Neto's Tucson: 'Ultima' is much-deserved arrival on big screen

2013-03-10T00:00:00Z 2013-03-11T15:29:28Z Neto's Tucson: 'Ultima' is much-deserved arrival on big screenErnesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
March 10, 2013 12:00 am  • 

I went to see a just-released movie Thursday night. I had waited years to see it.

"Bless Me, Ultima" is the film adaptation of the 1972 landmark American novel by Chicano author Rudolfo Anaya. It's about time the seminal work made it to the big screen.

With the conclusion today of the fifth Tucson Festival of Books, I thought it an appropriate time to talk about the book and its belated conversion to a major motion picture.

While a number of great books are transformed into films, it is rare for a piece of Chicano/Mexican-American literature to bask in the Hollywood spotlight. Authors whose books are turned into a movie often get recognition, money and readers.

Stories abound of film producers snapping up movie rights to books right off the press. In some instances, albeit rare, books are sold to Hollywood even before they are published.

But the theater screens are dark when it comes to film adaptations by American Latino authors. And that's a shame because it's through the prism of the film lens that we see ourselves and that we see how others define us.

"I can only think of two off the top of my head," said Charles Tatum, professor of Spanish at the University of Arizona and a leading scholar of Chicano culture.

He was referring to Tomás Rivera's 1971 short novel "Y No Se Lo Tragó la Tierra" (And the Earth Did Not Swallow Him) which was made into a film in 1995 and "Zoot Suit," the 1979 play by Luis Valdez with music by the late Lalo Guerrero of Tucson morphed onto the screen in 1981.

Although Tatum, a former dean of the UA's College of Humanities, has not yet seen the film version of "Ultima," he considers it a major accomplishment.

It's major because of the obvious: Mexican-Americans, and other Latinos, are so visible and have been even before the 13 colonies formed the Union. However when it comes to mainstream movies, we are invisible. With the exception of the stereotypical maids, gardeners and bad-ass gangbangers, Hollywood sees our diverse society through a lily-white-tinted lens.

You can count on two hands, if that many, recent films about Chicanos. But none I can think of came from timeless literature like that of Anaya, who has a long list of titles to his name.

In "Bless Me, Ultima," six-year-old Antonio Mares learns about life and violence while growing up in rural northern New Mexico as World War II winds down. At the center of the story, Antonio sees the mysteries and contradictions of life through Ultima, a wise woman, a healer of bodies and souls. La Grande, as she is respectfully called, helps Antonio understand a troubled world.

Over 40 years, "Bless Me, Ultima" has been placed on many reading lists in high school and college lit classes. It mirrors universal themes of faith, conflict and loyalty.

Yet the book has been banned in some places because of its violence and references to witchcraft. In Tucson the book was used in Mexican-American Studies' classrooms but after the state banned the program, MAS teachers stopped using the book.

"Ultima" was always worthy of being made into a film. And there could be more like it.

In the past four decades great prose has flowed from Chicano and Chicana writers, who have followed Anaya's lead, like Sandra Cisneros, Helena Maria Viramontes, Luis Alberto Urrea and the UA's Manuel Muñoz, just to name a few.

I hope not to wait another 40 years.

netopjr@azstarnet.com or 573-4187.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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