Bless Me Ultima: Female Characters and Liminality

I was reading an analytical essay on Bless Me Ultima, as an attempt to understand the novel better and came across an interesting description of females in this book. This author claimed that the female characters can be categorized into two groups: good vs. evil. On one side of the dichotomy is Maria Luna (the mother) and the Virgin of Guadalupe, while the other side is represented by some prostitutes and three witches. On the “good” side of the dichotomy, we arguably associate daughters, wives and mothers as they are often modest and the heart of the home, and their chore work and dedication to husbands and children are what define their role in society. In fact, we see this in the first pages of the novel with the description of Maria as Antonio describes her in the kitchen as “the heart of [their] home, [his] mother’s kitchen”. This perspective of his mother remains unchanged throughout the novel, even though the relationship between Antonio and his mother may have shifted; we see that as Antonio becomes more mature Maria loses some authority as a mother, so she relegates to her role as a wife and by the end Antonio speaks to her mom more as a man and she simply “nod[s] and obey[s]” without question.

Ultima, however, is not so easy to define; while she is the main female character, she does not seem to fit into either category. For while she does complete housework, spew patriarchal ideas and criticizes the three witches to Antonio, she is also a curandera whose habits do not follow a traditional patriarchal role for women. What is also interesting about Ultima, is her religious and spiritual practices; while she respects Catholicism and uses religious expressions in her language, she also exercises magical practices and folk medicine. This relates to another topic discussed in the aforementioned article; liminality (@Craig). While this term has come up in class a multitude of times, I never really knew the full definition. One definition states that it is “a borderland state of ambiguity and indeterminacy, a transformational state characterized by a certain openness and relaxation of rules, leading those who participate in the process a new perspective and possibilities”. However, relating it back to the book and its characters we can say that “the features of liminality are ambiguous; that is, they are outside of all society’s standard classification”. Relating it back to Ultima, her character is rather ambiguous and hard to place; she does not fit into one classification and stands between the positions that are traditionally assigned by laws, customs and conventions. This is certainly visible in her peculiar blending of religious and spiritual practices, particularly in regard to her death. She states to Antonio’s father “as she peered into the dying fire and smiled” that “perhaps this would be the best burial you could provide me.” Here, she signals that she would rather be burnt than buried in a cemetery. In the same breath, Ultima expresses that she does not want to use a traditional Catholic casket because she “think[s] the confines of a damp casket will bother [her] too. This way the spirit soars immediately into the wind of the llano, and the ashes blend quickly into the earth”. Earlier in the novel, we saw that the Trementina sisters were “proved” to be witches since they did not use coffin, but rather a “basket woven of cottonwood branches”. As such, this scene depicts a stark contrast in Ultima’s character from the beginning of the novel, that is to say,  Ultima’s connection to witchcraft seems to be stronger by the end of the novel which further pushes the liminality of her character. In the end, her body will be buried in a cemetery as a good Christian does, but her soul is buried in a non-Christian way by Antonio burying the owl under a juniper tree. Ultima’s expressions in these scenes (wanting to be burnt instead of buried, and symbolizing the owl as her soul) are clear examples of her liminality and certainly speaks to her very interesting character.

2 thoughts on “Bless Me Ultima: Female Characters and Liminality

  1. There is a lot of “good vs evil” in the book as a whole, isn’t there? I’m not sure, in other words, that this is a dichotomy that simply applies to the female characters. But the question of gender roles is definitely interesting, as we’ve mentioned (if only briefly) in some of our discussions. I do find almost shocking that moment at which Antonio’s arrival at manhood is marked by the fact that he can now tell his mother what to do, and she obeys. There are certainly ways in which this novel reinforces some very traditional gender expectations. And yes, as you point out, Ultima in some ways escapes those expectations: she is and is not associated with the home and hearth; she has a position in the broader community that is respected by many, at least at moments of crisis. Perhaps in the end this is why Tenorio sees her as a “bruja”?

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  2. I like how you brought up the female representation in the novel. When I was reading about Tenorio’s daughters and how people were calling them witches, I was reminded of an idea that I was taught in one my classes about feminism in the Hispanic culture. The idea that people believed that there were only two labels that could be put on a woman. The traditional sort of woman, that can be found in Antonio’s mom since she is always found in the kitchen and is always tending to her family and the other label is the dangerous one, the sinful woman which can be found through Tenorio’s daughters and the women in Rosie’s house. The novel does follow the division of two different types of women, except in Ultima as she defies these labels.

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