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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 systems--is 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 allpowerfulness 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.