When Rudolfo Anaya wrote a novel based on his childhood experiences growing up Mexican-American in rural New Mexico he probably didn't imagine it would become one of the best-selling Chicano novels of all time. After the huge success of the book, he was approached by countless producers who wanted to adapt it for the big screen. Anaya said yes but none of those projects came to fruition.
More than 40 years after "Bless Me, Ultima" was published, Christy Walton, heiress to the Walmart fortune, put up the money to make a film based on the mystical book. Finally, the stars aligned. After playing theaters for a few weeks earlier this year, the movie is now on DVD.
Turning Anaya's words into a script couldn't have been easy. Rudolfo Anaya's writing style drew from his physical surroundings in the great landscapes of the Southwest and was influenced by Native American beliefs in the spirit world. For many Latinos it was the first time they read a book that spoke to them the same way they did, in English peppered with Spanish. For the actors of the film, reading the book was also an important watershed moment.
LatinoBuzz spoke to Miriam Colon, Benito Martinez, and its young breakout star Luke Ganalon ahead of the DVD release. They share what it was like to bring the book to life and funny memories from the shoot. Colon says that playing Ultima was her most significant role since Scarface.
Have you read the book, "Bless Me, Ultima"?
Luke Ganalon: Yes, I read the book in 5th grade. I had read many pieces of the story during the filming because my parents thought it would be better to understand the story, Antonio's character and how Antonio saw life. It meant even more after having finished the film.
Benito Martinez: I grew up in New Mexico and I've known Rudolfo Anaya since I was a kid. I've read his book many times. To me he was just a guy from my neighborhood. I was just reading a homeboy writing about how we grew up. Then later, I read it as a father, with my kids and it had a different meaning for me. I was so glad the script was so close to the book. Getting to be in the movie was just icing on the cake.
Miriam Colon: No, it caught me totally by surprise. Then I was ashamed and embarrassed to realize that this man is a very distinguished, well-known, highly-respected author. I think it's just that we do not know enough about each other. We don't know enough about the cultures of the people next to us, that are part of our lives. A man like that is very important because he writes with tremendous honesty and perception, and a depth of understanding of the dignity and the character of these people.
Were you able to meet the author of "Bless Me, Ultima"?
Luke Ganalon: Yes, we met on the set when we were filming at Garson Studios in Santa Fe, New Mexico. We talked about the story. Senor Anaya gave me a great compliment. He said when he wrote the story, he imagined Antonio to be just like me. That meant so much to me! When we spoke at the film's second showing in Santa Fe (the first was in El Paso, Texas), Senor Anaya mentioned that he hoped the film would get to Hollywood and make it!
Benito Martinez: When he walked on set he said, "Oh my God. This looks so real." That story is almost autobiographical for him. So, he stopped by the set and gave his bendicion (blessing).
What about the story do you think has resonated with so many people?
Benito Martinez: This story at its core is about family. I love the way it's told. It's a traditional American story that happens to be Latino. Those families were there before the border. And it's a celebration of the land and sounds that make up New Mexico. It's just a story about family, family taking care of family. It's a universal story, ultimately.
Miriam Colon: Well, the story is about people, it happens to be in a small town, in a town in United States, their struggles. There are the heroes, and the dedicated people, and the cynical people, and there are the treacherous people, and there are the people who are very honest and there are the people who are rotten also. So, it's like a miniature of what you find today anywhere.
Luke, you were only nine years old when you tried out for the part. What was the audition like?
Luke Ganalon: I auditioned twice each for Antonio and for Cico. And then I read a fifth time as Cico in front of the producers and director Carl Franklin. Then I found out later that I had been hired as Antonio. We heard through a phone call from my agent that I had earned the role. I was so excited. I ran through the house screaming!
And then you got an award for Best Actor! Can you talk about the day you won the Imagen Award?
Luke Ganalon: I had been very nervous just to be nominated for this award and really never thought I'd win. I was going up against so many great actors. I couldn't believe when they called my name. I was shocked and excited! I felt so honored and grateful that Carl Franklin, the crew and the cast believed in me.
Luke, you play the young Antonio. Do you have anything in common with the character you play in the film?
Luke Ganalon: We both believe in God. We both have questions about life and religion. We both strive to do well in school. We have similar personality traits. We are both serious and think things through and Antonio is an old soul and cares for others; I have also been told the same things.
Miriam, you play Ultima, a curandera. Are there any similarities between you and her?
I am very much Ultima. I recognized Ultima immediately. And I sympathized with her. And the trouble is that I fell in love with the role when I read the first draft that I was given of the lines. You should never do that because out of one hundred scripts, maybe you get seven, that you land the role. So it's heartbreaking, the disappointment. I blew the rules. I fell in love with her. I feel it's maybe the most significant role that I have ever played next to the woman that I played in Scarface, who is in a way similar. The mother in Scarface was a courageous woman, a great character. She could not be corrupted. It's a wisdom and a kind of intelligence that I love.
Do you have any funny stories or favorite memories from the shoot?
Luke Ganalon: Most of my favorite memories would definitely be the scenes I filmed with the other kids. The "gang" was always fun. The family scenes were even more special because we became very close and were like a real family. A very funny memory is when my First Communion wardrobe was WAY too big and Ernie walked out of his trailer in a suit WAY to small. We all laughed as we rushed to change and get filming.
Benito Martinez: We shot a couple of years ago but there are lots of funny moments. Someone's boyfriend handled animals for a living. So he brought a snake to the set and I was walking around with a snake on my shoulders. And learning to drive one of those old trucks, that was hard! There's no power steering, the clutch always sticks. For the scenes that it was raining I had to wear a plastic suit under my clothes so I wouldn't get sick or catch pneumonia.
Miriam, you have been a strong advocate for Latinos in film and theater. What do you think of the current state of Latino representation in cinema?
Miriam Colon: I am sort of tired of seeing the Mexican or Puerto Rican or the Latino in general being portrayed many times like a treacherous, mysterious, not to be trusted, not too intelligent, smiles easily but somehow is a foolish idiot. That is offensive and I hope that the powerful medium of film can be used to spread more understanding about each other.
The more we know about the majesty of our men and women workers, the more we know about a poor person that manages to survive in a negative environment, the more we reveal about our soul and about also the similarities of the struggles for survival: material survival, physical survival, spiritual survival, intellectual survival. I guess that the way to offset the kind of direction in which we are going is by creating vehicles that offer an honest and really penetrating and responsible analysis of what moves us, what affects us.
And film should be a vehicle because it is such a powerful, powerful medium. I love it and I want to be part of it but I hope that more responsible vehicles are created and that the Latino and other minorities will be given the opportunity to express their struggle for survival and their capacity to love, to construct, and to build, and to improve.
Bless Me, Ultima is now on DVD and streaming on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play.
Written by Vanessa Erazo. LatinoBuzz is a weekly feature on SydneysBuzz that highlights Latino indie talent and upcoming trends in Latino film with the specific objective of presenting a broad range of Latino voices. Follow @LatinoBuzz on Twitter and Facebook.