Like Scheherezade, who ensured her survival by telling her royal husband stories, the title character in Rudolfo Anaya’s creative retelling of The Arabian Nights must entertain the recently widowed governor with legends of Nueva Mexicana, or she and her fellow captives will die.
With fresh snow covering the high peaks of Sangre de Cristo, a group of native dissidents prepare for revolt. In seventeenth-century Santa Fe, insurrection against a colony of the king of Spain is punishable by death. A Spaniard loyal to the governor names twelve conspirators. One of them is a young woman. Raised in a mission church, fifteen-year-old Serafina speaks excellent Spanish and knows many of her country’s traditional folktales. She and the governor strike a bargain: Each evening, she will tell him a cuento. If he likes it, he will release one prisoner the following day.
The twelve tales recounted here mirror the struggle of a divided country. They include the social and political symbolism behind “Beauty and the Beast” and retell “Cinderella” as “Miranda’s Gift.” Interspersed with these timeless cuentos is the story of Serafina herself, and that of a people battling to preserve a vanishing way of life under the long shadow of the Inquisition.
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By Rudolfo Anaya
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2004 Rudolfo Anaya
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One gray January afternoon in 1680 the Governor of New Mexico stepped out of his residence in the Villa de Santa Fé. He was greeted by a gust of bitter cold wind that swept across the plaza. The Governor shivered and pulled his coat tightly around him.
"Another miserable day in this miserable kingdom," he muttered to himself.
He stood looking across the plaza, the common area surrounded by his residence and the other administrative buildings. The compound was well protected against attacks by Apaches. It could only be entered through guarded gates.
Outside this heart of the villa lay the homes of the Spanish and Mexican residents of Santa Fé. Today the low-lying adobe huts hugged the earth, sheltering their inhabitants from the January freeze.
A solitary man leading a burro laden with firewood came through a gate and made his way over the ruts of frozen mud. The man glanced at the Governor, barely nodded a greeting, then disappeared.
Throughout the villa feathers of thin, blue smoke rose from fireplace chimneys. Women were preparing supper for their families. Those who did not have urgent business outside their homes did not venture into the icy cold.
The Governor sighed. Such misery. In winter the cold kept the citizens of Santa Fé prisoners in their homes; in the summer they tried to eke out a living from their fields and from the sheep they pastured in the mountains. The Spaniards and the Pueblo Indians who worked for them were good pastores, and flocks of sheep had become a way of life in la Nueva México.
But recently the threat posed by dissident Pueblo Indians of the Río Grande worried the Governor. He dreaded the thought of the Pueblos turning against the Spanish colony.
Also, the Governor felt lonely. His wife had died the year before. The climate and the harsh way of life were most difficult for the women. And since there had been no children, the Governor felt adrift.
He gave up entertaining in his residence. La casa real, as it was called, was a long, single-story adobe building with vigas holding up a roof of latillas and mud. Melting snow soaked through the cracks, making it difficult for the small fireplaces to keep the rooms warm.
Not even the recent Christmas festivities had brought any relief to the Governor's mood. He spent his days taking care of his horses, riding in the hills, and, when necessary, leading his soldiers to settle disputes at the Indian pueblos from Isleta to Taos.
Lately there were more and more rumblings of discontent from the Pueblo Indians. Complaints came in on a daily basis. Rumors of revolution were in the air. The Governor did what he could to keep the peace between the Spanish settlers and the Pueblos, for he was entrusted with the safety of the colony.
The Governor's stomach growled. In the kitchen doña Ofelia, his housekeeper, an Indian woman from Picuris, was making supper. The aroma of the corn tortillas filled the house, mingling with the rich fragrances of venison stew and chile that bubbled in pots hung at the huge kitchen fireplace. She would prepare sweet natillas for dessert.
At the evening meal he allowed himself a glass of wine. He had to conserve his meager store of wine so it would last until the spring caravan of supplies came from New Spain, the land that lay south of the Río Grande.
The caravans from Chihuahua and Durango were the only connection the New Mexico colony had with Nueva España. Waiting for the spring caravan became a way of life for the denizens of Santa Fé.
Every year the people eagerly awaited the news the carts pulled by oxen and burros would bring from Mexico City, the once great capital of the Aztecs. Would the Viceroy send the additional troops the Governor had requested? The need for soldiers to protect Santa Fé weighed heavy on the Governor's mind as he stared across the empty, forlorn plaza.
That morning a few men had made their way out of the villa into the hills to gather firewood. Those who still had candles made from buffalo tallow might have one burning on the rough wood table where they ate supper. Otherwise the corner fireplace was the only source of light and warmth. During the long nights families sat huddled close to the fire listening to cuentos, the folktales the Spaniards had brought with them from Spain.
With the ground frozen, there was no work to do in the fields. Even the river was frozen solid, and boys spent long hours carrying blocks of ice home to melt for drinking water. Indian women, those taken as slaves from the Plains, cleaned the brick floors that were constantly tracked with mud. They ground corn and made tortillas. Pots of meat and beans simmered at every fireplace.
In a corral behind the Governor's residence a horse whinnied. Thank God only the most trusted natives had horses, the Governor thought. If all the Pueblos had horses, they would be a formidable enemy, and if they had the harquebuses, the Spanish rifles, a rebellion would mean the end of the colony.
The Governor shivered again. He knew he could not defend Santa Fé against an uprising by the Pueblos if they had horses and firearms. As it was, the constant attacks by the Apaches seemed to grow in number and audacity.
In 1598 the Spaniards, the Castillos, had come north to settle New Mexico, the tierra adentro. They settled near Española at San Gabriel. There don Juan de Oñate established the first capital, which Governor don Pedro de Peralta moved to Santa Fé in 1610. The Franciscan friars who accompanied the colonists came on a mission, to baptize the natives and teach them the Catholic faith.
The Españoles and the native Pueblo people learned to share many things, but the gulf between the European and native cultures remained great. Over the years those differences became deep- held animosities. According to Spanish law, the Governor of New Mexico had the right to collect corn and blankets from the natives. And he could force them to work, building churches, roads, and irrigation ditches, and preparing land for farming.
The Indians complained about the harsh rule of the Castillos. They were paid a pittance, and the work often lasted into their own farming season. The friars also used Pueblo laborers to build mission churches. Thousands of natives had been converted into the Catholic religion. The Governor knew the natives suffered the long winters, but there was little he could do.
Religion lay at the heart of the animosity between the Spaniards and the natives. The Spaniards were Catholics; the mission of the friars was conversion. But the Pueblo Indians had their own religion. For centuries they had worshipped in the way of their ancestors.
The Spanish friars branded the Pueblos' religion paganism, destroyed their religious objects, and forbade them to hold their Kachina dances. The Pueblos resisted. From time to time they struck back, threatening the friars, sometimes killing those in the outlying pueblos. Then the Governor had to ride out with his soldiers and punish those responsible.
The Spaniards were vastly outnumbered by the Pueblo Indians, so no dissent could be allowed. At the first sign of unrest the Governor would send his soldiers to arrest the dissidents. In this way, the Governor thought, he could assure the safety of his colony.
The month of January dawned with fresh snow covering the high peaks of the Sierra Madre that towered over the villa. January also brought what the Spaniards feared most: secret plans for an uprising had been discovered. A Pueblo Indian loyal to the Spaniards had warned that a group of natives were preparing for war. He named twelve conspirators.
The Governor had acted quickly. Three days ago he had sent one of his captains, Cristóbal Anaya, to the northern pueblos to arrest those accused of plotting war. Even as the Governor pondered this recent action, a sentry stationed at the far end the plaza called, informing him that the detail was returning, leading prisoners.
The sentry's cry created a stir. A few hardy men left their homes to see the rebel Indians who had been captured. Women whose husbands or sons had gone with the arrest party were eager to learn if they had returned safely. Wrapped in buffalo robes, the denizens of la Villa Real de la Santa Fé gathered in the dusk to watch as the prisoners were marched into the plaza.
The twelve Indians walked with hands bound, faces downcast. The soldiers on horseback tugged at the ropes, urging the prisoners to hurry forward. The captives were led through the gate and across the plaza to face the Governor.
"Your Excellency," Capitán Anaya shouted. "I wish to report the capture and delivery of twelve prisoners. All of my men have returned safely."
A cheer went up from the crowd. Women crossed their foreheads. Men nodded their approval.
"Well done, capitán," the Governor replied, glancing at the prisoners. A sorry lot. Clothed in buckskin with wool blankets around their shoulders to ward off the cold, they stood in silence. "Lock them up. I will question them after dinner."
The soldiers led the Indians to the jail, and those who had gathered to watch sighed with relief. All the soldiers had returned safely; that was what mattered. They would hear the tale of the adventure during supper. People quickly disappeared back into the warmth of their homes.
Two men with a dead deer strung on a pole between them crossed the plaza; then all was quiet in the dusk of evening.
The Governor, too, retreated into his residence to eat a quiet dinner, alone. He felt mixed emotions. On the one hand, those plotting insurrection had been caught, but he also knew he would have to deal harshly with them. They had to be taught a lesson, a lesson that would not be lost on others who might conspire to revolt.
After dinner the Governor summoned his secretary and notary, don Alfonso, and his captains to his office. Don Alfonso was one of the few men in the villa who could write. As Capitán Anaya gave his report the secretary wrote furiously, recording every detail. The twelve accused had been apprehended at six of the northern pueblos. There were loud protests from the prisoners' families and neighbors, but there had been no armed resistance.
The Governor thanked the captain and ordered the Indians brought in, so their names and the charges against them could be entered into the record.
When the prisoners were gathered in the office, the secretary asked them if they spoke Spanish. All nodded. He then proceeded to read the charges against them, warning them of the seriousness of each indictment. Charges of insurrection against a colony of the King of Spain were punishable by life imprisonment, or by death.
Everyone present in the dimly lit room remembered that the first governor of New Mexico had ordered one foot cut off each of twenty-four Indians from Acoma Pueblo who had attacked Spanish soldiers. Many Acoma women and children had been sold into slavery.
A chill permeated the small room. One by one each prisoner stepped forward and gave his baptismal Spanish name. The Governor looked up in surprise when the twelfth prisoner responded "me llamo Serafina."
Both the Governor and the secretary looked closely at the prisoner, as did the guards.
"Did you say Serafino?" the secretary asked.
"No, Serafina." The voice was that of a woman.
In the dim light cast by the burning candles the Governor realized the prisoner was a young woman.
"Remove your manta," he ordered.
The young woman removed the blanket that had covered her head and shoulders, letting loose a cascade of long, black hair that spilled over her shoulders.
The Governor stood. "Capitán. Did you know this prisoner was a woman?"
"No, Your Excellency," the captain sputtered. "The prisoners were bound and brought in as you see them now. Because of the cold I allowed some to keep their blankets. As you can see—"
"No matter," the Governor interupted. "We must proceed." He looked at the prisoners. "You have heard the charges read against you. You are accused of conspiring to incite revolution. This is a serious threat. If the charges prove right, you will be accused of treason against His Most Royal Majesty."
The prisoners stood with heads bowed, saying nothing. The Governor's captains understood the severity of the situation. If these leaders of the insurrection were not punished, tomorrow there would be new plans to revolt against Spanish rule. And tomorrow and tomorrow. The Governor was right. The leaders of this rebellious plot had to be dealt with harshly.
"What do you suggest?" the Governor asked don Alfonso.
"There are two possibilities," the secretary answered. "Each man could be sentenced to die. That is the most severe punishment of the law. Or each man could be flogged publicly in the plaza and sold into slavery. That would be the least severe punishment."
A shudder passed through the Indian prisoners. They did not fear death or a public whipping. What they feared was being sold as slaves to work the mines of Zacatecas, never to see their families again, never to see their sacred homeland again. For them, this punishment was worse than death.
The Governor looked at Serafina. Even exhausted and muddied as she was, she kept her poise. She was the only one looking directly at him. Putting her to death would not be one of his options.
He turned to the secretary. "Should the prisoners be tried individually or as a group?"
"I suggest we try them one by one," the secretary replied. "In that way the natives from the pueblos who come to attend the trials can report each day back to their pueblos on the proceedings."
"Very well," the Governor said. "We will try the first prisoner tomorrow morning." He turned to a young captain, Capitán Márquez, who had spent a year in the university at Salamanca. "Capitán Márquez, you will act as attorney for the prisoners."
"Yes, Your Excellency," the captain replied.
"Very well. We assemble tomorrow in the portal. Take the prisoners back to the jail."
As the prisoners were led out of the room the Governor stopped Serafina.
"You are too young to be plotting revolution," he said.
"I am my father's helper," she replied.
"Ah, so you follow your father's guidance. His name did not appear on our list. Will he come to attend the trial?"
"Now that you have taken us prisoners, none of the elders will come to speak to you. Trust has been broken."
"I see," said the Governor. "You speak Spanish very well. Who taught you?"
"I was brought up in the mission church by the friars."
"And still you plotted with the men against our rule?"
"What you call a plot was a gathering of elders from the different pueblos. We met to discuss how our people suffer this winter. We were ready to send a delegation to meet with you to discuss how little corn we have left and how few buffalo robes."
The Governor was surprised by the young woman's calm. Normally the Indians looked at the ground when they addressed a Spanish officer, but this girl looked directly into his eyes. She was fearless.
"Do you believe in God?"
"Then you cannot believe in pagan gods."
"They are my ancestral gods," Serafina answered. "They all live together—"
"Nonsense!" the Governor scoffed, advancing on the girl until he loomed over her, a threatening presence.
Serafina stood her ground.
"Heresy," the secretary muttered.
The Governor turned and looked at don Alfonso, who had been recording the proceedings.
"Enough," he said. "Leave the room."
The old man wrinkled his brow, then picking up his quill, ink well, and papers he hurried out.
The Governor looked at the girl. He realized that beneath the day's grime and fatigue stood a young woman no older than fifteen.
"Sit down," the Governor commanded, and he too sat. He stared at the girl and she at him. "Do you know what will happen to you for joining those plotting against His Majesty's rule?"
"I will be made a slave," she replied.
"Yes," said the Governor, leaning forward on his desk. "I have to make an example of you and your fellow rebels. Each of you will be flogged in public, then sent as slaves to the mines in Zacatecas."
Even in the dim candlelight the Governor saw a shadow cross the girl's face for the first time.
Excerpted from Serafina's Stories by Rudolfo Anaya. Copyright © 2004 Rudolfo Anaya. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Two: Juan del Oso
- Four: Miranda’s Gift
- Six: The Adventures of Pedro de Ordimalas
- Eight: Fabiano and Reyes
- Ten: The Devil’s Godchild
- Twelve: Marcos and María
- Fourteen: Two Compadres
- Sixteen: The Tree That Sings
- Eighteen: The Native
- Twenty: Belda and the Beast
- Twenty-Two: El Picaro
- Twenty-Four: The Native Lawyer
- A Biography of Rudolfo Anaya
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
An excellent book created in the style of the Arabian Nights, and set in 17th century Santa Fe, N.M. A group of Pueblo Indians are captured and brought before the Governor, but one of them is revealed as a young girl. She strikes a deal whereas she will tell a story and if the Governor likes the story, will release one prisoner for each story. Because he is so entertained, eventually all of the prisoners are spared and set free. The stories have come from Europe and have been New Mexicanized by the Spanish colonists. Some have Pueblo Indian plots and characters. The author has been able to bring readers, with this book, a new understanding of the heritage of the Southwest. A marvelous book for all ages.