Miriam Colon isn’t just the star of Bless Me, Ultima, a gentle soul of a film set in a New Mexico Latino community during World War II. She’s also something of a prophet on its behalf, urging more films like this one that, quite literally, calls from the wilderness with a story of America’s rich Latino culture.
While there’s no shortage of movies that examine the Latino experience in America, they tend to unfold as urban gangster films (Scarface), along America’s embattled borders (Traffic) or within groups of troubled street kids (Stand and Deliver).
Precious few follow the path of the lyrical Bless Me Ultima – now on DVD after a successful theatrical run – delicately tracing the poetic, mystical side of Latino culture.
Bless Me Ultima is the story of a young boy (Luke Ganalon) and his relationship with a local curandera, or medicine woman, played by Colon.
“She’s a healer, and I like her,” the veteran Latino star says of her character. “I have met women like Ultima. They are very earthy, very real, and tremendously honest. There are many women like her. She has a natural instinct to trust plants, and the elements of nature, and to watch the Earth.”
Too often, she says, Latino women in the movies fall into a maddening stereotype.
“The usual thing is: ‘Oh, yes! Bonita senorita!'” she laughs. “That Chiquita-type attitude; she has to be on the crazy side but also a little bit on the stupid side.”
Based on Rudolfo Anaya’s novel, Bless Me Ultima is set against the sweeping landscape of America’s Southwest, where, for once, a cloud of dust down the road does not signify the approach of the Border Patrol, nor that of a drug kingpin’s motorcade.
To be sure, there are conflicts afoot in Bless Me Ultima – many of the locals are spooked by the curandera, and would rather see her leave town. But at its heart, the film is a meditation on what it means to be true to the subtler aspects of your cultural legacy in a world that increasingly demands homogeny.
For Colon, it’s the kind of film Hollywood needs to make more of.
“As Latinos in this country, we have to continue nurturing stories like this,” she says. “It’s not all drugs, and it’s not all immigration, and it’s not all the world of vice.
“We need more films that help you to know your neighbor, to understand the differences among types and colors and attitudes and religions.
“When we learn that, there is the possibility that there will be less violence.”
Her voice, which has reached almost a militant tone, suddenly goes soft.
“There’s too much violence going on,” she adds sadly.
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