Close encounters Sisters in Blue
SISTERS IN BLUE
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