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The Lady in Blue: a Mexican American Cultural Studies Approach

Anna Nogar


La trajectoire déambulatoire de la narration transatlantique de la Dame Bleue exige une seule approche critique afin de contextualiser correctement toutes ses manifestations. Il est donc question, dans cet article, de la méthodologie employée dans l’étude de ce type de récit complexe, produit sous la colonisation au XVIIe siècle. En outre, il s’agit aussi de montrer comment la structure de cette méthodologie résulte du champ d’études culturelles mexicano-américaines, et plus particulièrement des travaux entrepris par Américo Paredes, José Limón, Richard Flores et Domino Perez, ainsi que de l’ouvrage critique Images at War de Serge Gruzinksi.

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1Two years ago, when I began considering how I would organize my project on the Lady in Blue, the 17th century bilocating Spanish nun Sor María de Agreda, I encountered a complex conundrum.  The information I had gathered about the relatively obscure regional figure’s mystical visits to the Americas spanned four centuries.  It was characterized by remarkable historical accounts regarding her evangelization of indigenous tribes, a fascinating feminist colonial literary history, transatlantic political intrigue, and a surprisingly regular emergence of folkloric, literary and artistic renderings about the Lady in Blue.  The colonial-era narrative nonchalantly surfaced through a variety of media- an 18th-century Franciscan missionary’s exhortatory letters to his brother friars; the bibliographies of 18th-century Mexico’s printing presses; a 20th-century play on central New Mexican tribal traditions; a 1917 Mexican American folk history of the Alamo; and a late-20th-century mural stretching across the dining room wall of an abandoned Catholic boarding school.  Each of these diverse artifacts contributed a piece to the puzzle of where the Lady in Blue’s narrative had traveled, how it changed as it moved, and what it signified at any point during its movement.  Indeed, the question of how to frame a diverse collection of materials on a complex topic became this project’s major methodological challenge.

2To explain the critical rationale I currently apply to the narrative, the topic of this paper, some background on the subject of this project is in order.  The narrative of the Lady in Blue surfaced in the context of early 17th-century Spanish exploration and colonization of the northern frontier of New Spain.  The narrative relates a type of colonization that is uniquely transatlantic: the narrative’s protagonist Sor María de Agreda remained cloistered on the Iberian Peninsula, while experiencing a series of mystical missionary journeys that took her to present-day eastern New Mexico and western Texas.  According to the reports of Fray Alonso de Benavides, the region’s religious administrator in the late 1620’s, her evangelizing visits resulted in the conversion of the region’s Jumano tribe to Catholicism.  Fray Benavides arrived at this conclusion because tribal members displayed evidence of Catholic catechesis, including making the sign of the cross and requesting baptism from the friars, well in advance of visits from Franciscan missionaries.  According to subsequent Spanish accounts, the Lady in Blue (as she was called for the blue-gray color of her habit) traveled not only to the Jumano tribe, but to other indigenous groups living in the northern frontier of New Spain.  She continued to inhabit the region, metaphorically at least, for the next three hundred and fifty years, resurfacing in unexpected contexts and via a variety of media.

3The Lady in Blue’s narrative assumed a variety of forms throughout the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  Fray Benavides and Sor María composed several of the narrative’s originary documents, including the friar’s 1630 and 1634 Memorial, and a letter of approbation to the friars stationed in New Mexico attributed to both nun and friar.  The letter and 1634 Memorial discuss the nun’s experiences as the Lady in Blue, the tribes and landscape she witnessed during her travels, and the missionizing ends she furthered while present in the region.  A subtext of these documents was the fact that Sor María had no authorial control over how the Lady in Blue narrative was presented; she attested to as much when questioned by Inquisitorial church authorities regarding the authenticity of her travels.  These documents and a small number of other significant works, including one described in the following paragraph, formed the textual basis for the Lady in Blue narrative.

4Upon Sor María’s death in 1665, her vita (or saintly biography) was written to help promote her case for sainthood; the Lady in Blue narrative is presented as one of the events exemplifying Sor María’s sanctity.  The dissemination of Sor María’s vita is a defining characteristic of the Lady in Blue’s trajectory, intimately bound up with the nun’s own prolific writing.  Most editions of Sor María’s controversial and widely-read Marian tract La mística ciudad de Dios included her vita (and thus the Lady in Blue narrative) as a preface. The popular text is catalogued in unexpected and far-flung locations, in the 18th-and 19th-century Franciscan mission libraries in California and New Mexico, and in the 17th-century collection of New Mexican governor Diego de Vargas.  The image presented in one of La mística ciudad de Dios’ Mexican printings, featuring Sor María and 13th-century Conceptionist scholar Duns Soctus, was carved into the facade of the Nuestra Señora de la Purissima Concepción church in Landa, Mexico in the 18th century.  Renown of the Lady in Blue narrative grew during the colonial and late colonial periods as a result of the wide, unpredictable dissemination of texts that contained it, many of which were written by Sor María herself.

5Through the accounts of 18th- and 19th-century explorers and missionaries to northern New Spain, the Lady in Blue became understood as part of the conceptualized landscape of the region.  17th-century Texas missionary Fray Damián Massanet and 18th-century Sonoran explorer Lieutenant Juan Mateo Manje testified that the tribes they met during their travels had been visited by the Lady in Blue.  The founders of the Californian missions, Fray Junípero Serra and Fray Francisco Paloú see her in their motivation for becoming missionaries in the region and reflected in their labors, as their letters, biographies and diaries attest.  Via her presence in various historical accounts about the region (colonial and peninsular, religious and secular), the narrative of the Lady in Blue became part of the inscribed regional history of the present-day American Southwest and northern Mexico.

6Renderings of the narrative transitioned from the genre of historical documentation to that of folkloric representations in the late 19th and 20th centuries.  In Texas, the Lady in Blue left the state’s famed blue bonnets as a gift upon her final visit, stopped the flooding Sabine River in the 19th century, and presented the gift of “clear sight” to generations of San Antonian women.  In Arizona, the Lady in Blue prevented the shelling of a church to its foundations during an 1857 American filibuster campaign, while in New Mexico, a traditional alabado praises Sor María and her writing.  The narrative’s folkloric renderings provided a basis on which early 20th-century Texan Mexican American cultural activists, including Adina de Zavala and Jovita González, could resistively stake their identity and history in the face of the largely Anglo re-writing of Texan history.  Far from slipping silently into the past, the Lady in Blue continued to surface through popular recollection, asserting her place as actively in the 19th and 20th centuries as in the 17th.

7Throughout the 20th and into the 21st centuries, authors and artists have continued to draw from the tradition of the Lady in Blue.  Many of these more contemporary renderings emphasize specific facets of the narrative (the protagonist’s femininity, the representative currency of bilocation, the colonizing objectives) to create readings different from those the narrative originally evoked in its audience.  The narrative is recast in novels by Mexican American authors Ana Castillo (So Far From God) and Luis Urrea (The Devil’s Highway), and Spanish author Javier Sierra (La dama azul), in dramatic works, poetry and short story, and through various artistic media. These contemporary works indicate a degree of intentionality  on the part  of their originators  in selecting  the Lady in Blue  for their  works; as she lies just at the edge of collective memory, she does not merely surface in such works- her narrative is summoned.

8The variety, depth and span of these artifacts presented a complex critical conundrum.  I was not convinced that eliminating particular subsets of this material (the folklore, for example, or the colonial history) would do justice to the versions of the narrative these subsets contained and transmitted.  On the other hand, forcing all the material into an awkward, uncomfortable mating with a single mode of critical analysis did not fit the bill for the way I had begun to think about the Lady in Blue’s narrative.  Cleaving close to how the narrative functional in any particular context seemed to be the most accurate means of characterizing the material, of defining how it functioned in a given medium and at a particular time.  The most desirable analytical model would allow for a variety of responses that could speak to the artifacts under consideration: a colonial-literary interpretation of the religious and historical documents from the 17th and 18th centuries; an interpretation discussing the portrayal of Sor María’s uniquely feminine mysticism and her writings within the Church; and a cultural studies approach when discussing the content and function of the 19th and 20th century folklore about the Lady in Blue.  The overall analytical mode had to allow for the best analysis to be applied to a given set of information; as the sets varied, so should their analysis.

9Serge Gruzinski’s Images at War offered a critical viewpoint that addressed the approach the Lady in Blue narrative demanded.  Gruzinski treats the topic of images, their production, consumption and resistive meaning in Mexico, beginning in the colonial period.  As Gruzinski acknowledges, the question of “where and how to interrupt the exploration of an imaginaire that continuously redisplays itself in spite of the usual period classifications, and the necessarily limited specialization of the researcher” (Gruzinski 4) presents particular challenges in developing a project such as the Lady in Blue’s.  Gruzinski concludes that, in spite of the challenges presented by studying a continuous entity along its trajectory, such analysis offers unparalleled insight into the entity itself and how it and its context work on each other; abbreviating the discussion of the narrative to a particular historical period deeply limits its presentation.  Gruzinski further comments that “[the imaginaires] have whatever ‘reality’ and content that an age, a culture, a group consents to give to them” (Gruzinski 5).  Here, Gruzinski affirms the approach the Lady in Blue’s narrative required; he asserts that to understand an imaginaire (or, in the case of the Lady in Blue, a narrative) in a particular context one must focus on how that context defines and responds to the imaginaire.  This requires that the researcher employ a critical methodology appropriate to each context, and that she allow for the narrative’ meaning and function to transform under the influence of different environments.  Through Gruzinski’s approach, the various elements comprising the Lady in Blue’s narrative were freed to transcend artificial historical boundaries and to be viewed as a unity.

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Anna Nogar, « The Lady in Blue: a Mexican American Cultural Studies Approach », TRANS- [En ligne], 5 | 2008, mis en ligne le 31 janvier 2008, consulté le 18 décembre 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/trans.241

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Anna Nogar

Doctorante dans le département d’Etudes culturelles mexico-américaines et de Littérature Hispanique à l’Université du Texas à Austin. Elle est également conférencière invitée à l’Université du Nouveau Mexique. Ses centres de recherche portent sur la littérature coloniale latino-américaine, la littérature mexico-américaine et les œuvres littéraires à caractère scientifique

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