No One Writes to the Colonel–And That’s a Bad Thing

I recently wrote some thoughts about a movie on my other blog, Life Assays. The movie is quite pertinent to older adulthood, so I’m re-posting my comments here.

When I was in North Carolina recently, I saw a movie sponsored by the Modern Languages Department of Methodist University, where I taught before retiring in 2012. The film was El coronel no tiene quien le escribe (No One Writes to the Colonel), a 1999 Spanish language film by Mexican director Arturo Ripstein, based on a novella of the same name by Gabriel García Márquez. It has me thinking about what life is like for older adults in third-world countries.

The film is set in a small fishing community on what is apparently the Mexican coast. It is the 1940s, and the colonel (played by Fernando Luján), a veteran of the Cisteros war, has been waiting 27 years for the pension he was promised. Every Friday, he dresses in his best suit and waits on the dock for the mail boat, expecting to receive the letter announcing the beginning of his long-delayed pension. The lawyer who has been representing him has been ineffectual at everything except collecting additional fees. It seems that the government wants to forget about the war, so bureaucrats ignore the efforts of the war’s veterans promised benefits.

The colonel’s wife Lola (Marisa Paredes) tells him the pension will never come. Yet he keeps hoping—in the pension and in another longshot possibility, that the fighting cock that was the prized possession of their recently deceased son will win at the cockfights held each fall. The colonel and his wife are destitute, and the mortgage on their house will be due before the cockfights start, so much of the plot has to do with the couple’s efforts to prevent foreclosure.

The couple’s grief over their lost son is heartbreaking. At one point, Lola says pathetically, “It’s a sin to live longer than one’s children. A sin to wake up each morning.” The gamecock has special poignancy because it is all they have left of their son. The Colonel caresses it tenderly and carries it almost as if it were an infant in his arms. This fighting rooster is not just a potential breadwinner; he is a representative of all that was lost.

Besides impoverishment and the loss of their son, the couple are struggling with the lost integrity of their society. The injustice regarding the pension is part of a larger corruption, one that has infected most members of the village and, as it eventually turns out, underlies their son’s murder. The colonel remonstrates at one point, “The nation ended up like me—an old rag.” This is a despair that most older adults in liberal Western democracies never experience; even those of us who rant about government waste or oppression don’t have to grapple with the sort of societal rot that surrounded the colonel and his wife.

What is to be done in such a situation? The colonel does a couple admirable things in response. First, he clings to his honor. At times, this has a humorous element, as when he tries to save face with the neighborhood boys, telling his wife “They can’t find out I know nothing about cocks. I’m a full colonel, you know.” Ultimately, though, preserving honor proves costly, when he refuses blood money that would have provided financial deliverance.

The other thing he does in response to the corruption is continue to show up on the dock, even though there is no hope the letter will arrive. I see that as being his testimony to the whole town—mute testimony that says louder than any words that an injustice has been done, and no one should accept it as normal when such an injustice done to members of the community.

I know the film is a fictional account of events long past, but, still, it reminds me of real needs that exist right now in many countries. As I think ahead to my own retirement, I hope I’ll remember the plight of poor older adults who aren’t wrapped in the sort of financial security blanket that I have. Can any of us be fully at ease as long as so many people, be they young or old, have insufficient food, clothes, or shelter?

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family, and, in 2023, I started again with a move to Milwaukee to be near my children. I maintain a part-time therapy practice. I can be reached at
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