Ramona, I hear the mission bells above,
Ramona, they’re ringing out our song of love,
I press you, caress you, and bless the day
you taught me to care…
Ramona, I need you, my own
— lyrics to a once popular song.
Prior to watching the Mexican telenovela, Ramona, I’d never heard of the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, yet the book, published in 1884 was at one time considered a classic. Written as a protest novel – Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Native Americans, this story of the half-Indian girl, Ramona and her relationship with the Mexican sheep ranching family, the Morenos in California after the Mexicans had lost it, was made into a silent film and later a talkie starring Loretta Young. One California town still has a yearly “Ramona festival” – a kind of passion play in which the story is retold. But Ramona did not only have an influence in the United States, it was translated into Spanish by no less than Jose Marti himself, who related Ramona’s mixed heritage to the heritage of all Latin Americans.
While both the novel and the television series tell a similar story and both are on the Indian’s “side,” the historical paradigm has shifted. Ramona, the series, like The Wind Done Gone and Wide Sargasso Sea, imagines the story from a completely different point of view. Only it’s not telling the tale from the perspective of a minor or newly minted character. In this case, the protagonist and her entire world have been re-imagined not by a 19th century progressive, but somewhat patronizing white woman (Helen Hunt Jackson), but by a contemporary progressive but bourgeois Mexican feminist with multi-cultural leanings and the anti-American sentiment of the baby boomer generation (Lucy Orozco, producer and creator of the series).
Ramona, the series, goes way beyond the novel’s outrage at the treatment of Native Americans. It offers a scathing critique of American greed, imperialism and racism. It is nothing less than a postmodern masterpiece, a brilliant subversion of the myth of the Old West – Santa Anna’s revenge as telenovela.
To understand the scope of this transformation, it’s necessary to look at the original. In Jackson’s novel, Ramona is a young woman raised on a large Mexican-owned hacienda in California after the Mexican American War. She is the ward of the widowed owner of the ranch. Eventually she finds out that she is half-Indian and half Scottish. Ramona falls in love with the Indian shepherd, Alessandro (Hunt Jackson apparently never bothered to learn the difference between Spanish and Italian). Her guardian disapproves. She runs off with him. His village is massacred by the US government. They wander around and are treated miserably. They have a child. The child gets sick. Alessandro borrows a neighbor’s horse to get a doctor. He’s hung as a horse thief and the child dies. Ramona goes back to the ranch, pregnant with another child. She marries Felipe, the widow’s son. They move to Mexico and have more kids.
Both the series and the book take place in the late 1860’s, twenty years after Mexico has lost the war. In the book, the war is hardly mentioned. In the series, the war, and Mexico’s lose of California are central motifs.
The events of the novel are set off by the United States’ policy of extermination and dispossession of California’s “mission Indians” – Christian converts. The action of the series is triggered by the United States’ take over of California and the pushing out of Mexicans and Indians along with discrimination against blacks, Chinese and other “outsiders.”
In the first episode, Ramona is returning to the hacienda after spending most of her childhood in a convent. The convent is closing because the nuns no longer feel safe or welcome in California. Back at the hacienda, gringo trespassers searching for gold in the hills are becoming an increasing annoyance. Both her leaving the convent and the tensions at the ranch are a result of California’s coming into Yankee possession.
As Ramona journeys to the hacienda, her carriage passes through the nearby town, Todos Santos, which at the very moment is being renamed Spurtown by the new gringo sheriff, Jack Green, who is making a jingoistic speech. (Green is in fact a wanted fugitive who just killed the previous sheriff and pinned it on Mexican bandits.) The entire town, and its many inhabitants do not exist in the book. In the series, the Mexican characters cannot even manage the town’s new name without practically spitting and referencing their loss.
In the novel, Ramona’s father, Angus, is a Scottish merchant marine. In the series he’s an Irish-Catholic, disgraced ex-officer in the US army. Because he’s in the enemy army, his courtship of doña Ramona (Ramona’s future foster mother) is clandestine although she plans to elope with him. However, she hears that a group of Irish-American officers, out of sympathy with their fellow Catholics, have switched sides in Mexico and been hung by the U.S. army. Without knowing that her true love has escaped, she marries another man. Years later after he’s been mortally wounded and his Indian woman killed by a group of gringo rednecks, he arrives at the hacienda carrying his infant daughter. It is his dying wish that doña Ramona raise her as a Catholic and as her own. So although Ramona has no “Mexican blood,” she is nevertheless the daughter of a Mexican patriot.
Doña Ramona hides Ramona’s true identity, and passes her off as her own daughter. This leads to several plot complications absent from the book including her son Felipe’s illicit passion for his “sister.” Being a good Catholic boy, he believes he will burn in hell for these feelings and is driven nearly to suicide. As a plot device it’s delicious. The scenes of Ramona and Felipe together contain the perverse eroticism of a cross-dressing Shakespeare comedy.
Jackson’s Felipe is a cipher, a consolation prize for the heroine after Alessandro is killed. (One gets the feeling that Felipe might have been happier with Alessandro.) In the series, Felipe’s unselfish love for Ramona and his quiet strength and sensitivity are woven so seamlessly that by the end it’s clear that they were destined to be together, and that Alejandro (renamed in the series) was merely a youthful passion. As in an old screwball comedy the heroine has wound up with the man she took for granted throughout the story. Orozco has also managed to create, in addition to a historical saga, a romantic fantasy in which a strong woman winds up with a slightly submissive, yet handsome and passionate male who respects and appreciates her, and they even have great sex! In short, Orozco has created the perfect (heterosexual) feminist romantic fairytale.
While both Ramonas start out as passive “damsels in distress,” it is only the Ramona of the series who metamorphoses into a heroine in charge of her own destiny.
In a scene with more than a nod to The Graduate, Alejandro arrives on a white horse to rescue Ramona from marrying the man doña Ramona has chosen for her. But instead of riding off into the conventional sunset, the adventure and political allegory are just beginning.
By the time of their elopement, the problems with the “malditos gringos” are becoming serious for both the Mexicans and Indians. Besides lusting after the Moreno’s gold, the sheriff has obtained a stolen set of plans showing the railroad will run through the Yahí Indian village and has begun to plot the elimination of the Yahís. While the coming of the railroad and land speculation is a device which has been used in other westerns, particularly in the sixties and beyond, and also as a metaphor, Orozco takes things further – creating specific parallels to United States policies of intervention in both Vietnam and Latin America.
Weeks before Ramona’s aborted wedding, Sheriff Green concocts a plan to “sow terror” in the Yahí village by framing one of their young men as a horse thief and hanging him in front of his tribe. Alejandro returns to his village moments after the hanging. From a distance he shoots and kills one of the sheriff’s men. His father, the chief, is dragged off (literally, on a rope, pulled by a horse) and taken prisoner. Alejandro tries to rescue him but is caught. His father is killed in front of him, and he is wounded and taken to be hanged. His men rescue him at the last second. By the time he arrives to take Ramona, he’s a wanted man.
We have seen Alejandro change from a gentle and philosophical shepherd into an angry revolutionary as he watches the rope tighten around his people’s necks. He becomes their leader and their inspiration. If he is their Che, Ramona is his Tanya. She transforms herself from sheltered convent educated girl into his partner and comrade. As they head back to the Yahí village, she makes speeches about the beauty of nature, the importance of freedom and how she only wishes to live in a world with understanding instead of hate. While one could view these sentiments as the romanticism of a middle-class dilettante playing Indian (or revolutionary), reality sets in soon enough.
Alejandro is trying to prepare his people for the next and inevitable attack. It is Ramona, now his wife who suggests asking Felipe for the money to buy arms. In another bit of multi-culturalism, the peddler who can get them the weapons is a sympathetic African-American. The couple discovers that a new law requires them to register the Yahí land titles in Spurtown. They realize that any Yahí attempting to do so will be in danger, so Ramona volunteers to go dressed as a Mexican peasant. Alejandro despite the price on his head insists on accompanying her and hides in the back of the peddler’s wagon.
Her mission succeeds but after they leave Spurtown they hear that a group of gringos is heading for the village. The sheriff has decided that capturing the savage fugitive provides just the right pretext for an invasion of the Yahí territory. He’s roused the rabble and gathered the town’s men to accompany him. Ramona and Alejandro hurry back, but it’s too late. The village has all but burned to the ground, the inhabitants – men, women, and children – massacred. The camera is unsparing in it’s depiction, and one can only think of the massacres of indigenous people in the Americas and the American strategy of “burning the village to save it” in Vietnam. Alejandro manages to kill one of Green’s men with a hatchet. Ramona also shoots and kills a man who was about to execute the only survivor of the massacre – an old woman who’d been hiding in a cave. Ramona is then captured and the woman is killed in front of her. Alejandro gives himself up when the gang threatens to kill Ramona.
Not all the gringos are evil. Two of the heroic ones are Doris, the barmaid, and Elegant Billy the gunfighter. Both shatter the stereotypes of the Western. The typical western barmaid is a whore with a heart of gold who may wind up dying violently in the last reel to ensure that the hero winds up with the nice girl. Doris is something different. In the official Ramona website of the Televisa Network, she is described in the list of characters as follows: “Breaking the stereotype of hostile and racist North Americans, this pretty barmaid represents the rational American of that epoch who didn’t justify or participate in xenophobic acts…. with valor and daring, almost childlike in her desire to help…”
This description clarifies the writers’ intentions and agenda. Having a character who “represents” a particular viewpoint, shows that this is an allegory. We are also made painfully aware of the contemporary Mexican perception of those they refer to as “North Americans.”
While Doris does not hide her sentiments, she doesn’t draw suspicion to herself and is able to commit covert acts of justice. At one point, she helps break Billy out of jail (after he’d been caught trying to break Ramona and Alejandro out).
As for Billy, early on he’d been asked by the sheriff to join the masked band. He’d turned him down explaining that he didn’t need a mask to kill someone. While he starts off as an opportunist, a cynic, like Oscar Schindler his own idiosyncratic code of honor and his growing disgust with injustice forces him to act.
Ramona and Alejandro have been kept alive and brought to Spurtown so that they can be publicly tried. The trials are an instrument, a political tool to further manipulate the common folk. As the mob turns festive in anticipation of the condemnation and death of Alejandro, Doc – the sheriff’s most loyal comrade-in-arms and chief strategist – comments, “ “Bread and circus to keep the people content.”
Alejandro is tried first. As an Indian, he is denied counsel. His trial is short and he is condemned to be hung the next morning. During their last night, Alejandro begs Ramona to keep fighting to live as she is by this time carrying their child who will be the last Yahí.
Ramona’s trial goes better. She is able to have a lawyer and put on a defense. The truth about Ramona’s birth is revealed – although because her father was white, she is allowed to keep her lawyer. (Felipe is of course taken aback by this news.) She testifies about the massacre. Her version is supported by the mission priest. At the last moment, an insider comes forth and testifies about the sheriff’s knowledge of the railroad plan and his true motive for the massacre. Ramona incredulous rises to her feet and says, “So much death. So much blood. All this for a little sliver of land.”
As the jurors come back with a verdict of not guilty, Green realizing he is sunk, sends Doc out to get the horses ready. But before he has a chance to leave, Billy enters the courtroom accompanied by the father of a twelve-year-old girl who’d been raped and murdered by Green in Texas.
The sheriff is immediately arrested.
The concluding episodes are more concerned with wrapping up the destinies of the characters than with examining history; however, history is not absent and the writers manage some clever and unexpected twists.
Several months have past. Ramona has returned to the hacienda and had her baby. Felipe hasn’t admitted his feelings for her. She is still mourning Alejandro, but the viewers can see that her bond with Felipe is more than fraternal, even if she cannot.
The fugitive ex-sheriff sneaks onto the property. He confronts doña Ramona. She demands to know what he’s doing there. He says, “I came to remind you that these lands don’t belong to you. You, the Mexicans, it’s already past the time for you to get out of here.”
We are again reminded that this isn’t simply a story about the Morenos, but one about all the Mexicans who were dispossessed by the gringo expansion and possibly even those who are still being told to “go home.”
She starts to walk away and he shoots her in the back. She falls to the ground and before losing consciousness repeats Ramona’s line, “All this for a little sliver of land.”
Green is seen going into a shed. Felipe tells his men that he’s going in alone to kill him. Green shoots. He doesn’t hit Felipe but causes him to drop a lantern he’d been holding igniting the straw on the ground. The two men stand off as the flames begin to spread. As Green is about to shoot again, a burning wooden beam falls from the ceiling pinning down his wounded leg. Felipe walks out stating that this is the death he deserves.
If Green is the personification of American arrogance, greed, racism and imperialism, then Ramona is his Vietnam, the quagmire he is unable to escape which eventually consumes him.
Ramona and Felipe stand by doña Ramona’s deathbed. Gasping for breath, she makes them promise that they will sell the hacienda and return to Mexico. “…. I always said that the land was sacred and one had to shed blood for it. Now I say that the only sacred thing is life and if you want to preserve it you have to return to your country…”
Orozco, who dedicated the show to the memory of her mother, has given us a message and a myth almost the opposite one American’s live by. In the melodramatic retelling of the South’s loss of the Civil War, Gone with the Wind, the heroine discovers that land is “the only thing worth fighting for, worth dying for.” But here, the lesson is that life itself is the only thing worth fighting for. Life is what is sacred. Not property, particularly after you’ve fought the good fight and come to realize that your enemy is and always will be stronger than you are.
We hear Ramona narrate once more, a device not used since the first minutes of the series. She tells us they abandoned the hacienda as they promised, and returned to Mexico marrying some time thereafter. We hear a child asking, “So I was born in California?” Suddenly, we are in a well-furnished sitting room with Ramona and her two children – a brown skinned little boy and a younger girl with blonde curls. It becomes clear that the story is a flashback, Ramona fulfilling her promise to Alejandro to tell their son about his father. The Moreno home at the hacienda had been furnished with what were antiques at the time. The parlor is late nineteenth century – modern in its era, as is Ramona’s high button dress and pointed shoes.
Felipe walks in. He is wearing a suit in contrast to spurs and belled pants we’d seen him in on the hacienda. He kisses the children (Ramona and Alejandro). Marta, still the loyal family retainer, takes them to bed.
Ramona comes up and hugs Felipe kissing him on the cheek. We have not yet seen them kiss each other on the lips. They remain standing, embracing, kissing and talking. It is the longest “standing kiss” on film possibly since Hitchcock used this technique in Notorious. Thematic music had been used throughout the series, but the music which comes on now is markedly more modern – Shostakovich, Waltz from the Jazz Suite Number Two. The music signals that we have entered a new epoch. The Wild West is dead, and the twentieth century is upon us. Felipe lifts Ramona and carries her onto their bed. Their eyes are locked upon each other. Their expressions joyful and intense as though this was the first time they were about to make love. We finally see their lips meet. Ramona unbuttons the top button of her dress and puts out a candle. They continue kissing in the dark as the word “Fin” appears on the screen. The image is frozen as the credits role.
Unlike the Ramona of the book who was a victim of history, this Ramona is an actor and catalyst. Although she has been “tamed”, she is not a prisoner. Felipe may carry her to bed, but in contrast to the iconic scene in Gone with the Wind, she is delighted and in control.
The political historical allegory has merged with the (overtly) conventional romantic ending. Like all love stories, this was about the obstacles to the fulfillment of romance. Poor Felipe had so many obstacles! First he believes that Ramona is his sister and he’s going to burn in hell. Then he’s convinced she’ll never love him (because she’s in love with a dead man), and he feels honor bound to marry Beatriz, the sickly fiancé he’d courted only because the priest advised him that he needed a woman to take his mind off his sister. Several of the supporting characters have also coupled up including Doris the gallant barmaid and Fernando (the man whom Ramona had left at the altar), as well as Billy and Fernando’s sister, Analupe. As in a Jane Austen novel, everyone winds up with the right person and none of them would have been right for each other at the beginning of the story. Ramona had to learn from doña Ramona that she couldn’t entomb herself with her dead lover. The snobby Fernando comes to realize that he still loves Ramona even if she is an Indian, and it’s that love and loss that enables him to question his own prejudice and wind up with a gringa barmaid (of whom he will never be worthy). Analupe’s father (Ramona’s lawyer) would never have allowed an American gunslinger (now turned sheriff) to court his daughter if he hadn’t learned from Ramona to judge people by their character and not their race. And Beatriz! In a more ordinary story she would have conveniently died of consumption begging Felipe to marry Ramona while gasping for breath. Instead she develops the cohones to end things and winds up with her handsome doctor!
Is Ramona perfect? Not by a long shot. It was contrived and at points even ludicrous although the actors always remained in character and did their best to make situations believable with only an occasional perfectly timed raised eyebrow. Hacienda life was romanticized. There were too many humble servants and happy peons. As for the Indians, their customs, dress and culture were an unlikely mish-mash.
While the historical viewpoint and political allegory are clear to anyone looking for them, as with many works of drama or literature, the piece works on different levels and not every viewer will “get” all of the implications. One might wonder how Orozco managed to slip such a politically loaded weapon onto Mexico’s conservative Televisa network. There are probably many reasons “the message” escaped the notice or censor of her network’s brass. To begin with, Orozco presents the show as being based on the “classic” novel by Helen Hunt Jackson – a book that no one has read in years. She does not advertise her intention to transform it. Also the historical bias against the United States would be acceptable even to conservative Mexican audiences. Setting the tale in the Old West distances it from contemporary events. The Indians in Ramona are usually referred to as “piel rojas” (redskins) and not the derogatory term commonly used in Latin America – Indios. Differentiating the indigenous in California from those in Mexico serves to create a safe space for the Latin American audience. The genocide portrayed is the historical one carried out by the United States government – not to be confused with contemporary events in Chiapis or Oaxaca. At one point, Ramona challenges the distinction. When she and Alejandro try to stop for the night at a Mexican owned roadhouse, the owner tells her that Indians are not allowed. She points out that as Mexicans they are not “pure blooded,” but also of mixed ancestry. The proprietor replies that that is different. He may have the blood of the Aztecs, but not the Apaches. By spelling out the difference, Orozco calls attention to the fact that there really isn’t one.
The romantic finale also serves to both emphasize and downplay the revolutionary aspects of the story. Ramona may bring chaos, but in the end order is restored and the status quo upheld. The “revolution” she leads is a subtle one. Orozco has satisfied the demands of the genre (as well as most of her audience and her network) by providing us with the conventional boy-gets-girl fade-out. She has presented us with a heroine who has given up her radical ways and settled into bourgeois motherhood. But there is also something about the final scene reminiscent of modern productions of The Taming of the Shrew. Directors haven’t tampered with the text of Katherine’s closing monologue extolling the women of Padua to obey their husbands, yet they’ve allowed her to wink at the audience and drench her words with irony. If Ramona had not taken control of her destiny, she would have wound up married to a stuffed shirt or imprisoned in a convent. While she is no longer riding around the countryside in war paint, she is nevertheless liberated.
Lucy Orozco is a successful, educated, Mexican woman of a certain age. She probably attended university in the late 1960’s – a time of worldwide social change and strong anti-US sentiment. One wonders how she and her writers began their adaptation of the novel. Did they start by changing Alessandro to Alejandro and Luigi to Lucio, laughing at the author’s ignorance? Were they offended at how the Catholic faith was patronized? Who thought of making Angus an Irish Catholic and where that could lead? Did Green start out as merely a stock villain or did they understand his potential symbolic value from the first story conference? Who even named him Green – the very word used in the phrase: “Green go home,” which became the word gringo? And let’s not even discuss Doc – Green’s clever sidekick and strategist, Kissinger to his Nixon.
In the end the writers did not adapt a novel, or even parody one. They created an entirely original story (albeit one that references various familiar genres) with characters who are at once both full individuals and familiar types, characters who grow and change as life changes them, a story which like those of Dickens and Tolstoy is set into motion and influenced by the social and historical forces of the times. In short, they created a work of literature for television.