By Cemelli De Aztlan
It’s rare to call a movie a blessing, but in this case, it truly is. The recently banned book– “Bless Me, Ultima”- by Rodolfo Anaya has defied censorship and has propelled itself onto the cinematic scene. Re-birthed through film, “Bless Me, Ultima” accomplishes what it did many years ago when it was first published in the 1970’s – a sort of ‘coming out party’ for the Mexican-American culture- coming out without the fear or shame that our culture had felt for too long.
Watching the film on the big screen at the world premier, amongst all the glitz and glamour was a night to remember. Cast members were greeted by flashing cameras as they exited their classic low-rider cars, stepping onto the red carpet at the historic Plaza Theater in El Paso, TX. It made me feel as if two worlds had collided- Hollywood and El Paso. And, perhaps the collision reminds me more of the profound distance our Mexican-American community has had with main stream culture; this was the first time I was sitting in a theater where the ‘minority’ actors in the film had actually become the majority.
The landscape of Santa Fe and Abiquiu, New Mexico- where the film was shot- drew me in close, comforting me with the assurance that I was entering into territory I knew in my blood. Already in tears by the first scene, my emotions tangled by the magic happening before my eyes, a sense of enchantment overcame me.
A story about an 80-year-old woman and an 8-year-old boy doesn’t seem like the kind of film a big name production company would be interested in, competing alongside films with exorbitant special effects and commercial hype. But, director and screenwriter, Carl Franklin knew that this is a story worth telling.
In the film, upon first meeting Ultima, the curandera played by actress Miriam Colon, her touching beauty contradicts the fear that surrounds her. Stigmatized as a ‘witch’ by the community- heavily influenced by Catholicism, Antonio, the 8-year old boy, played by Luke Ganalon-doesn’t know what to expect. Yet, when they meet, he instantly feels a connection- there is a spark. Ultima leans gently to greet little Antonio and reminds him of the last time they’d seen each other-she was the midwife at his birth. Coming full circle, she also pronounces that she’s come back to live with them, to die.
The film, “Bless Me, Ultima” depicts the struggle between ‘good’ and‘evil’, but more so, it depicts the struggle between the indigenous and the invasion. The traditions of the past – knowing the land, the animals, the moon and the spirits are demonized by the doctrines of the church. Antonio, young, pure and innocent finds the contradiction between what the church teaches as good and evil, to be at odds with what he sees in Ultima, a traditional curandera or healer. Ultima takes Antonio under her wing and shows him the songs of nature and the spirit of the land, and through those teachings he’s left wondering why man is so disconnected from the magic that is life. Driving down Calle de la Luna, he asks Ultima, “Do you think if God was a woman, she’d forgive them?”
By the end of the film Antonio wonders why those who call on Ultima for healing, all eventually, shun her. Those few that protect her are Antonio’s father, Gabriel Mares-whose blood runs wild like the sea, played by actor Benito Martinez, and Narcisco- the town drunk, played by our own Juarez native, Joaquin Cosio.
Ultima, in Spanish pointedly translates as ‘The End’. And, in the end we are left wondering if Antonio- the most dedicated of Ultima’s protectors, will carry-on the ancient healing traditions passed on to him or just nostalgically bury them and have Ultima- be their ultimate end.
I hope that communities everywhere embrace this film and perhaps through the blessing of Ultima on the big screen, we too, can begin to heal.