Bless Me, Ultima is narrated by a young Mexican-American boy named Antonio (Tony), who lives with his Spanish-speaking Catholic family in the small New Mexican town of Guadalupe. The time is during World War II. Antonio's three brothers are serving in the war; his two older sisters, Deborah and Theresa, live at home.
Antonio is nearly seven years old when Ultima, a wise old woman and long-time family friend, comes to live with them. She is a curandera, a woman who is able to heal the sick through her knowledge of herbs and ancient cures. She can even lift curses laid by witches. Antonio is excited by her arrival, and when he meets her he knows that she holds the secret of his destiny.
The first chapter introduces Ultima and also lays out one of the basic conflicts in the story. This is between the two sides of the family. Gabriel, Antonio's father, is a Marez. The Marez are restless, wandering, free-spirited men who come from the llano (a Spanish word meaning plain). Antonio's mother, Maria, comes from a family of farmers who have lived in the river valley for generations. They are rooted in the earth. There is always tension between these two sides of the family, as Antonio's dream vividly shows. Antonio will eventually have to choose which side of the family he wants to identify with.
This chapter also introduces the symbol of the owl. The owl is associated with Ultima and shows her kinship with the natural world.