Sometimes a work of art so well captures the spirit of a people and time that it becomes an enduring cultural talking point. Such is the case with Rudolfo Anaya’s 1972 coming-of-age novel Bless Me, Ultima, widely considered a seminal piece of Chicano literature.
Three Omaha Chicanos who are great fans of the book look forward to a Sept. 16 screening of its film adaptation. Written and directed by noted filmmaker Carl Franklin (One False Move, Devil in a Blue Dress) Bless Me, Ultima (2012) will show at 7 p.m. at the Hixson-Lied Auditorium in the Harper Center at Creighton University. The screening is free and open to the public. A pre-film social hour starts at 6 p.m.
For attorney Rita Melgares, a native of southwestern Colorado near where the author grew up and the story is set, the book’s depiction of a youth (Antonio) treading the worlds of indigenous tradition and mainstream convention with the guidance of an old woman, Ultima, as his curandero (healer), resonates with her own experience.
“I identified with the duality of the worlds he was living in. The duality of your Latino home bucking up against what you learn when you go away to school. It represented something I knew.”
Community activist Abelardo Hernandez grew up in El Paso, Texas, not far from Anaya’s New Mexican roots. He says the book’s mystical visions and beliefs are “not so different than the stories our grandmothers used to tell us. At the time I didn’t identify with them as being from the indigenous culture, but I suppose they were. People who cure with herbs and chants. They call it a cleansing. It’s a gift. They’re raised with it and they pass it on through generations of the family.”
Hernandez says he most identified with “the family traditions, the respect for elders and the upbringing of kids” portrayed in the 1940s-set story. Like Melgares, he had the experience of straddling two worlds. “We were bi-cultural. We had to learn the American culture, but the Mexican culture and traditions were raised with us at home, in church and at festivals, where everything was in Spanish. Because we lived mostly among Mexican people we didn’t learn the American ways until probably high school or even after.”
The book gave Hernandez, Melgares and Garcia a prism to appreciate their culture at a time when they asserted their identity. All were active in the Chicano movement and the book spurred their activism.
“It made me so proud to be a Chicana,” says Melgares. “Rudy Anaya was a man right out of our culture and he wrote about something he knew and it reflected much about what I felt. This was right during the surge of the Chicano movement and we considered it an important book for Chicanos. To me, Chicano is a political word we chose for ourselves in the movement for fairness, for justice, for equality. To me, Chicanismo or the sense of being Chincano, is what that embodies.”
Kansas City, Mo. native Jose Francisco Garcia says, “The number one principle of Chicanismo is to be self-determined and the second thing is to give back. It’s an intention. It’s almost like being converted. I started becoming influenced by the Chicano movement through books like Occupied America and Bless Me, Ultima. It gave me a way of life, it gave me a path to start following during a time when I really didn’t know who the hell I was. We had to search for our identity. We had to go out and almost reinvent not only who we were as Americans, but who we were as a culture.”
“People do have to have some kind of identity otherwise they get lost,” says Hernandez.
To be Chicano is a state of mind and being for Hernandez. “People might change but the meaning doesn’t. I think Chicano is an experience you actually live through and that you identify with. It becomes a special feeling. A lot of people have educated themselves and attained nice careers, but they still have that feeling of being Chicano because you’re background never goes away, at least it shouldn’t. A lot of people try to forget it, try to put it behind them, but it’s better to always know where you came from.”
In that spirit Hernandez helped form the Chicano Awareness Center, now known as the Latino Center of the Midlands.
Forty years have not dimmed the book’s impact. It remains widely used in classrooms and reading programs. Garcia says the film, which he’s seen, is a faithful adaptation. “It’s a great movie. It moved me. To a person like me of Spanish heritage that movie is very powerful.”
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.