'Ultima' writer Rudolfo Anaya trusted film's director

The Fresno BeeFebruary 21, 2013 

Rudolfo Anaya's rise as one of the founders of contemporary Chicano literature started with his 1972 novel "Bless Me, Ultima," a look at life in New Mexico during World War II. It's the best-selling Chicano novel of all time, with more than 350,000 copies sold.

Despite how much the book means to his career, Anaya had no trouble turning it over to director/screenwriter Carl Franklin to adapt it to the feature film that opens in select theaters today.

"It's like how we turn our kids over (to child care). There's some point where you have to let go and that was easy for me to do because I know nothing about how to make movies," Anaya says.

The 75-year-old New Mexico native has spent his life as a teacher and a writer. He followed up "Bless Me, Ultima," the first part of a trilogy, with books of fiction and a series of publications for children and young adults. He wrote at night while working as a middle school and high school teacher during the day.

He laughs and says he kept his teaching job because it paid the bills, unlike his writing.

Anaya's passion for writing developed while he was studying literature at the University of New Mexico.

"That's where I started falling in love with writing and reading because they opened me up to so many different ideas. The key is that the world is full of ideas and symbols that I saw in all those books I began to read," Anaya says. "They started to resonate with my childhood where I had spent so much time wrestling with questions about good and evil."

He started writing about what he knew best -- his own life. "Bless Me, Ultima" is not strictly autobiographical -- he says it's about 50-50 -- but he uses people, places and things from his early life to tell a larger story. He was determined, because so many fabulous things happened to him when he was growing up in Santa Rosa, N.M., to preserve the beauty of the place and the people.

That history became the foundation for what Anaya calls "the spirit of 'Ultima,' " and it takes the story from being just a rite of passage novel to a deeper look in how belief systems affect our lives.

Anaya says he thinks "Bless Me, Ultima" has been so popular because there are elements -- love, hate, faith, loss -- that are universal to people of different cultures.

That message is finally being shared on the big screen. Anaya was happy with the way Franklin treated his book: "I sent him an e-mail that said 'You nailed it.' "

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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