Bless Me, Ultima: Personal Reflections of the Movie and Book

As a teacher, I was able to incorporate this beautifully written book by Rudolfo Anaya into many parts of the curriculum

By Norma de la Pe??a
Published on LatinoLA: February 24, 2013

Bless Me, Ultima: Personal Reflections of the Movie and Book

It seems like I've been waiting FOREVER to see the "Bless Me, Ultima" movie,, so I HAD to be at the first screening of it on the first day of its local showing at a movie theater in nearby Alhambra this February 22 weekend. I will definitely see it again and again! BLESS ME, ULTIMA is my favorite book, and it warms my heart to know that this iconic Chicano novel (perhaps the best, most popular of all time) finally made it to the Big Screen for all to see!

You see, as a Chicana teacher of English (I'm 3rd/4th generation American of mostly Mexican descent with a sprinkling of Irish and German ancestry from south Texas), I taught the novel in East LA high schools from the 1970s to the 1990s. We read it in English 9, 10, American Literature, and Chicano Literature because, with a little bit of ingenuity on my part, I was able to incorporate this beautifully written book by Rudolfo Anaya into many parts of the curriculum, discussing its numerous themes of good and evil, innocence, youth, and their universal questions of religion, family, cultural beliefs and practices.

And with this large percentage of Chicano/Latino students in 1970s East LA, only a few years after the Student Walkouts due to alienation within the U.S. culture of the times, it was imperative that we involve our Chicano/Latino students in developing a positive self-image of themselves by having them read and write about their own cultural experiences and strengths.

Reading BLESS ME, ULTIMA, with its numerous Spanish-surnamed, Spanish-speaking characters, provided an important vehicle to achieve this worthwhile goal because students were reading IN SCHOOL about people that had names like theirs or shared their Mexican culture and family traditions.

With the "Bless Me, Ultima" film currently screening during this Hollywood Oscar weekend, all of us of Chicano/Latino background can see ourselves and families like ours up there on the Big Screen, positive images we don't often get to see in mainstream U. S. media.

I was curious to see if the filmmaker Carl Franklin was going to be able to capture visually Anaya's perfectly written imagery on the big screen. The book has such rich figurative language: similes, metaphors, and symbols that I didn't know if these would be "lost in translation" between the two mediums.

To Franklin's credit, he DOES do justice to Anaya's words, especially in depiction of the river, the llano, the tumbleweeds, and other natural elements of which Anaya writes so eloquently and which cinematographer Paula Huidobro captures so vividly in the film. It's quite breathtaking to take in these scenes.

Although I believe that Franklin stayed true to relating events and characters in the novel, I was disappointed that he left out a few important ones. Foremost of these was the dream scene of the birth of the young boy Antonio which Anaya described so clearly through his young protagonist. The contrast between the two sides of Antonio's parents in conflict over whether the baby would be a farmer like the mother's family, the Lunas, and perhaps become a priest, or destined to be a "vaquero" like Antonio's father's side, the Marez family would have made for great on-screen drama, especially with Ultima coming in to stop the warring and declare that SHE delivered the baby boy Antonio and only SHE would know his destiny. But Franklin omitted this key powerful scene from the book.

Also missing from the movie was the Christmas play where Bones, one of Antonio's classmates, was hanging from the rafters and only promised to come down if his teacher Miss Violet promised him an "A" in the class. Also missing in the same scene was Horse, another classmate, dressed as the Virgin Mary and awkwardly depicting his role in the Christmas story. These two characters from the book provided much laughter for readers and would have contributed much levity to the film as well, but again, Franklin chose to omit this comical scene from the novel.

Another missing element from Franklin's film was the story of the Golden Carp which Antonio and his friend Cico saw as "the presence of the river," the pagan God. While this tale about THE PEOPLE (indigenous?) was presented beautifully by Anaya in his book, its absence in the film leads one to think that perhaps Franklin was trying to avoid controversy in his film which befell Anaya. Several conservative parents and school boards became so concerned that Anaya was presenting sacrilegious beliefs that they banned the book from their schools!

Ultima's owl was an important part in the book because at the end, when it was killed, it was assumed by readers that the owl was Ultima's soul. And so when it died, so did she. In this way, Anaya was providing an outlet for young Antonio to cope with Ultima's death, but this important storytelling was also not clear in Franklin's film adaptation of Anaya's novel.

Still, even with much of the missing elements from "Bless Me, Ultima" the movie from BLESS ME, ULTIMA the book, it is still a worthwhile endeavor.

But don't just "read the movie"; go see it. You're in for a beautiful, culturally enriching experience!

About Norma de la Pe??a:
Norma de la Pena is a part-time college instructor of ESL at LA Trade Tech. She is a retired high school teacher of English with LAUSD in East LA schools. As a member of UTLA, she served as the Chairperson of the Chicano Education Committee in the 1970s
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