Multicultural ‘Bless Me Ultima’ threatens white conservatives


Illustration by Katelyn Roberts

In 2006, Arizona Superintendent of Public Education Tom Horne ordered the closing of Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American Studies program.

Since its inception in 1998, MAS had received wide praise for fostering increased graduation rates and high student achievement among Mexican-American students.

Horne’s successor, John Huppenthal, upheld the ban in 2010. His action came on the heels of Senate Bill 1070, which targeted Mexican-Americans as a whole.

A companion House Bill 2281 passed by an extremely conservative state legislature charged MAS with fomenting left-wing ideas, promoting racism and classism against Anglos, and covertly advocating overthrow of the U.S. government.

The bill specifically banned a number of books from all TUSD curricula.

A few of the many banned books included “Rethinking Columbus” by Bill Bigelow, “Chicano! A History of the Mexican-America Civil Rights Movement in Pictures” by Elizabeth Martinez and “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” by Paulo Freire.

Other books were simply removed from school library shelves and placed under lock and key interdiction. Among these was “Bless Me Ultima” by Rodolfo Anaya, which was published in 1972.

“Bless Me Ultima” is a classic of Chicano literature and has garnered international acclaim. It is one of the most widely read of any American literary works and has been translated into many languages.

It is considered a seminal work in the emergence of an entire genre, and created academic respect for Chicano literature.

What was, or is, so subversive about a story set in 1940s New Mexico that explores a young boy’s apprenticeship to an old midwife and healer named Ultima?

In lyrical passages describing the landscape, they navigate the high plains and woods – llanos y bosques – in search of curing herbs and roots, following the rhythm of the moon and the seasons.

He accompanies her to the curing of sick people and witnesses her strength and power in the face of an evil-doer. She counsels him on the ways of the heart and what it takes to be a man. When Ultima dies, he asks for her blessing to guide him through life.

The portrait painted in Anaya’s words is of a world where religions and cultures blend. Conflicts are resolved through understanding of complex, rather than simplistic, world visions.

The boy is often puzzled by the discrepancies between his mother’s Catholic devotion and the priest’s uncompromising catechism, and the Earth-centered practices of a curandera, a healer.

Ultima has as her companion an owl, which is also her soul-double. When it is killed by an evil man, it takes her along into death.

To Ultima, the Virgin is the spirit of the healing Earth. This portrait is one of a living culture, a composite of blended Pueblo and Spanish rituals, traditions and beliefs.

Reading this story broadens one’s perspectives and understanding of culture and religion.

Given the hostility of present-day conservatives to the Mexican-American presence in the Southwest, it becomes clear how such a multi-stranded way of thinking and being could appear as a threat.

It challenges a monolithic worldview centered on fundamentalist Christianity and the predominant Anglo ruling class.

After all, the American ethos is of a “melting pot” to absorb waves of immigrants. Unlike the Canadian concept of a “quilt” made up of distinct units forming a harmonious whole, the melting pot is a crucible that expunges differences.

The melting pot is a bonfire of all variety, with its final product an alloy meant to closely resemble the Anglo ideal.

There is no room in this alloy for mystical thinking, for other languages or cultural trends.

Thus, “Bless Me Ultima” was perceived by educational authorities as inimical to existing power structures rooted in white supremacy.

It is similar to the 19th and early 20th century attempts to eradicate Native American Indian cultures by forcibly herding children into boarding schools. Speaking indigenous languages was punished and strict codes of dress and behavior enforced, erasing their identities.

Banning “Bless Me Ultima” represents a 21st century form of ethnic cleansing, of cultural genocide.

Whether banned or withdrawn from circulation, preventing students from reading this important work of American literature impoverishes education in Arizona. It narrows the range of possibilities for people of all ages, cultures and religions.

The more we learn about others, the more open our minds are to the varieties of human experience.

Learning about others helps us create a peaceful and cohesive world family, where differences are cherished, appreciated and, above all, accepted.

Pima Community College student Maria Cadaxa originally wrote this essay as part of Banned Books Week activities held Sept. 26-Oct. 1 at Downtown Campus.

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