Anaya plots the novel according to the seasons of the year. The novel
has the rhythm of the seasons. It opens in the spring when Ultima comes.
It ends after the harvest time in the Fall when Ultima dies. In between,
at least two years pass. Antonio goes to his first year of school, skips
second grade, and goes to his third year of school. School occurs in winter,
the time when children are not needed on the farms. The summers are spent
by the sacred river, learning the lore of herbs with Ultima, and learning
the legend of the golden carp with Cico and Samuel. The church calendar
also works according to the seasons. The novel takes the reader from Lent,
through Ash Wednesday, to Easter Sunday. Then the reader sees the Christmas
pageant put on at Antonio's school. Each of these events is tied to a
season, especially Easter, the time of spring and resurrection. Over the
course of these short years, Antonio grows immensely in maturity, though
he is quite mature even at the opening of the novel.
The main theme of the novel concerns Antonio's struggle to come into his own, to fuse the two parts of his heritage. The world of the New Mexico of this novel is ruled by the Church. However, despite the Church's hegemony, the strength of indigenous belief system come to light. The people who have this dual heritage have managed to live under the Church's edicts while still practicing more ancient religious rites. This syncretism, or co-existence of two competing belief systemsis the struggle of the young narrator's boyhood.
Antonio has plenty of models in syncretism. Ultima is a practitioner of ancient religion of the earth while at the same time a Catholic who observes the Catholic calendar and goes to mass regularly. Maria is a devout Catholic who nevertheless recognizes that sometimes the power of the priests fail and the power at Ultima's disposal is more effective. All the people of the region believe that it is possible to use the power of the church, manifested in the cross and in holy water, to combat witches. Antonio, however, being a child and taking everything as a first question, has not yet learned to rest in the contradictions. He takes seriously the Christian God's determination that It be the only god people worship. He knows that he cannot accept the golden carp or the presence of the river without adjusting his Catholicism in some way. Syncretism is as ancient as Catholicism. Yet it can never rest easy. It is always a contradiction in terms. Antonio resolves his dilemma by letting go a little of the doctrines of Catholicism and the belief in the all-mighty power of God. The closest he comes to a solution is in his recognition that a true Christian practices the spirit of the law--to love one another--while a dogmatic Christian only practices the letter of the law and therefore spends most of the time like Lloyd, judging others.
The minor theme of Anaya's novel concerns the combat between Ultima's vision of the interconnections between the land and the people, an interconnection that enables healing and health and the negative forces represented by the Trementina sisters, and their father, Tenorio, who represent death and separation. This theme is actually connected to many other parts of the novel. The contest between the proponent of good--Ultima--and the proponents of evil--has more to do with the simplistic Manichean divide of good and evil, God and the Devil than it has to do with the right use of the land and the kindly connection one feels to one's neighbors. While Ultima is a healer who spends her life working to help her community, the Trementina sisters have separated themselves from community. Ultima uses the power of nature to help, while the Trementina sisters use the power of nature to hurt. The real contest though of the novel is between Ultima and Tenorio. Tenorio is actually part of the community. He owns a bar and a barber shop. He has little trouble getting together a posse against Ultima when he suspects her of having had a part in the death of his daughter. It is in this fact that the reader sees the ambiguous place of Ultima in her community. She is called both a woman who has never sinned and a witch. Her powers put her outside the norms of her community even as she uses her powers to help her community. The novel, however, insistently points out that Ultima stands for the good and that the good is always stronger than evil. Gabriel is more specific: Ultima is good because of her sympathy with the people.
Antonio learns from Ultima's determined sympathy with people how to
deal with is theological questions. He learns that he must trust that
all is unified and whole even though he might not at present see it and
he must always keep his sense of rightness attached to the way he treats
people. Despite doctrine, Antonio will treat people according to his conscience
as he as seen Ultima do.
1. What are some of the major syncretic (blending of systems of religious
beliefs) moments in the novel?
2. How does Anaya represent the Roman Catholic Church in this novel? Does
it come across as a life-giving or life-denying institution?
3. Why does Anaya persistently satirize the ceremonies of the church with
the boys of Los Jaros? What function does it serve to bring down the seriousness
of sacred rites with the laughter of the body?
4. What is the role of women in the novel?
5. What are some of the forms of earth worship in the novel?
6. Examine the history of the region. Name the different histories represented
in the novel and determine how the novel shows that the past is still
7. Trace the conflict between Ultima and Tenorio.
8. What evidence is there that Ultima is more complex than the simple equation
good/evil that Tenorio's posse wants to use for her?
9. What is the story of the golden carp? How is it connected to the Presence
of the River?
10. Antonio thinks in the end that the golden carp is not a judgmental god.
However, earlier in he novel, Samuel mentioned that the golden carp had
promised to flood the town if the people didn't stop sinning. How do you
reconcile this contradiction?
11. At the first of the novel, the Virgin Mary is featured prominently. However,
she is not so important to the resolution of Antonio's beliefs. Trace
the images of the Virgin Mary and account for this falling off.
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