Antonio, a boy who is the son of people from two different traditions
within Mexican-American heritage: the farming Lunas and the vaquero MÃ¡rezes.
The fact that there is more than one god in the protagonist's heritage.
In order to reconcile himself to his heritage, he must find a way to bring
all of his competing religious deities into harmony with one another.
The climax occurs during Antonio's first communion. He has been told
that he will gain understanding when he takes communion, but he does not.
He doesn't feel any communication from the Catholic God. He responds by
going toward the god of the river, the golden carp, since it is a god
that doesn't punish, but only brings peace and beauty to the world.
Ultima dies and Antonio is left to find his own way. He has been fully
prepared for this event and seems sure of himself as a spiritual person.
Bless Me, Ultima begins when Ultima comes to stay with Antonio's family one summer when he is seven years old. She is a curandera, a healer who uses herbs and sympathetic magic to cure people and to stop curses. Antonio dreams of his own birth the night before Ultima arrives. When he was born, his father's people, the vaqueros, and his mother's people, the Lunas, who are farmers, fought over which direction Antonio's life would take. At the moment of crisis, Ultima, who had delivered him as a midwife, says she will be the one who sees what Antonio's destiny is. The night Ultima arrives, Antonio dreams that Ultima's owl (a physical embodiment of her spirit) lifts the Virgin and carries her up to heaven. Antonio helps Ultima gather herbs and learns from her the uses for all the herbs and the ancient method for gathering them.
One night a man from town who has been emotionally hurt by the war kills another man. A posse comes after him and Antonio sees the man shot. At the edge of the river, Antonio takes his confession and prays the Act of Contrition for him. Antonio senses a presence in the river. He dreams that night of his three brothers, who are away at war, and the presence of the river. Antonio worries about the Roman Catholic doctrine that says the man, Lupito, who was shot by the posse, will go to hell because he died with a mortal sin on his soul. He wonders if the River would forgive if it were an alternative god.
At home, his father, Gabriel is unhappy. He has moved close to the town for the benefit of his wife who was never happy living on the llano (prairie), but it makes him unhappy. Unlike Maria, Antonio's mother, a devout Catholic, Gabriel does not believe in Christianity. He wants his sons to come home so they can move to California and work together. Antonio hears the story of his mother's ancestor--a priest who led the first colony of people from Mexico to settle the land. They named their village El Puerto de la Luna. Antonio's mother wants him to be a priest. When Ultima goes to church, Antonio hears people whisper about her. They say she is a woman without sin and others say she is a witch. Antonio joins a gang of boys from the town.
Antonio loves to gather herbs with Ultima. They are both happy in this task. They feel the presence of the river together. When they go home, Antonio thinks of the Virgin of Guadalupe in his mother's sala, to whom she prays incessantly. She is a manifestation of the Virgin Mary. She appeared to a Mexican boy and since then people in the area worship her. Antonio goes with his mother and sisters to El Puerto to visit his uncles and to help gather in the harvest. He hears stories of a family of witches, the Trementina sisters, who dance a black Sabbath with the Devil. Their father is Tenorio, a man who keeps a saloon and a barber shop in the village.
When Antonio returns home, he goes to school for the first time. His mother insists that he will be a man of learning. Ultima tells them he will indeed be a man of learning. Maria wants him to be a priest. Antonio hears about the end of the war. He dreams of his brother's return. The next day, his brothers return home. They are morose and uncommunicative. It is clear they will not be following their father to California to fulfill his dream of working together. In the spring the brothers still haven't done anything. They sleep all day and go to the pool hall or the house of prostitution at night. They talk of leaving constantly. Antonio dreams that his brothers encourage him to go into the house of prostitution. His brother, Andrew tells him he won't go into the house of prostitution until Antonio has lost his innocence. Antonio wonders constantly about what innocence means. Everyone gives him a different answer. His mother tells him when he takes his first communion he will gain understanding. Ultima tells him innocence exists in the land. One day his two oldest brother leave home. Antonio is doing so well in school he will be skipping the second grade.
When he is not in school, Antonio fishes with his friend Samuel. Samuel tells him the story of the golden carp, a god of the river. In ancient times, the gods let the people settle in this fertile valley. They gave them everything but told them not to eat the carp. When a drought came, and food was scarce, the people ate the carp. The gods retaliated by turning the people into carp. One god took pity on them and asked the other gods if he could join the people and give them comfort. He is the golden carp. Antonio is drawn by the story but he doesn't know how to reconcile this story of a god with his belief in the Christian god.
That summer Antonio helps Ultima cure his Uncle Lucas who has been cursed by the Trementina sisters for interrupting their black mass. Ultima uses Antonio in the healing ceremony. He takes on the sickness of his uncle because he is pure and the evil is expelled. It comes out in a wriggling mass of hair. The sisters had used his hair in initiating the curse against him. When Antonio returns home, he goes fishing with Cico. Cico takes him to Narciso's garden, a fabulously abundant place. Narciso is a sort of Pan figure. He worships the earth and is rewarded with a beautiful and fruitful garden. That day, Antonio sees the golden carp. Cico tells him only believers can see it. Adults and others cannot. He tells him the land where they are living used to be a sea and that the golden carp has promised to punish the people if they keep sinning. The god will flood the town. Ultima worries about the retribution against her for turning the curse that was laid on Lucas back onto the Trementina sisters. She gives Antonio her scapular as protection.
The people of Pasturas visit the family. They are the vaqueros, old companeros of Gabriel, Antonio's father. They tell the story of the land. First there were sheepherders. Then they brought cattle from Mexico. With the cattle, they became vaqueros (cowboys). This free way of life came to an end when the Tejanos (people from Texas) came and fenced the land. One night, Narciso shows up and warns the family that a posse is out intending to lynch Ultima for the death of Tenorio's daughter. It is led by Tenorio who claims Ultima is a witch. When the posse arrives, Ultima passes its test and they leave.
Antonio takes another trip to El Puerto. He looks for a non-punishing God. He thinks it might be the Virgin Mary. He thinks only women know how to forgive. At harvest time, he hears his uncles tell stories of the witches, the Trementina sisters. When he returns home, he begins the third grade. That Christmas, the school plans a nativity play, but the day it is planned turns out to be a blizzard. Only the boys show up to school. The play goes on and is a disaster with the boys making fun of every part of what is supposed to be a holy scene of the birth of Christ.
On his way home, Antonio witnesses a fight between Narciso and Tenorio. Tenorio had been insulting Ultima and Narciso was defending her. Tenorio gets away and Narciso realizes he needs to warn Ultima. He is in no shape to make it to her so he goes in search of Andrew. Antonio follows him at a distance. He is shocked to see that Andrew is in the house of prostitution. Andrew refuses to come and help. Narciso goes alone and Antonio follows behind him. Antonio falls behind in the blizzard. He hears a shot and sees that Narciso has been killed. He finds him before he dies and prays the Act of Contrition over him. When he gets home, he has a fever. That night he dreams that he is rejected by God because of his allegiance to the golden carp. In this dream, Ultima is powerless. Antonio has a fever for days. When he recovers, he rejects Andrew as a good model for him. Leon and Eugene, his two other older brothers, arrive home for Christmas. Antonio is preoccupied with preparing for his first Holy Communion. He is eager for it because he believes all his vexing questions will be answered on that day. The family is not altogether surprised when all three older brothers leave without notice.
Antonio goes to catechism in the church. He also hears his father's ideas of spiritual life. His father believes the earth has a voice and that it will wreak vengeance upon people for misusing it. For Gabriel, to sin is to misuse the land. He hears Florence, who is an atheist and thinks God is powerless against evil. Antonio entertains the idea that maybe God is gone at present and that other gods are ruling in place of God. When they are late for catechism, Florence is punished with a torturing hour of pain and Antonio is excused. Ash Wednesday arrives, the day to remember the crucifixion of Christ. When Antonio tries to take seriously the stations of the cross, he can't help but be distracted by his friends' silliness. On the day of his first confession, his friends make him do a mock confession outside the church. He plays the priest and hears the confessions of two boys who get more thrills out of their sins than repentance. Then his friends want him to confess Florence. Antonio tries to get away, but they force him. Florence says he has no sins. The other children torture him in punishment. Antonio refuses to give him penance. The other children tear his mock priest's robe off. On Easter Sunday, Antonio is excited to be able to take his First Communion so he will have God inside him and have answers to all his questions, but when he takes the wafer in his mouth, he gets no answers and feels no connection with God.
Tenorio's second daughter is dying. A man from the Agua Negra ranch comes to Ultima to ask for help. His home is being haunted. Ultima takes Antonio and Gabriel and they go to the ranch. She determines that Tenorio is getting back at Tellez for a slight one day in his barber shop. Tenorio has wakened the ghosts of three Comanche Indians who were lynched by one of Tellez's ancestor and never properly buried. Ultima performs a burial ceremony in the Comanche way and the curse is lifted. Antonio is preoccupied with the continued silence of God at all the communions he has taken since his first communion. He meets Cico one day in Spring and they go and see the golden carp. Cico tells Antonio the people had many local gods before the Spaniards brought the Christian God and that they don't need a celestial god when they have so many gods in their backyard. They decide to bring Florence to see the golden carp since it is a god that does not punish, but only brings peace and beauty. When they go out to find Florence, they find that Florence has drowned while diving in the river.
Ultima sends Antonio to see is uncles in El Puerto because he has seen
too much death. On the way there, he has a significant talk with his father.
His father tells him he will give up the old argument between the Marezes
and the Lunas. Antonio wonders if a new religion can be formed. His father
tells him understanding comes with life. He has a wonderful summer learning
how to plant. At the end of the summer, he finds out that Tenorio has
once again threatened Ultima. He is caught on the road by Tenorio who
tries to kill him. He gets away and runs the ten miles back home to his
house, but as he arrives he finds Tenorio has shot Ultima's owl (her animal
spirit). He knows this means Ultima will die. He talks to Ultima on her
deathbed and she gives him instructions about where to bury the owl and
what to do with her herbs. She dies and he immediately takes the owl and
buries it where she said. He knows that the town will give Ultima a burial
the next day, but in reality, he is burying her that night. He faces his
future with the assurance gained from all her lessons.