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The protagonist and the narrator of the novel, Antonio is a bridge figure. He bridges the divide between the various parts of his heritage. He learns to do this with the help of his mentor, Ultima. Part of what enables Antonio to bridge such large rifts in belief systems and ways of life is his open-minded questioning of all he learns and sees. He is a very sensitive and introspective boy, who often seems much older than his years. He is sensitive to the hypocrisies of the church, the faults of its doctrines, and the harshness of its members. Yet he is not a reactive kind a person. Despite his questions, he remains in catechism and goes through all the rites of children his age, namely first confession and first Holy Communion. The fact that he feels no communion with God on the day of his first communion does not make him abandon the church; it just makes him ask more questions and seek other avenues of enlightenment. He is also sensitive to her rhythms and magic of the earth. This makes him open to the lessons of Ultima and the revelations of Cico and Samuel about the living spirit of the earth. Antonio’s non-reactive nature comes in again when he first witnesses the golden carp and recognizes it as a god. He doesn’t immediately change his allegiance to his mother’s religion. He tries to find a way to let them co-exist together.
Among his friends, Antonio’s age seems even more at variance with his years. Unlike his friends who tend to be unthinking and insensitive to each other and to the spiritual nature of life, he always stands back and watches. Yet he also doesn’t judge them even when it is clear they are blaspheming by the standards of the Church. Antonio has a strong commitment to the idea that no one should judge anyone else, including his gods. It is his dissatisfaction with the strict doctrines of the church which so easily and readily condemns people to everlasting torment that makes Antonio search so earnestly for an alternative religion. At first, he tries to find it within what the Church gives him. He favors the Virgin Mary because she is not known as a judge. Her role is to forgive and intervene. Antonio is called upon several times to judge others. He always refuses to do so, except for the time he wishes someone would be able to punish Tenorio. Anaya, therefore, doesn’t make this non-judgmental stand pat or easy for Antonio.
Antonio seems to be especially influenced by women. However, what at first seems like a proto-feminist stance on Anaya’s part turns out to be a nostalgized version of a particular kind of woman, one who does not threaten the status quo of gender relations. Ultima is a independent woman, but she also works in the kitchen and does not interfere in men’s business. Maria is fully a kitchen woman. She prays obsessively and seems remotely in touch with reality around her. By the end of the novel, the ascendance of women in Antonio’s life is cut off. He is sent to learn farming from his Luna uncles. His father heartily approves of his getting away from the influence of his mother. Then, Ultima dies and he is left to take her place as a future curandero.
Ultima is truly the bridge figure in the novel. She is both a practicing Roman Catholic and a practitioner of sympathetic magic. Wit organic metaphors, she helps Antonio to see the unity of all life. His parents have been blind to this unity. His father, the Marez of the sea and his mother, the Luna of the moon, are really part of one cycle of life. Ultima helps Antonio to see that the warring sides of his heritage are really all one. She never encourages him to give up his Catholicism. She always counsels patience in the inevitable growth of Antonio’s fate.
She is also a figure of mystery. For instance, when the men come to lynch her, she passes their test of walking under the image of a cross. However, when they leave, Antonio realizes the cross had fallen. He doesn’t know if it fell before or after she walked under the eve of the door. Her past is also somewhat mysterious. She was trained by a curandero, a flying man. This reference is never explained.
Yet Ultima is also quite down to earth. She believes that the earth is alive and has spirit. She teaches Antonio the ancient practice of asking the plant for its medicine in a chanted prayer before taking it. She is enlivened by the land and becomes young when she is out among it.
Ultima is a loner, but she is also very much a part of her society. She is quite sure that in saving Lucas’s life, she is putting herself in the path of danger since curing him means tampering the with fate of another person. Yet she doesn’t hesitate to help him; her first allegiance is to her community when it needs her. The same happens with Tellez. When she sees his need, she acts immediately, though it is clear that she can see her death is rapidly approaching with every action she takes.
Maria is really more of a stock figure than anything else. She is not given much of a voice. She functions as the warm memory of mother in the kitchen. She clearly favors her son over her daughters, calling him a man of learning when he is only seven years old. She has all her hopes in Antonio and it doesn’t’ seem to occur to her to hope anything for her daughters. She is an obsessive prayer and takes great comfort in her sala, a sort of altar to the Virgen de Guadalupe. She is given the credit of knowing good people. She knows Ultima is good, even though she doesn’t understand all that Ultima does or represents and despite his drunkenness, she knows Narciso is good.
Gabriel is a little more developed than Maria. This development only happens, though, at the end of the novel when he speaks to his son. Before that, he is a morose man who has lost his dreams and who blames others for that loss. He nostalgizes his past on the llano and cannot find comfort in his present life. He has compromised what gives him spiritual sustenance--the llano--when he moved to the edge of town. Unlike his wife, however, he changes over the course of the novel. When his three eldest sons make it clear that they will not be part of fulfilling his dream of moving to California and working together, he grieves that loss and then realizes that with the loss of that dream, he can give up the old antagonism he has so long cherished with his wife and her family, the Lunas. He shows himself as a gentle man who believes in the living earth and the duty of people to take care of it. He is a good model for his son when he stands up for those he feels allegiance to despite the danger to himself.