BY MARC VELASQUEZ
[Deserted Isle Books is our new series in which our contributors discuss the one book they would choose if they were, well, stranded alone on a deserted isle forever.]
Okay With Myself
I hate being alone. I find it hard to contemplate being by myself for more than a few hours. The only thing I hate more that being alone is sand—nasty, gritty, dirty, hard to wash away sand. Being on a deserted island would suck.
So, if for some reason I were condemned to such an inconceivable hell with only one book to keep me company, I’d want as my companion Antonio Marez, the protagonist of Rudolpho Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima.
Anaya’s book isn’t my favorite book (In Cold Blood), or the one that moved me most (One Hundred Years of Solitude), or the one that made me work the hardest (The Brothers Karamazov), but it holds distinction as the only book I’ve read more than once . In fact, I’ve read it three times, and each time the book and its characters found relevant footing in my life as I struggled to make sense of my own dualities.
Inescapable duality is the Center of Anaya’s book, and Antonio—who is sometimes “Tony”—is just beginning to discover how his dualities will determine his place in the world. He’s torn between the contradictory ways of his parents. His father is a man of the llano, a vaquero, with blood wild like the sea from which the family takes their surname. A vaquero’s heart desires adventure, and Antonio’s father is restless in one spot. Antonio’s mother is a polar opposite to his father; her people come from and live their life on the fertile soil of the riverbed. Her brothers are farmers. Antonio’s five siblings, all older, have been pulled in either the direction of their father or mother. His three brothers have inherited the restless blood of their father, and a need to venture towards the more exotic parts of the world. His three sisters are like their mother, settled and predictable. But it is Antonio’s destiny, with the help of the Curandera, Ultima, to emulsify these conflicting ways of life.
The last time I read this book, I was teaching in Belize. In the name of solidarity, I had shed my earthly possessions in order to be better attuned to the needs of those around me. But solidarity is an impossible joke, an unreachable goal. Even though I was different than almost every other American I knew, even though I had given up as much as I could in order to be poor and empathetic, I couldn’t escape the safety net of my education and passport. The prisoners I taught were quick to remind me of that safety net, that “spoonful of honey” I had in my back pocket. It was a burden, blocking me from the full immersion into Belizean life I had imagined. It remained a burden until I reread Bless Me, Ultima, saw my own duality in Antonio’s struggles, and accepted it as part of myself.
Ultimately, there was a great liberation in realizing that I didn’t have to be either poor Belizean or rich American, that I could be both at once. And from that liberation came strength. And that strength made me a better teacher, and better companion, for my students.
In a Latino Philosophy class in college, we often found ourselves discussing the effects of duality on identity. The professor let us choose an outside text on which we could write our term papers. I found myself writing about the Marez family, specifically about their house, which sits exactly where the land of the farmers meets the land of the vaqueros. Among the 20 or so pages of drivel I wrote is this argument:
We are a combination of two backgrounds, two different dreams. And if we do not synthesize both of those dreams, we are denying a part of ourselves. The truth in Anaya’s story lies in the house. A staple on the border of two conflicting lands. It stands strong and holds the characteristics of both worlds. Bless Me, Ultima is a call to make our lives that house. It is a call to accept every part of our being, the good and the evil, the casual and the sacred, the ugly and the beautiful.
Whether or not it had anything to do with Antonio, “accepting every part of [my] being” was the most important lesson I learned in college.
Like Antonio, my most obvious duality is in my mixed blood. Half Mexican, half…umm, let’s say American Mutt, I’ve continuously tried to make sense of my two very different parents’ very different cultures. And while I’d like to say that I have found the perfect middle ground for Marc—who is sometimes Marcos—I have to admit that I’m still looking. Thanks to Anaya, searching is comfortable.
I don’t know what dualities my private island hell will expose in me, but with Bless Me, Ultima, I’ll find comfort mining those dualities for meaning. At the very least, I’ll be able to read the book again and again.
 In the spirit of full disclosure, I have read parts of several books more than once—most notably the preface and fifth chapter of Invisible Man which I maintain is the most beautiful prose I have ever read. I’ve also started some books multiple times before being able to finish them. The most recent in that category is The Adventures of Augie March, which has been sitting untouched on my shelf for half a year, and which I will have to restart in order to “read it.” I’ve read In Cold Blood one-and-three-quarters times, and could see myself reading it again. I was assigned Eat, Pray, Love for two classes in grad school (because of its structure), and while the writing is actually good, I think Liz Gilbert is a horrible person. I finished reading her book zero times.