Now, the term "wandering" can get thrown around as a negative comment for a writer who really doesn't know where his story is going. That's not what we mean here. Anaya knows exactly where he wants this story to go, but he's going to take one heck of a route to get there.
Anaya's not afraid to let the story wander down strange paths and take a few side trips along his way. Those often come in the form of Antonio's ponderings, wonderings, and preguntas. He veers from idea to idea, and we can only roll with the punches. For example, thinking about forgiveness can lead him to recount a story of the past about the boy who saw the Virgin of Guadalupe, which somehow—just trust him—relates:
My mother had told me the story of the Mexican man, Diego, who had seen la Virgen de Guadalupe in Mexico. She had appeared to him and spoken to him, and She had given him a sign. (16.43-46)
This might sound like the stock and standard attention span issues that many young boys face, but it's more than that. Antonio is just really good at looking at all sides of a situation, especially when that situation doesn't have a clear right answer. He likes to come at things from different angles—it makes for a better view.
Wandering in and out of past tales is mirrored in the literal journeys that Antonio takes throughout the novel. Anaya sends him to his mother's family's house multiple times and to the Téllez home, and off to school and back. While Antonio definitely moves forward as far as growing up throughout the novel, he doesn't necessarily move in a straight line toward that end. He doesn't gain an answer and then move on to another question. He keeps wandering and seeking and coming back to the same questions over and over. It could drive a lesser kid crazy, but Antonio makes it work for him.
The second chapter opens with Antonio’s description of Ultima’s easy adaptation to the daily life in the Marez household. Antonio’s mother is happy to have another woman to talk to and no longer feels lonely on their isolated land. Antonio’s sisters are pleased with Ultima because her help around the house means that they are not required to do as many household chores. Even Antonio’s father is pleased to have Ultima living in their house because he has another person to talk to about his dream of moving to California with his sons. Antonio is also happy with Ultima’s presence because she takes him on long walks along the riverbanks and teaches him about plant life, local animals, and the spirit of the river.
On Saturday night, the peace is interrupted by Chavez, who runs to the house and urges Antonio’s father to accompany him to the bridge. The sheriff, his brother, Chavez exclaims, has been murdered by Lupito, a townsman who has been suffering from the war sickness since his time fighting in World War II. All of the men of the town are assembling at the bridge in order to hunt down Lupito and ensure that he does not kill anyone else. Antonio’s father tells Maria to lock all of the doors and then seizes a rifle and walks to the bridge with Chavez, unaware that Antonio is secretly following them.
In order to make sure that his father does not notice him, Antonio takes a different route along the river and inadvertently comes across Lupito, who is hiding in the reeds a few yards away. Antonio watches as Lupito is momentarily sighted by the men on the bridge and then lost again in the darkness. The men on the bridge begin to argue about killing Lupito; some argue that he is an animal that must be shot, while Antonio’s father and Narciso, the town drunk, urge the men to be respectful of life. Narciso tries to talk to Lupito from the bridge, reminding him that they are friends and that he understands the war sickness. Antonio watches as Lupito reacts physically to Narciso’s voice and seems to be about to turn himself in but then shoots his pistol into the air to draw their fire.
At the sound of the gunshots, the men on the bridge immediately shoot in their direction and swiftly kill Lupito. Shocked by what he has just witnessed, Antonio immediately begins to run home, praying the Act of Contrition to himself over and over again. As Antonio is about to despair, he hears the gentle hooting of Ultima’s owl and is comforted enough to reach his house. Before he can enter his room, though, Ultima intercepts him and, recognizing what he has just witnessed, brings him into her room to treat his cuts. Warm in Ultima’s bed and hearing the comforting sound of the owl outside, Antonio is eased into sleep and begins to dream about his three brothers, off fighting at war.
In his dream, Antonio’s three brothers argue about their destinies as men of the llano, certain to wander forever in response to their wild Marez blood. Antonio urges his brothers to join with him in accompanying their father on his dream to California, but they laugh at him, asserting that Antonio must be a man of the Lunas for the sake of their mother. Antonio tries to follow their brothers as they cross the river, but he begins to hear a tormented sound along the river. Fearfully, his brothers first declare that the wailing is la llorona and then determine that it is the soul of Lupito trying to take Antonio. Antonio declares that it is neither, but rather the presence of the river.
At the beginning of the third chapter, Antonio wakes up amazed that his cuts from the night before are almost gone. This must be a testament to Ultima’s skill with medicinal herbs. Although he feels better than he did immediately after watching Lupito die, Antonio is now preoccupied with questions of sin and morality, wondering what has become of Lupito’s soul. Will he go to Hell because he is a murderer, or will God forgive him of his sins and allow him to go to Purgatory? Or will he become a ghost that haunts people along the river?
As he lies in bed thinking, Antonio hears his mother calling his father to wake up and waits for the inevitable argument that always happens between his parents on Sunday mornings. Antonio’s father does not share his wife’s religious inclinations and usually spends his Sundays recovering from a hangover from his Saturday-night drinking. When he is drunk, he pokes fun at the priests and his wife’s religion and then bemoans the fact that he sacrificed his life on the llano for the daughter of a farmer. Antonio’s mother always counters by arguing that the Marez are stubborn freethinkers and blasphemers. She refers to the first priest who came to El Puerto, the land of her family, and settled the land while giving faith and religion to the people. This is the destiny that she would choose for Antonio: a priest who rules over a community of farmers.
When Antonio gets up and goes downstairs his mother urges him and his sisters to pray for departed souls when they go to church. This reminder of the events of the previous night sparks Antonio’s questions and anxieties about Lupito’s fate once again, but he is calmed by Ultima’s presence. Before they leave for church, Antonio’s mother and father begin to argue about Antonio’s future again. Antonio’s mother, in particular, wishes that Antonio could always keep his innocence. The only way that he can do this, she asserts, is if he is always with God and becomes a priest. Antonio’s father is exasperated and ends the argument by declaring that Antonio will decide his own fate when the time comes.
Antonio quickly performs his chores, feeding the rabbits and letting out the cow, all the while trying not to think of Lupito’s murder. He runs back to the house for a quick hair-combing, and then the family leaves for mass. While they walk, Ultima’s presence is observed anxiously by the other families in the neighborhood. Ultima walks over to Antonio, and Antonio asks her how his father can take communion after killing a man. Ultima comforts Antonio by assuring him that his father did not shoot Lupito; a man of the llano is always very respectful of life. On the path to the church, Antonio notices Rosie’s brothel, which rests slightly off of Main Street.
As they come closer to the church, the church bell begins to toll a mourning knell for Lupito. Antonio separates from his parents and goes over to the side of the church to talk to the other boys his age. Horse, Ernie, Abel, the Vitamin Kid, Florence, and Samuel are all talking about Lupito’s murder. Horse, the biggest member of the gang, notices Antonio and tells him to come closer to wrestle. Although he does not want to wrestle, Antonio walks to Horse and successful flips him on his back. The other boys are nervous about Horse’s defeat at the hands of a much younger boy, but Horse laughs it off, and all of the boys run into the church in time for mass.
At the beginning of Chapter 2, we see Antonio beginning to develop as an inquisitive individual under Ultima’s influence. Not only is he able to acknowledge the beauty of the natural world around him, but he is able to sense the presence of the river as a benevolent force of nature. This early understanding of the balance and beauty in the world foreshadows the wisdom that Antonio will ultimately gain with Ultima’s help.
Antonio’s witnessing of Lupito’s death is a major crossroads for him as a character. It is his first experience with death, and Antonio is seriously traumatized, both by Lupito’s violent end and by the presence of his father among the shooting men. When he runs home, he repeats the Act of Contrition over and over again, even though he doesn’t know what it means. Antonio’s use of a religious prayer in quest for comfort demonstrates his desires to use religion to explain and fix the problems he observes in life.
Ultimately, Antonio does not receive any comfort from the use of this prayer. He only recites it as a result of his mother’s Catholic upbringing, not because he has chosen his faith. Instead, Antonio is comforted when he hears the hooting of Ultima’s owl; in fact, it is only after he hears the owl that he is able to think rationally and make his way home. This instance highlights the conflict between Catholicism and paganism as Antonio begins on the search for his own faith.
After witnessing the murder, Antonio becomes preoccupied with Lupito’s fate and questions of sin and punishment. He does not know how to reconcile Lupito’s madness and death with Catholic ideas of God. Although Lupito’s actions as a murderer make him doomed to Hell, Antonio realizes that his actions were caused by his war sickness, and Lupito cannot be blamed for what happened. Yet, he knows that the God of Christianity is not forgiving or compassionate and thus, not likely to release Lupito from the horrors of Hell. Moreover, although Lupito murdered the sheriff, the men of the town also murdered him. Will they not be punished for murder as well? For the first time, Antonio is unable to reconcile what he knows is right with the expectations of his religion.
In his second dream of the novel, Antonio reiterates his anxieties about his future and his family. His three brothers have already determined their Marez blood and will spend their lives wandering. Antonio wants to keep the family together and support his father, but his brothers insist that he becomes a priest to make his mother happy. Again, Antonio is torn between two parents and two paths. His religious ambivalence is also highlighted in this dream when Antonio identifies the wailing in the river as first, la Llarona, a mythical figure from New Mexican folklore, and then, as Lupito’s soul. However, Antonio accepts neither the pagan explanation nor the Catholic explanation as the truth. Instead, he determines that the wailing is the presence of the river, neither Catholic nor pagan, but simply an element of nature.
In chapter 3, Antonio continues his preoccupation with sin and punishment but is guided on his exploration by Ultima. Ultima tries to explain to Antonio that the men of the llano, like his father, would never kill without just cause; this is the characteristic that distinguishes their murder of Lupito from his murder of the sheriff. Ultima also explains that people must make their own moral decisions, regardless of whether or not they correspond to religious framework. Although Antonio thinks about what Ultima has said, he is still unable to comprehend a world in which morality is separate from Catholic doctrine. Antonio’s confusion is not helped by his mother’s definition of growing up. Instead of a necessary part of life and development, Antonio’s mother believes that the passage into adulthood is dependent on an acceptance of sin. The only way to grow up, she argues, is to be sinful and thus, only if Antonio becomes a priest will he be able to enter adulthood with his innocence. Antonio’s father takes a more rational approach, arguing that growing up is a part of life and not something to be dreaded. He believes that a person’s experiences in life define who he or she is as an individual and create the layers of a person’s character.
It is at this point that we first see the extent to which Antonio feels pressure to be a priest. No matter what his father says, Antonio believes that sin and adulthood are closely related. Not only must he follow the expectations of his Luna family by becoming a priest, but he must do so simply to avoid being corrupted with sin. This explanation of the relationship between sin and adulthood contributes to Antonio’s general fear of sin, and his desire to avoid losing his innocence at all costs. Ironically, Antonio’s mother makes this claim after Antonio has witnessed Lupito’s murder and perhaps already lost his innocence forever.