Ruben Blades: In 'Spoken Word,' A Certain Wisdom

Ruben Blades i i

Ruben Blades is more than an entertainer -- he's also an icon in his native Panama. He even ran for president of that country in 1994 and won 18 percent of the vote. Lorey Sebastian/Luminaria hide caption

itoggle caption Lorey Sebastian/Luminaria
Ruben Blades

Ruben Blades is more than an entertainer -- he's also an icon in his native Panama. He even ran for president of that country in 1994 and won 18 percent of the vote.

Lorey Sebastian/Luminaria

When Cruz Montoya — the celebrity poet played by Kuno Becker in the film Spoken Word — arrives in his New Mexico hometown after a long absence, his aging father doesn't initially know who he is.

"This is private property. It's not for sale," Cruz Sr. tells the interloper.

"Que paso? You don't recognize your own son?" asks Cruz.

"I thought you were another gringo trying to buy me out," Senior replies.

Senior is played by Ruben Blades, the veteran actor and musician who returned to show business last year after a five-year stint as Panama's minister of tourism. Blades was drawn to Spoken Word for one simple reason: "Unemployment," he tells NPR's Scott Simon.

Blades says he is "always attracted to stories that have to do with describing family." The role of Senior seemed particularly challenging, since he would have to portray a man dying of cancer "without submerging myself into sentimentalism."

Blades says it wasn't hard, because Senior is pretty tough.

"He was a man who lived with dignity and chose to go the same way."

And the actor had a personal experience of his own to draw on.

Kuno Becker i i

Kuno Becker stars in Spoken Word as Cruz, a celebrated poet returning to his home town. Ruben Blades plays his father, Cruz Senior. Lorey Sebastian/Luminaria hide caption

itoggle caption Lorey Sebastian/Luminaria
Kuno Becker

Kuno Becker stars in Spoken Word as Cruz, a celebrated poet returning to his home town. Ruben Blades plays his father, Cruz Senior.

Lorey Sebastian/Luminaria

"My mother, God bless her — who died of cancer — I got to be with her during her last year, and she really taught me a lot by the way that she chose to face that test," he says.

It's the news of his father's illness that draws Cruz Jr. back to his home in Spoken Word. But like Senior, most of the old friends he encounters are less than welcoming.

"It's tough to come back," Blades says. Everyone Cruz Jr. left behind resents him for leaving.

Blades compares the Cruz Jr. character to "the survivor of a wreck, or the guys who survived the war" — a man wondering why he made it while others didn't.

But Cruz Jr. soon finds himself sucked into the culture of violence and drugs he thought he had escaped. Blades thinks the character's problems are rooted in his relationship with his father. The two can't communicate well, Blades says, because "when you go back to your family, you sort of turn into the child you were when you left. Because of that, you start making the choices a child would make."

That means "it's easier to get drawn to what you know than to face what you have learned that you should be."

Wisdom does come with age, though, as Blades himself can attest.

"It's the same thing with songs," he says. "I think there are some songs that you sing better as you understand them better."

He cites Maestra Vida, a musical he wrote more than 30 years ago, as an example.

"There was a song that an older character in the musical sings, and when I wrote it, I was 30 years old," Blades remembers. "And now I'm 62, and I sing that song, and it has a different meaning."

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