The movie Bless me, Ultima is based on a novel by Rudolfo Anaya published in 1972. Anaya is one of the founders of contemporary Chicano literature, and his book is on many school reading lists, especially for Chicano studies. It is the first novel shedding a light on the Chicano experience to make it into the mainstream. It broke new ground not only in content but also stylistically, notably in its use of español as well as inglés.
Carl Franklin directed the beautiful film version. The story takes place in New Mexico during and right after World War II, when many Mexican American youth returned to their barrios only to find little economic opportunity after serving their country.
Antonio “Tony” Márez (played by Luke Ganalon) is about to turn seven as the story begins. He experiences the deaths of people around him, comes under the influence of a curandera, a healer, and begins to question the beliefs of the Catholic Church. Despite the book’s popularity, these themes have made it the target of challenges resulting in its removal from some schools and libraries.
Un corazón dividido. Tony is deeply torn between the influences of his mother’s family and his father’s. His mother is a Luna (Spanish for moon), and the Lunas are quiet people, settled farmers who have learned to respect the land for the food it provides. His father is a Márez (“mar” is sea), a family of loud, wild vaqueros, or cowboys, who tend animals on horseback, riding the “ocean” of the plains, always on the move.
His mother wants him to be a priest and his father wants him to be a man of the open range. Tony wants to learn to make his own decisions.
Tony attends catechism classes to prepare for his first Communion. He is certain that once he receives the body of Christ he will have answers about death, evil, and where souls go who are not Catholic. After his Communion, he waits with burning anticipation for the answers to fill him up, but nothing happens — and he is very disappointed.
A third influence enters Tony’s life when Ultima (Miriam Colon) comes to stay with his family. A curandera, she becomes Tony’s mentor and teaches him to thank the spirit of the plants and herbs that she harvests for medicine.
Growing pains. Ultima asks for Tony’s help to cure his uncle, who is dying from a spell cast by three witches. Ultima drives out the evil spirit. Tony does not understand why Ultima can stop evil, but God cannot. And when Tony is exposed to death, he does not understand why God would let a good man die, and an evil man live.
The movie would have been stronger if it had directly showed the emotional connection between father and son. Instead it is adult Tony as the narrator (voice of Alfred Molina) who tells the audience about their conversations. Tony’s father explains to him that going through life is what gives you an understanding of why there is evil and why a curandera has special powers.
This explanation gives Tony the idea that he can create his own religion — an integration of spiritual folkways, Catholic beliefs, and his family heritage.
Looking for an answer for good and evil. When I was about Tony’s age, I also had many questions about Catholicism. I wondered why we were asked to give money to the Catholic Church when we were so poor and why the girls couldn’t wear pants like the boys. I was angry at the priest who told my mother she was not allowed to get a divorce from an abusive husband who had abandoned his children.
Later in life, as a product of the Chicano movimiento, combined with a spice of feminism and socialism, I stopped attending church. But one Sunday when I was visiting my mother, she asked me to attend Mass with her. The sermon instructed women to stay home and not work; it reminded them that abortion is forbidden and women must obey their husbands.
After the service, I asked my mother if she really believed what the priest said and told her I could not attend church again. She said she did not blame me and would stop attending herself.
The movie is worth seeing and if you missed it, read the book. It reminded me of the role of the curandera, respected in our community as a spiritual healer. It brings up the million-dollar question: Why is there evil, and are people born this way? Perhaps taking a scientific Marxist approach to life, death, and evil within an economic context can lead to realistic answers.
Otherwise, go to church and wait.
Send feedback to children’s librarian Yolanda Alaniz, co-author of Viva la Raza: A History of Chicano Identity and Resistance, to email@example.com.
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