“Bless Me, Ultima,” a controversial coming-of-age story, more than four decades old, will now be available for the nation to see on the big screen starting this Friday, February 22.
Last fall, the film first premiered in El Paso, grossing more than $100,00, according to its distributor, Arenas Entertainment. Later, it opened in five New Mexico theaters, grossing more than $345,000, making it the number one film in the region.
The author of the award-winning novel published in 1972, Rudolfo Anaya, says he considers himself one of the lucky writers who have gotten a film made of their book. He says he and his wife were vacationing in La Paz, Mexico when he was approached about the project.
“It feels wonderful,” says the Albuquerque-based author known as one of the founders of contemporary Chicano literature.
He says a lot of material from his childhood was the main inspiration for “Bless Me, Ultima,” but ultimately, it is fiction. The story is about a young boy, Antonio growing up in New Mexico during World War II. A curandera (healer) named Ultima (played by Miriam Colon), comes to live with his family and teaches him about the spiritual world. His experiences make him question and compare the beliefs of his Catholic Chicano parents, the supernatural-believing Ultima, and his American school.
“There are a lot of similarities,” says Anaya about his book and the film. “I grew up in Santa Rosa, NM. My mother came from farmers, my father came from sheep herders and ranchers…I had three brothers [who fought] during WWII. They fit into the story. Some of my friends find themselves in the novel.”
Anaya says the film captures Antonio’s story, and his relationship with Ultima, very well.
“I think that’s the important part of the novel and of the film,” he says. “There is this little boy that is learning so much from this older woman. In our Mexican-American culture we respect the elders and we’re taught to learn from them, be kind to them and respect them. I hope that comes across.”
Growing up in Mexican-American culture, he says, part of his tradition is telling stories, and some of the stories were about witches, or brujas, like Ultima.
“I used to read comic books, and then school books, and then I went to the University of New Mexico, and I started reading a lot,” says Anaya. “And realized…I could write. All of it came together. Those years in the University, I challenged myself to start writing.”
Eventually, he got a degree in teaching and started teaching to make a living and wrote at night.
“You name it, I taught it — from middle school, high school, and finally after “Bless Me, Ultima” was published in 1972, I was invited back to the University of New Mexico to teach creative writing,” he says.
Even though, his book was once listed in a reference guide as being “banned” from public school curriculums, from California to New York, for containing “excessive violence” and “profanity,” for Anaya, he says it is important to him to pass on the essence of Chicano culture to youth.
“There’s too much assimilation and a lot of beliefs are being lost,” he says. “I think that’s why the movie is important, because it reminds people of our history. Even if it’s not like that now, history is important, and it creates a wider view of our culture…People don’t realize we can be in the mainstream culture, involved in education, and professionals and still retain our culture, language and history.”
At 75, Anaya is still writing.
“I have a novel coming out in April — “The Old Man’s Love Story” — it talks about a grief and love. I wrote it after my wife died… three years ago.”