Sample Reading

Guardians of Hidden Traditions

Isabelle Medina Sandoval

María Paula was making a warm dinner for Baltazar and the children. Her husband had been busy all morning watering the cornfield and wheat. Baltazar was a good man and treated his stepson, Ubaldo, like his own son. Ubaldo was ten and helped Baltazar water and cut the weeds in the garden.
From the window of the kitchen, María saw her men tending the garden. Ubaldo had medium olive brown skin just like his father. Baltazar was five feet and ten inches tall with a medium build with dark black hair and a heavy moustache. Baltazar had a trim and muscular physique that was pleasing to her eye.
The June day had a sweet smell of early summer. The May apple blossoms were gone and were replaced by lush green leaves with grape size maturing apples. The earth was pregnant with life. A strong kick inside her stomach made her wince. Will this be a boy or girl? María and Baltazar had a daughter last year and now she was expecting again. She only wanted the baby to be born healthy. The baby kicked again and this time María had to sit down. She chuckled and believed that only boys kicked this hard. She surmised that there would be a Trujillo son to join his father and Ubaldo working in the garden.
Stirring the copper pan filled with lamb’s quarters and adding a good measure of spicy Chimayo chile, she put more water in the olla to reduce the risk of the wild spinach being burned. It took an entire afternoon of picking choice quelites to make one small pan of vegetables.
Next, she rolled out the wheat tortillas on the kitchen table and placed the first one on the griddle to cook. Turning it over to cook on the other side, she went back to work to roll out the next dough circle to replace the tortilla on the griddle. She measured the doneness of the tortilla because the cooked side turned into various pecan colored circles. Taking off the cooked tortilla, she placed it on the clean cotton dishtowel to cool on the table. Then she repeated the same process until a dozen fat tortillas were cooked. She stacked the tortillas and took the first tortilla she made and threw it out because the first tortilla was never eaten. She did not know why she threw the tortilla away. Her mother told her that the first tortilla was never to be eaten. María Paula followed the traditions of her mother and did not ask questions.
María remembered what Miguel de Quintana whispered to her at church. She was careful not to let others see her not eat the first tortilla she cooked. She observed other women eat the first bread but always followed her mother’s guidance. Since the Catholic priests depended on the money from the colonists to pay for church expenses, they seemed to be oblivious at times to minor sins because of the money.
María stirred the pot of beans mixed with dry corn. Slowly adding dried green chile and onion to the liquid, a tasty hot soup would soon be ready for her men. Her family enjoyed eating soups and stews.
She had an hour to herself before the men would return to eat. Using her time wisely, María went to the wooden loom to start the sabanilla she was going to weave for the altar cloth for the pine table Baltazar had crafted during the past winter. As she wove the threads together with the purr of the loom, she prayed out loud:

“As far as east is from the west
The west is east sun in my breast.

When she finished chanting this prayer, the baby kicked again with an emphatic amen. María thought that out of all of her children she had carried in her womb, she knew this child was going to require special attention from her when it was born.

The following month, on July 2, María delivered a healthy baby girl. María Paula named her daughter with the most Christian name she could possibly choose, María Jésus. She was a delicate baby, but she was to develop a strong self-determining spirit.
The afternoon of July 3, the priest baptized the new Trujillo daughter. The priest in the Santa Cruz Church baptized the baby in the presence of the parents and the godparents, Damasio Trujillo and María Dionisa Borrego. The new mother claimed she was not feeling well and asked to host a fiesta later in the month. As was the custom, the padrinos handed over the newborn criatura to the mother saying:

“Reciba esta prenda amada
Que de la iglesia santa salió
Con los santos sacramentos
Y el agua que recibió.”

Feigning keen tiredness after the ceremony, María told everyone she was feeling ill and needed to go home to bed. The madrina, María Dionisa Borrego, expressed her satisfaction that the baptism had taken place because she had feared that the baby might be a heretic and was in danger of dying without being baptized. Dionisa’s best friend, Beatriz Vigil, voiced her satisfaction that the baptism had taken place because she did not want María Jésus to be a judía for lack of the blessed baptism.
After José left the house to feed the cows and goats, María took her newborn daughter into her private bedroom. Baltazar was a good Catholic man and she did not want him to know how she was going to perpetuate the female custom of washing off the Catholic baptism and asking for a guardian angel for her daughter. She waited to get out of bed until she heard Baltazar leave the house.
María Paula’s mother, Paula Romero died several years ago. Had Paula been alive, the grandmother would have assisted her to wash off the Catholic baptismal fluids. In her conversa family, this was the custom of the women.
She would perform this holy ceremony by herself and G-d would witness the faith of her heart and soul. G-d had answered Hannah’s prayer and she knew that this blessing of generation to generation must be honored by her actions.
María poured water into a basin to remove all traces of the baptismal liquids from her baby’s head. Gently placing her daughter in the lukewarm water, she scrubbed the baby so much that her pale brown skin turned blotchy red. She washed the baby all over and placed some seed pearls, turquoise and coral nuggets in the basin filled with the clean mountain water. She followed this same procedure with all her children. Drying the baby with a thick towel, she took the baby out to the mountain behind the house and lifted her up to heavens. In the pure air of the high altitude surrounded by royal purple wild irises, her melodic voice halted the celestial melodies of the songbirds as she chanted:

“Eterno Altísimo
Mis sueños son Tuyas
Mi hija es Tuya
Tus hadas protegen mi hija
Alabado es El Eterno
Siempre, siempre, amén.”

By the end of the first week of the baby’s life, her eyes changed from amber gold to a muted pine green flecked with copper lights. Her eyes tracked the movement of anything approaching her.
When María held her baby with the mystical eyes, she thought of the conversation she and her mother had regarding certain women in the family having special powers. She remembered her mother telling her that the green eyes represented a physical trait revealing a light of spiritual character.
María Jésus was a lovely child. Her hazel eyes sparkled against her medium brown skin. Rarely having to be reminded or scolded for misbehaving, she was an intelligent and loving child. She spent time asking her mother and father philosophical and religious questions while demonstrating a bottomless thirst for knowledge. In her soul, María recognized how much her daughter mirrored herself. It warmed her to know that the Jewish faith burned like the blue flame of the Shabbat candle in the next generation of her blood.
From the dryness of the reality of worldly deserts of history bridging the pathway to the heart of the daughter of the conversa, some shards of light illuminated Santa Cruz. In the desert of New Mexico, there was light in the darkness on the most northern frontier of the province.
From the wilderness of New Mexico, the chime of time stopped to marvel that three centuries of the Spanish Inquisition had tolled the bell in remembrance of the conversa women from the Iberian Peninsula still providing Jewish support and spirituality for their children.

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