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‘Bless Me, Ultima’s’ journey to the big screen

‘Bless Me, Ultima’s’ journey to the big screen
Actors Castulo Guerra, left, Benito Martinez and Luke Ganalon of the film “Bless Me, Ultima” at Arenas Entertainment in Los Angeles.
(Genaro Molina, Los Angeles Times)

It’s a long way from Christy Walton’s ocean-view manse near La Jolla to the arid plains of 1940s New Mexico.

But over the decades, the billionaire heiress to the Wal-Mart fortune has found solace and inspiration in Rudolfo Anaya’s coming-of-age novel, “Bless Me, Ultima,” set in that unforgiving landscape, and in the mystical story of a Mexican American boy named Tony who lives there.

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Finally, a realization hit her.

“One of the things I wanted to do before I died was to see this book made into a movie,” Walton said one recent morning, gazing from her cliffside home toward the Pacific. “It’s the only book I’ve ever felt that way about.”

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Beloved by generations of readers, “Bless Me, Ultima” is considered the most influential Chicano work of fiction ever written. It has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, been required reading in a number of public schools, and was chosen for the National Endowment for the Arts’ Big Read program. Former First Lady Laura Bush placed it on her top 10 reading list for all ages.

Yet it wasn’t until last month that a feature film of “Bless Me, Ultima” — bankrolled by Walton — opened in theaters, generally to warm reviews. The acclaimed Puerto Rican actor Miriam Colon stars as the title character, a folk healer who teaches Tony and nurtures his growing soul. The film is playing on 52 screens nationwide.

Hollywood producers had long talked about making the book into a movie, but for decades nothing happened, said Anaya, a poet, playwright and emeritus professor of English at the University of New Mexico.

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“People would call me and would come by Albuquerque and talk to me,” said Anaya, 75. “There was interest; it just didn’t come to be. Then there was that hiatus, that long wait, until Christy Walton got interested.”

Inspired in part by the author’s own Southwestern boyhood, “Bless Me, Ultima” emerged from the politically charged flowering of Chicano culture in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.

“There was art coming out, and music and literature all over the place,” Anaya said. “It was just a fabulous time. And a time of standing up for identity and culture.”

Over the years, a handful of school districts have banned the book because it deals with themes of witchcraft and contains snatches of strong language. But the novel gradually won out over the scolds and the censors.

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The story of how Walton, a Hollywood outsider, set up a company for the sole purpose of producing this one film contains nearly as many dramatic twists as the book itself. It includes her then-3-year-old son’s battle with Stage 4 cancer and the death of her husband, John T. Walton, son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, in a 2005 plane crash. Walton, an eco-entrepreneur and philanthropist, also had to overcome a nearly lethal bout of pneumonia.

Although “Bless Me, Ultima” is nominally a children’s or young adult book, Walton first read it as a wife and mother, in the late 1980s, at a female friend’s urging. What she discovered was a sort of Mexican American “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Its main character, Antonio “Tony” Marez, is almost 7 the summer when Ultima, an elderly curandera, or traditional Mexican healer, comes to live with his family. In the months that follow, Tony bonds with the older woman, whose spiritual powers arouse fear and suspicion among other villagers. Tony also sees deeper into the struggles facing his farmer parents and three older brothers, back from World War II, and learns to embrace Ultima’s homespun morality, even if it sometimes conflicts with his religion.

Apart from the story’s power, what most touched Walton about the book was its emphasis on valuing the natural world and holding fast to one’s family and community.

“We are a fear-based society,” said Walton. “I’d like that to change to a faith-based society.”

Fear became palpable for Walton in the late ‘80s, when her only child, Lukas, then 3, was diagnosed with a rare form of kidney cancer that had spread to his lungs. After chemotherapy treatments failed, Walton and her husband put their son on a plant- and herb-based diet, with food harvested from their National City home, later donated to create the nonprofit Olivewood Gardens and Learning Center.

In five months, Walton said, the tumor was gone. Walton said “Bless Me, Ultima” helped her weather that period. Years later, she and her son re-read the book aloud together on a family sailing trip.

Walton began sharing the book with friends and pressing it on acquaintances, among them producer Sarah DiLeo, who has specialized in short films and documentaries and met Walton at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

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“We really shared a passion for the material and felt like it was not only an amazing story but it’s very cinematic,” DiLeo said. She then introduced the book to Mark Johnson, a veteran producer who’d won the best picture Oscar for “Rain Man.”

The next challenge was to secure Anaya’s blessing. “Rudolfo was a little skeptical,” DiLeo said. “He wanted to be sure his work would be in the right hands.”

After “continuing to haunt him” for several months, DiLeo persuaded Anaya and his wife to let her meet them in the Baja California city of La Paz while they were vacationing there one Thanksgiving.

“She showed up the next day,” Anaya said, “and we bummed around La Paz for two or three days. They offered the option and my literary agent read it and said, ‘Let’s go with it.’”

But just as the project was taking off, Walton’s life took a tragic turn. Attempting a solo flight in his home-built, experimental aircraft, Walton’s husband of 26 years, John, crashed shortly after taking off in Jackson, Wyo. The Silver Star-decorated Vietnam War veteran was 58.

For the next several months, Walton lived on sailboats and airplanes, never staying more than five days in one place. “I was no help to my son. Thank God he was 19. I was nowhere. I was in a suitcase.”

Still hoping to turn “Bless Me, Ultima” into a movie, she began drafting a screenplay, which was “very cathartic.” “I probably copied the book verbatim three times.” But the project needed a professional’s touch. Eventually, Johnson brought in Carl Franklin, whose credits include “Devil in a Blue Dress,” as director-screenwriter.

Although she had last say over the final script and edit, Walton wanted only minimal involvement in casting and other creative decisions.

“I felt like everybody else knew more about what they were doing than I did,” she said.

“Bless Me Ultima” has taken in $1.33 million at the box office, according to the film’s distributor. Walton won’t say what it cost to make the movie, shot in New Mexico. Walton visited the set a handful of times.

“She was very simpática,” said Colon, who plays Ultima. “If she accepted me as Ultima, that was a great honor to me. There are hundreds of thousands of women like Ultima, and they are not necessarily Latin, who are sustaining the structure of society.”

Anaya already has seen the film three times. He hopes it may persuade more studio heads to make movies about Latinos that don’t involve gang shootings and car crashes.

“I keep complaining that the producers, directors and actors in the Hollywood area all seem to be blind,” Anaya said. “My God, these people walk around Los Angeles and the entire California area, surrounded by a Mexican American community. Don’t they see them? There’s so many beautiful, tender, dramatic stories out there. I hope that ‘Bless Me, Ultima’ opens a few of those blind eyes.”

If it does, someone besides Walton will need to help tell those stories. “Bless Me, Ultima,” she says, is her first and last film.

“This book wanted to be a movie,” she said. “So I’ve done my part.”

Follow @RJohnsonLAT

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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