MIAMI – Miriam Colon has one of those faces you know, even if you’ve never caught her name in the credits. She’s been in films and on TV since the mid-50s – from “Have Gun – Will Travel” to “Law & Order,” “Scarface” to “Lone Star.”
Now, at 76, native of Ponce, Puerto Rico, has the highest profile role of her life. She has the title role in “Bless Me, Ultima,” the aunt, mentor and curandera (healer/medicine woman) to a small Mexican American boy growing up in the New Mexico of the 1940s.
“She is a Latina of great spiritual and moral authority,” Colon says of the character. “She has this great endurance, the capacity to survive life’s tests. To find such a woman is a nice surprise, after all my years in movies. You don’t see these traits emphasized in most characters you’re offered. A role like this is a treasure.”
“Ultima,” based on the controversial Chicano novel by Rudolfo Anaya, is a woman who comes to live with her extended family in a farm village that has sent many of its sons to fight in World War II.
Her mystical ways are tolerated by the elders, but she has a magical influence on young Antonio (Luke Ganalon), as his adult self remembers and narrates in the film. The powers that be fear her.
“She is a threat because she is strong, unafraid, and does not compromise her beliefs. Ignorance is her real enemy. And fear. What they don’t understand frightens people.”
Colon sees that as the most controversial element of Anaya’s 1972 novel, praised as a book “with warmth and feeling” (Library Journal), but which is often challenged in school curricula and libraries because of its adult content and language. Colon has played her share of aunts and grandmothers in the movies and on TV. She’s even played a curandera before (in 2007’s “The Cry”). She dug into her own past to figure out how to play a no-nonsense woman who seems to have magic at her disposal, when the chips are down.
“The more I looked into her, the more I saw of my mother – may she rest in peace. Like Ultima, she was one of those courageous women who didn’t make speeches, a survivor, a woman of the Earth, a worker. She, like Ultima, was a simple woman with high hopes and high standards for her children.”
Colon hopes there are yet a few more roles with as much to offer as Ultima in her future.
“The two women I have played in my life who have given me a special thrill was the mother in ‘Scarface’ – THERE was a warrior – and Ultima. We need more examples of characters like Ultima, women of strength and empathy. A character like her shows the greatness and the potential of people, the strength of women standing up for themselves. It is a scandal that there aren’t more of them.”