Bless Me, Ultima: A Window Into Hispanic Literature
Dr. Catalina Castillón with a Spanish-language copy of Bless Me, Ultima. Photo courtesy of Castillón
Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, is one of the most notable and celebrated books in Hispanic-American literature today. The novel tells the story of young Antonio’s journey to manhood, and the challenges and choices he faces along the way.
As part of Lamar State College/Orange Ron E. Lewis Library’s Big Read program, Dr. Catalina Castillón, associate professor of English and modern languages at Lamar State University in Beaumont, Texas, gave a lecture about the book last Thursday. Castillón discussed the novel, as well as the teaching of Hispanic literature.
“We got people from the community, which I believe is the whole point of this program---to get as many people involved as possible in reading for pleasure,” said Castillón during a phone interview the day after the lecture. “I had a gentleman who came up afterwards and told me he had read about the event in the newspaper, bought the novel at a bookshop, and just finished reading it before the lecture. So I said, ‘Yes, that’s the whole point!’”
Talking to Castillón, a native of Spain, I felt like I was sitting in on her lecture myself. “I wanted to give my audience a sense of the deep literary heritage of Hispanics in the United States, and how you can really feel it when you read Bless Me, Ultima,” she said. The following conversation is rich with her knowledge, expertise, and passion for Anaya’s masterpiece and the world of Hispanic literature.
NEA: What are some interesting points that came up during the discussion following the lecture?
CATALINA CASTILLÓN: Something interesting that people talked about was that they didn’t feel comfortable with the narrator being six years old, but not really communicating as a six year old. They thought this was a flaw in the novel. I explained, “Well, not if you think of it as Antonio remembering as an adult what he did as a child. Or if you think of it as Antonio's inner thoughts in which, then, why does he have to express himself as a six year old?” Some people in the audience said, “Yes, I felt the same, how could this be a six year old?” Or some said, “Yeah but when he's with his friends they do things that children do!” Another said, “Yes, but when they talk about religion, it’s too mature for their age.” I told the audience, listen, we are reading for the pleasure of reading. You don’t have to like or agree with everything you read. But you have to enjoy the process. At the end, someone was upset because you don't know what Antonio is going to do. Is he going to become a priest? Or a farmer? Or a cowboy? I said no, that's the beauty of it! He can become whatever you want.
NEA: What are some themes in the book that you have taught or discussed with students in the past?
CASTILLÓN: During one class I taught this summer, I asked my students to read Bless Me, Ultima. They did fantastic papers. It's a book that has so many layers and is so complex that it really gave them tons of ideas. There was a student who wrote about the bodies of water in the book---the river and the lakes. He discussed the presence of the river as a character in the book. Another student who was studying to become a teacher wrote about how he would teach this to his high school students, and what kind of scenes he would focus on. He focused on the idea of the culture and tradition. Another one wrote on the deep symbolism in the book. Another important theme in Bless Me, Ultima is the oral tradition. It’s a book with not just literary heritage, but a strong oral tradition as well.
NEA: Why is it important for your community to read Bless Me, Ultima?
CASTILLÓN: It's interesting. I came to Lamar University in 1991, and since we are relatively close to Houston, I was expecting this area would have a pretty large Hispanic population. That was not the case. Due to our proximity to Louisiana, there was more of a Cajun flavor. I would say in the last seven or eight years the Hispanic population has started to increase in this area. I have many more Hispanic students in my classes. We are starting to get larger and larger populations, not only of Mexican Americans, but also Central Americans. There is a pretty important Cuban-American community here, also. I think for us, it is important to read Bless Me, Ultima, because as I said before, you get a real sense of the culture. It is obvious from reading the book that religion is important, that family is important, that friendship is important---not only that these things are important, but how they affect life.
NEA: What are some traits that you see in Hispanic literature in the United States?
CASTILLÓN: An approach to teach this is to divide U.S. Hispanic literature into three main categories: literature of the exile, literature of the immigrant, and literature of the native. Literature of the exile means all the people who come to take refuge in the United States for political reasons. They write about staying in this country, but at the same time, they use the freedom of press and speech to talk about their countries freely. What they're looking for is to make a change in the politics of their countries, and then return---sometimes by sending whatever they write, however they can, back into the country. Then we have the literature of the immigrant. Most of the time immigrants come to this country for economic reasons---they're searching for the American dream. Once they get here, sometimes it's not everything they've expected, or they feel that they cannot insert themselves completely in the culture or society here. They miss their homeland. When they write, sometimes they write about their experiences, their difficulties, trying to make it here. How they made it. Because they miss their roots and their traditions, they try to keep the traditions, the culture, the family ties, as much as possible. I believe Bless Me, Ultima belongs to the third kind, which is the literature of the native. Because their land, their country, their place of birth is the United States, this kind of literature mostly focuses on living conditions of Latinos in the U.S. Some of them have been in this country for generations. These native Hispanics do not yearn to return back to Cuba, or back to Puerto Rico, or to Mexico. They are U.S. citizens. Their literature refers to a sense of location within the United States.
NEA: What differences do you see in the writing styles and themes among different Hispanic cultures? How do you believe the writing changes between Spanish, Hispanic-American, and Latin-American authors?
CASTILLÓN: Well, first of all there are differences in grammar. For example, in Spain, we use the “vosotros” which is the informal “you” plural. In Latin America, they don't use that. They use the formal “you” plural, which is the "ustedes." They use that for both formal and informal. So, when you start reading, you can tell right away just by those little nuances if the writer is from Spain or from Latin America. Then, you also have the whole dialect and vocabulary. There are some words specific to Mexico versus Argentina, or Spain versus Cuba, for example. There are certain aspects of the use of the language that you can tell right away where the author is from. I must admit that when I first began seriously reading Latin-American literature, every once in a while I had to go find out what the meaning of the word was. Sometimes they use words that I have never used before in Spain. Those are the most direct ways I can tell you the differences. But then, of course, there are the cultural differences. I always tell my students, if you want to know what other culture is like, how they view life, how they relate to each other in their communities in their societies, a very good way to learn is through their literature. If I read García Márquez, I learn about Colombia. If I read Borges, I learn about Argentina. You learn about their way of thinking, you learn about their culture, and you can start to understand their people.
NEA: What are some important ways you think the book has impacted the Hispanic community in the U.S.?
CASTILLÓN: Bless Me, Ultima has helped make Hispanics in the United States more visible. It is now a part of the canon. If you read Hispanic literature in the United States you HAVE to read Bless Me, Ultima. Winning the Quinto Sol award was also important; it gave the book a real literary presence. It’s a book that's read by many people, too, not just Hispanics. I could see this yesterday with the audience, which was pretty mixed. I think it invokes a sense of pride, knowing that we have somebody like Rudolfo Anyaya to represent us. Someone who is such a good writer, who helped to get people interested in what Hispanics are all about. He really has given us an artistic product, a literary creation.
NEA: How do you think Hispanic literature has impacted American literature in general?
CASTILLÓN: Hispanics in the United States have transformed the culture of this country. They have contributed to its development and have built special cultural patterns that are now intrinsic to its essence. Due to the constant fluidity between the literature explained earlier---the literature of the exile, the immigrant, and the native---Hispanic literature in the United States is in constant change. It goes from generation to generation. It keeps active, and keeps moving and exploring. I do believe that reading opens eyes. Not only is the writer exploring when he writes, but the reader, also.
NEA: How do you believe the book applies to the world, not just the Hispanic community or the United States?
CASTILLÓN: The way I see the book is as a coming of age story. This plays into a very international kind of genre. There are those kinds of novels all over, throughout cultures, so that makes it pretty trans-national. There is this idea of searching for identity, which is the main challenge Antonio faces. Do I want to be a priest like my mother wants me to be? Do I want to be a farmer like my mom's family? Or do I want to be a vaquero, a cowboy? It’s also important to understand that Hispanics are bilingual, bicultural most of the time. Hispanic literature is a bilingual, bicultural literature.
NEA: What books or authors would you recommend to someone interested in reading more Hispanic literature?
CASTILLÓN: These are a good start: The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros,Klail City by Rolando Hinojosa, and …And the Earth Did Not Devour Him by Tomás Rivera. Also, anthologies such as: Short Fiction by Hispanic Writers of the United States, edited by Nicolas Kanellos, and Hispanic, Female and Young: An Anthology, edited by Phyllis Tashlik.