Close en­coun­ters Sis­ters in Blue


Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - Face of the Earth,

The bilin­gual il­lus­trated sto­ry­book Sis­ters in Blue (Her­manas de azul) imag­ines a re­mark­able en­counter be­tween the his­tor­i­cal Span­ish nun, Sor María de Ágreda, also known in New Mex­ico as the Lady in Blue, and a fic­tional Pue­bloan woman, Paf Sheuri. The story finds beauty not only in what is sa­cred and joy­ous in these two women’s lives, but also in their pain and iso­la­tion. This trea­sure of a tale, writ­ten by Anna M. Nogar and En­rique R. La­madrid, and il­lus­trated by the inim­itable Amy Cór­dova, is part of the Queren­cia Se­ries from the Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press. The se­ries ex­plores sto­ries rooted in love of place and peo­ple from the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der­lands. In an es­say at the end of Sis­ters in Blue, Nogar sit­u­ates the part-fic­tional story in 17th-cen­tury Span­ish colo­nial and Pue­bloan his­tory. There was no dearth of tur­moil in the his­tory of the pe­riod, but this story fo­cuses on the points of con­nec­tion be­tween Span­ish and Pue­bloan cul­tures.

The his­tor­i­cal Sor María was born in 1602 in the town of Ágreda in the Span­ish prov­ince of So­ria. When we meet Sor María, she is a young nun liv­ing in her for­mer house, which has been con­verted to a con­vent. We smell the laven­der in the con­vent court­yard and the rose­mary bush on which she dries her robe. She is as com­fort­able in the con­vent as a nun can be, but she also senses that some­thing is miss­ing in her life. It is un­der­stand­able that Sor María’s mind drifts to­ward dis­tant lands — her father and broth­ers have left to join far­away Fran­cis­can com­mu­ni­ties, and she has had no news of them. Her be­lief in her faith is so po­tent that she be­gins to take spir­i­tual jour­neys, which she ex­pe­ri­ences as be­ing real, to New Mex­ico, help­ing to bring Catholi­cism to the South­west. In the story, she meets Paf Sheuri or Blue Flower, a woman from a New Mex­i­can pueblo.

Nogar writes in her es­say, “Cul­ti­vat­ing Le­gend and Con­nect­ing Places,” that Paf Sheuri is a fic­tional char­ac­ter based on ethno­graphic and an­thro­po­log­i­cal knowl­edge about the peo­ple of the Sali­nas Pue­b­los, in what is now called the Es­tan­cia Val­ley. “Af­ter the trau­matic de­feat of Zuñi pueblo and the death of many of its re­li­gious lead­ers in the sum­mer of 1540, the re­sult of the ex­traor­di­nar­ily cruel and dis­as­trous Coron­ado ex­pe­di­tion of 1540-1542, siz­able groups of refugees went east to Cueloze,” she writes. In the story, Cueloze is the pueblo Paf Sheuri lives in. She speaks Tom­piro, one of the Tanoan lan­guages spo­ken in pre­colo­nial and colo­nial New Mex­ico, a di­alect that has since dis­ap­peared.

Paf Sheuri’s peo­ple care­fully ob­serve the move­ments of the Span­ish, and feel anx­ious when they re­turn to a neigh­bor­ing area. Paf Sheuri’s mother tells her: “Your grand­mother took refuge here with the sur­vivors from the first war with the Cuacu in­vaders, the Metal Peo­ple, sixty years ago. Their bod­ies and heads re­flected the sun like gi­ant bee­tles. They brought fierce war dogs and rode on huge, horn­less deer they call

ca­bal­los that chewed on bars of metal.” This de­scrip­tion mem­o­rably sug­gests how the Pueblo peo­ples might have vis­ually per­ceived the con­quis­ta­dores.

Cór­dova’s il­lus­tra­tions richly evoke Pueblo and Span­ish colo­nial cul­tures, es­pe­cially their spe­cific

cel­e­bra­tions. One de­light­ful scene from the Fi­esta de San Juan shows a man play­fully splash­ing milk on a boy, while a girl and a woman look on. A cen­ter spread of Pue­bloans cel­e­brat­ing Midsummer Feast, of men and women danc­ing with corn and rat­tles, im­merses the viewer in the hyp­notic mood of their dance.

The his­tor­i­cal es­say grounds Sor María’s spir­i­tual trav­els, which may at first come across as be­ing whim­si­cal. Nogar has based her story on ac­counts of Sor María’s trav­els by Fray Be­na­vides, a friar who vis­ited the pueblo where she sup­pos­edly trav­eled and who also sub­se­quently in­ter­viewed Sor María in Spain. Later in her life, dur­ing the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion, Sor María tes­ti­fied about her New Mex­ico trav­els. “She told of a light in­side of her that had guided her since she was a girl and had con­tin­ued to grow through­out her life.” She wrote that her voy­ages were mo­ti­vated by good in­ten­tions.

The events of the time are wo­ven into the lives of the story’s char­ac­ters. The salt lakes near Cueloze at­tracted Span­ish at­ten­tion be­cause the Spa­niards needed salt to re­fine the met­als they were min­ing in the south. Pueblo men were re­cruited to trans­port the salt. Paf Sheuri’s hus­band chafes against la­bor­ing for no money, not even food, but an el­der ex­plains to him that his work earns them peace. Still, not long af­ter, a vi­o­lent in­ci­dent oc­curs and Blue Flower is wid­owed.

It is af­ter this tragedy that the two women, each iso­lated in her cir­cum­stance, yet try­ing to face life, meet and pro­vide so­lace to each other. The story uses scents, of oshá, laven­der, and sage — to make Sor María’s seem­ingly fan­tas­ti­cal jour­ney more real for the reader. In the scene in which the two women meet, they dis­cuss their cos­molo­gies and re­li­gions in sur­pris­ingly ac­ces­si­ble ways: “Paf Sheuri ex­plained to María that the earth is like an im­mense clay bowl, with four sa­cred moun­tains that hold up the ethe­real bas­ket of the sky with its sun, moon, stars, clouds and rainbows.” It is a short scene, but it lingers with the reader, not least be­cause of Cór­dova’s vis­ual in­ter­pre­ta­tion. Nogar tells us that Sor María was cred­ited with hav­ing writ­ten a mys­ti­cal, cos­mo­log­i­cal study about the heav­enly spheres, some­times called and we sense that in­ter­est vividly in her meta­phys­i­cal con­ver­sa­tion with Paf Sheuri. So many el­e­ments of New Mex­ico his­tory and cul­ture con­verge in this book, it leaves us feel­ing awed that we live in a state where his­tory is as alive as the yel­low flow­ers of the Span­ish broom and the bright red of the In­dian paint­brush.

“Sis­ters in Blue: Sor María de Ágreda Comes to New Mex­ico” by Anna M. Nogar and En­rique R. La­madrid, with il­lus­tra­tions by Amy Cór­dova, is pub­lished by Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press.

Amy Cór­dova’s il­lus­tra­tions richly evoke Pueblo and Span­ish colo­nial cul­tures, es­pe­cially their spe­cific cel­e­bra­tions.

by Anna M. Nogar and En­rique R. La­madrid with il­lus­tra­tions by Amy Cór­dova. Copy­right © 2017 Univer­sity of New Mex­ico Press. Im­ages from Sis­ters in Blue: Sor María de Ágreda Comes to New Mex­ico

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