, they are most often consulted to counteract the magic of negative forces, represented by the witches (male brujo, female bruja). Any long-term, more serious ailment or death which does not respond to traditional medicine or to the help of the Catholic Church may be attributed to brujería and demands the attention of the local folk healer.(14)

The mob scene in Chapter 12 shows the ambivalent position of someone like Ultima. On the one hand, she is respected, and people come to her for help. On the other hand, people fear her powers and want to harm her when they think she is a witch.(15)

As far as the Golden Carp is concerned, it is significant as Antonio’s confrontation with a non-Christian belief. It is a natural, pagan deity compared to the Catholic God Antonio is used to worshipping. It has never been caught, Cico tells Antonio, because adults cannot see it. After the first group of sinners had been turned into carps, Cico relates, a new group arrived who were even worse; and for this reason the Golden Carp prophesied that the whole town and all its sinners would be immersed under water due to the weight of their sins. Antonio’s first sighting of the carp in Chapter 11 (“The orange of the golden carp appeared at the edge of the pond … We watched in silence at the beauty and grandeur of the great fish”) shows its awe-inspiring beauty and the way in which Antonio is fascinated and transfixed by its majestic power. It also prompts him to raise doubts about his Christian faith. These doubts go hand in hand with the way in which the Catholic Church is not able to help the people that Ultima subsequently heals.

Lesson 10
a. Brainstorming: instances in the novel when Ultima could work her "magic".
b. Introduction of term "magical realism").

In magical realism, the writers "interweave, in an ever-shifting pattern, a sharply etched realism in representing ordinary events and descriptive details together with fantastic and dreamlike elements" (Abrams, 1993:135). In other words, it is the placement of naturalistic (i.e. realistic) and supernatural details side by side in a piece of literature. The teacher could also consult
c. The role of Ultima’s owl.
d. Discussion of Ultima’s healings.

Lesson 11
The Golden Carp
a. Pupils find examples of places in the novel where the Golden Carp and its significance for Antonio are mentioned.
b. The significance of the Golden Carp and pagan beliefs in the novel. Pupils find evidence in the text.

Unit 6. The Church (Chapters 16-19)

The doubts in Antonio’s mind discussed in Chapters 10-12 are intensified in the following chapters. Much of the novel is about Antonio’s doubts, and at the same time about his preparation for the first communion. In Chapter 16 his thoughts as to why God can allow evil and death are intensified, and he begins to pray more regularly to the Virgen de Guadalupe. He is convinced that his first communion will bring an epiphany and that he will hear God’s voice with all the answers he has been hoping for. He really wants to believe in God, but his friend Florence denies the existence of heaven, hell and God. At the same time, Antonio believes in the god-like goodness of the Golden Carp. (Compare this, for example, to Antonio’s conversation with Cico in Chapter 21.)

Of course, during Easter Mass, Antonio waits in vain to hear God’s voice: "I called again to the God that was within me, but there was no answer. Only emptiness. I turned and looked at the statue of the Virgin. She was smiling, her outstretched arms offering forgiveness to all [...] It was over." (221)

Antonio also witnesses that the church leaders themselves can be brutal. Father Byrnes punishes Florence undeservedly, making him stand in the bright sunlight of the aisle with his arms outstretched. At this moment Antonio realizes that Florence does not fear eternity – yet the Catholic faith is based on fear. Antonio wishes Florence, an atheist and existentialist, would at least believe in the Golden Carp. However, Antonio never gets that chance to tell him because Florence – a good swimmer – dies in a swimming accident in Chapter 21.

The dreams on pages 119-112 and 172-176 reflect Antonio’s state of mind and doubt. In the dream at the end of Chapter 11 (pp. 119-112), Antonio dreams of a great lake with rotting bodies of sinners. He suddenly sees his mother, who tells him that those baptised in the holy waters of the moon (viz Luna) will be saved. His father, however, tells him that Antonio was baptized in the waters of the see (viz Márez), linking him to the golden carp. Thus the dream reflects his own conflict as he learns about a moral order which competes with Christianity. In the dream it is Ultima who solves the problem by saying that both types of water flow into the sea: "The waters are one" (121). In the dream at the end of Chapter 14 (pp. 172-176) we see that he has gained a greater understanding of the belief surrounding the Golden Carp, and he sees that it also promises salvation: the carp swallows both good and evil as it decides that "everyone should survive, but in new form" (176), suggesting that the destruction of the earth is an act of purification, not purgatory as the Church suggests, and that death must first take place for rebirth to happen.(16) The carp’s golden body then becomes a new sun that shines on a new earth.

Lesson 12
a. Brainstorming of vocabulary items from the novel which are connected i) with paganism and ii) with the church (about 35 items per category).
Examples are i) curandera, incantation, bruja, owl, golden carp, ...; and ii) padre, to genuflect, absolved, anointment, sacrament, catechism, Purgatory, penance, salvation, ...
b. Question for class discussion: Have you ever been in a situation in which you doubted your faith/religion? What is your faith?
Because this is a personal question which may not apply to every member of the class, the teacher could ask for volunteers to prepare the basis for the discussion either in the form of an essay to be read out in class or in the form of notes for a free oral report.
c. Prepare discussion in groups for either the scenes in which Antonio is learning for his first communion, the first communion itself, or the scene in which he and Florence are beaten by the rest of the group (to be finished for homework).

Lesson 13
a. Presentation of results from groups.
b. Homework: imagine Antonio goes to the priest to talk about his doubts and/or his disappointment. Write a dialogue. Or write Antonio’s diary entry for the day after the first communion.

Lesson 14
a. Close reading of the dreams on pages 119-122 and 172-176.
b. In how far do these dreams reflect Antonio’s state of mind? In how far do they foreshadow events? In what way is God represented here? And the Golden Carp?

Unit 7. Life and Death (Chapters 20-22)

Antonio experiences many deaths in the course of the novel: Chávez’s brother, the sheriff, is shot by Lupito; Lupito is subsequently shot by a group of locals who have gone out to hunt for him(17); the Trementina sisters, Tenorio’s daughters, die one by one as their evil curses set on others come back to them(18); Narciso is killed by Tenorio because he wants to warn Ultima that Tenorio is out to kill her; Florence drowns before Antonio can tell him of the Golden Carp; Ultima’s owl, her alter ego, is shot by Tenorio in the hope that this will also kill Ultima; after seeing this, Pedro shoots Tenorio; Ultima dies.

Almost all these deaths centre around the struggle between Ultima and Tenorio, these two characters being the embodiment of good and evil – and many of the deaths occur in front of Antonio’s eyes. This is what Antonio must also consider as he questions his faith in God. By the end of the novel, though, he gains the wisdom that death is part of a great cycle which has been revealed to him in his dreams. Thus, Ultima’s death marks the beginning of Antiono’s manhood, his coming of age.

The final dream (pp. 243-244) is clearly prophetic in nature and deals with the three deaths that Antonio has witnessed personally so far: Narciso, Lupito, and Florence. His friends start fighting, and Antonio wonders how many more will die when the priest pours blood on the alter to signal the death of God. Then Cico kills the golden carp, and its blood runs into the water. Antonio does not know what is left and cries "the magic of Ultima!" But now Florence points to where Tenorio has murdered Ultima’s owl and Ultima has died in pain. Antonio has seen the future: he has seen Ultima’s death. He has witnessed the death of two religions and is left with three ghosts who appear in his dreams.

Lesson 15 a. Pupils work on a diagram of the relationship Ultima/Antonio/Tenorio with references from the text and how this affects Antonio.

b. Close reading of dream on pages 243-244. In how far does this foreshadow events?

Unit 8. Summarizing Thoughts on the Novel and "The Ultima(te) Collection"

Lesson 16
a. The novel as a coming-of-age novel: Who and what particularly influences the way people grow up (brainstorming)?

Likely answers here are: parents, significant others (e.g. close relations), peer groups in the neighbourhood, school friends, teachers, the modern mass media ... Other factors such as social background, ethnic background, the philosophy of the "pleasure principle" in modern society, etc. also play an important role.
b. Describe Antonio’s process of growing up (with analytical/crucial passages from the text).
c. Do you think Antonio’s development as described in the novel is realistic for a 6- to 9-year-old?
Some pupils will regard Antonio’s more philosophical utterances throughout the novel as unrealistic. One must not forget, however, that the narrator is an adult writing in retrospect; therefore the maturity of the reactions could be seen from an adult perspective. Furthermore, there are parallels in other novels (e.g. Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.)
d. What do you think will happen in Antonio’s life as he grows up (idea of Bless Me, Ultima Part 2)?(19)

Lesson 17
a. It is important the sequence ends with some form of “taking stock” of what the pupils have learned about and from the novel. There might still be questions open in the minds of the pupils. Questions such as the following can be raised:
i. Has your opinion of the novel changed now that we have discussed the most important aspects?
ii. The novel has been published in German under the title of Segen der Curandera. Do you think this is an appropriate title?
iii. If you had to make this novel into a film, which scenes do you think would be vital for the film? What well-known actors and actresses would you ask to play the main parts in the film and why?
iv. Which aspect of the novel that we talked about will you most likely remember? Give reasons. And is there anything you think we have not discussed?
v. What about the use of Spanish in the novel? What purpose does it serve? Did it annoy you to have to constantly look words up?

b. Pupils can also decide which pieces of written work should be included in a folder for the whole class. In this case a suggested title for the collection could the “The Ultima(te) Collection”, for which a suitable cover also has to be designed.(20)

Unit 9. Suggested Written Test (Klausur)

Text passage: 246 ("It will be good for you to be ...") to 249 ("I have never forgotten that conversation with my father"). This is one of the rare intimate moments between father and son in the novel.(21)
1. Explain the context in which this extract is set, and in your own words give a brief summary of its contents. [Comprehension/Orientation]
2. Give a brief analysis of Gabriel’s opinions concerning good and evil put forward in this extract. [Analysis]
3. Either: Referring to the conversation in this extract, what do you think Antonio will do when he is grown up? [Evaluation]
Or: Write a first-person narrative (from Gabriel’s point of view) in which he tells his wife about the conversation with Antonio. [Creation of Text]

5. Notes

(1) I would like to thank the students who took part in my Fachdidaktisches Proseminar, "Teaching Chicano Prose" at the English Department of the University of Münster during the winter semester 2004/2005. Their patience in listening to and critical discussion of some of the ideas in this sequence encouraged me to write it; and without their enthusiasm, and gentle persuasion by my good friend Willi Real, it might not have been written. The faults, as they say, are purely my own.

(2) This aspect should not be underestimated. As Collie and Slater (1987) point out: "When a novel, play or short story is explored over a period of time, the result is that the reader begins to 'inhabit' the text. He or she is drawn into the book […] The reader is eager to find out what happens as events unfold; he or she feel close to certain characters and shares their emotional responses.” (p. 5f)

(3) Cf. the recent findings by Peters and Unterweg (2005) and compare them to those by Nünning (1997).

(4) See, for example, the entry in Novels for Students, (edited by David Galens, et al.), volume 12, p. 53.

(5) Krück/Loeser do in fact make a distinction between a diary and a response journal. They argue that a diary is regarded as a tool for finding one’s personal position (thus confidential); journal entries, on the other hand, can even be recorded on tape for the rest of the class to listen to.

(6) This is similar to the questions used by Green (1983) and Real (1995).

(7) See Bracht (1997) for a more detailed discussion of this idea. Bracht expanded the idea for use with Fowles’ The Collector.

(8) The convention curandero/a allows for both masculine and feminine forms.

(9) A good test can be found in Levine/Dennis (1999).

(10) This dream also hints at Antonio’s unease about being caught between the conflicting wishes and lifestyles of his mother and father. This will be discussed in more detail in Unit 3.

(11) An acrostic poem, sometimes called a name poem, uses a word for its subject. Then each line of the poem begins with a letter from the subject word, and the content is concerned with the subject line. This type of poetry does not have to rhyme. In this way the pupils show that they have understood the main characteristics of each character.

(12) Those unfamilar with webquests in the classroom could consult www.webquests.de for some initial ideas.

(13) A striking example in Chapter 20 is the stones raining on the roof of the Téllez house.

(14) For a good definition of curanderismo consult the Handbook of Texas Online website or Elena Avila’s book (see bibliography).

(15) The test suggested by a member of the mob would be that a witch cannot walk through a door marked with holy needles in the shape of a cross. One of them places these needles in the door frame, and the crowd demands that Ultima passes through the door. At that moment, though, a divergence is caused by Ultima’s owl gouging out Tenorio’s eye, and in the resulting commotion only Antonio notices that the needles have in fact fallen to the floor, allowing Ultima to pass. This test is typical in the south-western states of the USA and is still alive today. Those interested should refer to Simmons (1974) and Wilson (forthcoming).

(16) This is common belief among pagans: the Christian Church deliberately perverted the original meaning of "hell" by describing it as a place of damnation and purgatory; but in pagan belief "helja" is the realm of the Godess Hel, a neutral place of fire and water where the soul is cleansed and purified while awaiting to be reborn into the next life. Those interested could also compare this dream with the German fairy tale of "Frau Holle" in order to see the similarities.

(17) This is the first death which prompts Antonio to begin thinking about forgiveness and salvation in the Christian belief.

(18) Antonio’s uncle Lucas almost died because he challenged the sisters when he caught them celebrating a Black Mass in the woods. Ultima was able to cure him and thus make the curse return to the sisters.

(19) Anaya was asked about this dimension, and he replied "... the novel has a structure by which a boy who is very small begins to enquire into who he really is. When you find out who you really are, you become a person of incredible power. [...] I would hope that he would be a shaman, but, you know, a shaman is another kind of priest. The point is not so much what he becomes, [...] to me the important aspect of Bless Me, Ultima is that process of liberation” (Jussawalla, 1998: 134f.)

(20) This is a similar idea to the one suggested by Bracht 1997 and 1999, the former for a class working with John Fowles’ The Collector and the latter with Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It is important to remember that the pupils are the ones who should decide what is included in the collection and the discussions and homework throughout the course form its basis. Geographical, historical and graphic material can also be added if the pupils wish.

(21) In this rare conversation between father and son on pages 246-249, Antonio realises that people regard what they do not understand as “evil” because they are afraid of it. Gabriel explains that wisdom comes with life experience – and that it is much more complicated than swallowing the host at Communion. He also tells Antonio that Ultima’s wisom has certainly come from her years of working with the sick and against evil; it is her understanding that is the source of her magic. Antonio also learns that all the time he has been seeking independence thought – and that he must take responsibility for his own thoughts and actions. He has to make a life of his own and not be a product of either his mother’s or his father’s dreams. Nevertheless, his life will in some way be a fusion of those dreams into something new. As Gabriel says, "Every generation, every man is part of his past. He cannot escape it, but he may reform the old materials, make something new” (247).

6. Bibliography

Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 6th edition. 1993. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Pub.

Anaya, Rudolfo. 1972/1994. Bless Me, Ultima. New York: Warner Books.

Avila, Elena. 1999. Woman Who Glows in the Dark. New York: Tarcher/Putnam.

Bracht, Max. 1997. "The Collector’s Collection. Produktionsorientierte Unterrichtsarbeit am Beispiel von John Fowles’ The Collector (SII)". Der fremdsprachliche Unterricht 31.27: 32-37.

Bracht, Max. 1999. "'Handmade Tales' – Margaret Atwoods Roman The Handmaid’s Tale im produktionsorientierten Fremdsprachenunterricht”. Neusprachliche Mitteilungen 52.4: 229-238.

Cisneros, Sandra. 1991. The House on Mango Street. New York: Vintage Books.

Collie, Joanne/Stephen Slater. 1987. Literature in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP.

Fernández Olmos, Margarite. 1999. Rudolfo A. Anaya: a Critical Companion. Westport, CT / London: Greenwood Press.

Galens, Daivd, et al. Eds. 2002. Novels for Students. Farmington Mills, MI: Gale.

Graham, Joe S. "Curanderismo". The Handbook of Texas Online. Online at www.tsha.utexas.edu/handbook/online/articles/view/CC/sdc1.html (Consulted 3 April 2005)

Green, Jens-Peter. 1983. "Zum Problem der Verständniskontrolle beim extensiven Lesen". Praxis des neusprachlichen Unterrichts 30.1: 5-14.

Jussawalla, Feroza. 1998. "Rudolfo Anaya" in Bruce Dick and Silvio Sirias. Eds. Conversations with Rudolfo Anaya. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi. 131-141.

Kanellos, Nicolas. 2003. Herencia. The Anthology of Hispanic Literature of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press.

Krück, Brigitte, and Kristiane Loeser. 1997. "Effektive Rezeptionsstrategien durch Lesetagebücher". Fremdsprachenunterricht 41.1: 2-10.

Levine, Gloria, and Mary L. Dennis. 1999. Student Packet to Bless Me, Ultima by Rudolfo Anaya. San Antonio, TX: Novel Units Inc.

Martinez, Rubén O. 2003. Cliffs Notes : On Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima. New York : Wiley Publishing.

Ministerium für Schule, Jugend und Kinder des Landes Nordrhein-Westfalen. 1999. Richtlinien und Lehrpläne für die Sekundarstufe II – Gymnasium/Gesamtschule in Nordrhein-Westfalen: English. Frechen: Ritterbach Verlag.

Nünning, Ansgar. 1997. "Literatur ist, wenn das Lesen wieder Spaß macht!" Der Fremdsprachliche Unterricht: Englisch 31/3: 4-12.

Peters, Christoph M, and Friedrich-K. Unterweg. 2005. "Nichts Neues zu vermelden? Eine Umfrage zum Einsatz von Literatur im Englischunterricht der Sekundarstufe II". Neusprachliche Mitteilungen 59/3: 19-25.

Real, Willi. 1995. Lehrerhandreichung: An Inspector Calls, J. B. Priestley. Munich: Langenscheidt-Longman.

Saldívar, Ramón. 1990. Chicano Narrative. The Dialectics of Difference. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Simmons, Marc. 1974. Witchcraft in the Southwest. Spanish and Indian Supernaturalism on the Rio Grande. Lincoln / London: University of Nebraska Press.

Wilson, Graham (forthcoming). "Writing the 'Invisible Realities': Shamanic Initiation and Practice in the Novels of Rudolfo Anaya."

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