A collaboration of heritage and hearts


The tall, leafy hollyhock plant with richly pigmented blooms spiraling up its spear-shaped stalk are a common sight around New Mexico, and add a particular charm to the traditional adobe houses and historic haciendas.

How did these flowers come to be in New Mexico, wondered acclaimed New Mexican author Rudolfo Anaya.

Deborah Fox-News-Bulletin photo: Award winning New Mexico author of ‘Bless Me Ultima’ Rudolfo Anaya, left, stands with Santero artist Nicolas Otero, right, who illustrated Anaya’s latest children’s book ‘How Hollyhocks Came to New Mexico.’

That’s how his latest children’s book, “How Hollyhocks Came to New Mexico,” was born.

It is an original tale spun from Anaya’s culturally inspired mind, told in both English and Spanish, and lushly illustrated by Los Lunas artist Nicolas Otero.

The author and illustrator will be at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts, 251 Main St. in Los Lunas, from 6 to 8 p.m. on Friday, Dec. 14, for a meet-and-greet booking signing event.

In the story, Anaya writes that Jesus, Mary and Joseph were warned by an angel named Sueño about King Herod’s intention to kill all newborn sons, because he heard a rumor about a newborn king in Bethlehem who would eventually usurp his power.

Sueño helps the holy family escape, but he falls asleep during their flight, and being nearsighted, mistakes White Sands, N.M., for the Egyptian desert.

He tells them he will come back for them, but they must raise a tall sign so he can find them.

Once in New Mexico, they start to travel north through Hispanic villages and Indian pueblos, learning about the cultures and traditions of the people.

They are invited by families to eat with them, and enjoy the native foods of corn, beans, squash and chile.

When the holy family come upon a particular village in Valencia County, it reminds Mary so much of home that the villagers eventually come to call it Belén.

When the family comes upon a pueblo in the north, a ceremony is taking place and people are dancing in the central plaza.

The family stays with the Pueblo people for a time and becomes accustomed to climbing ladders to get into the dwellings.

Joseph gets the idea to make a very tall ladder for Sueño’s return, and the Pueblos help him to build it.

Before the holy family leaves to go home, Joseph offers his shepherd staff as a gift and plants it in the ground.

The next spring the staff flowers, and that is why the Spanish call the hollyhock “varas de San José.”

Because it is a story about the holy family, it is fitting that a santero, a painter of retablos,Spanish devotional paintings, illustrated the book.

Otero began painting retablos while he attended Los Lunas High School, and continued through his college career at the University of New Mexico.

He apprenticed with artist Rhonda Crespin, studied in museums, and most importantly, studied original 19th century retablos, which was his greatest learning, he said.

He has won numerous awards at Spanish Market from the Spanish Colonial Arts Society and at the New Mexico State Fair, Feria Artistica and received an honorable mention at the Albuquerque Museum of Art.

However, illustrating the famed New Mexico author’s book was the greatest (honor), he said.

“I think the greatest thing was being able to meet Rudolfo, and read his books,” Otero said.

The book itself is a kind of retablo, because of the nature of the story and Otero’s retablo-style illustrations.

“I was a teacher for five years, so the great thing for me is that the kids are going to be reading it,” Otero said. “That’s what I take pleasure in.”

While Anaya and his wife were raising their granddaughter, Kristen, he would read stories to her.

“I used to tell her bedtime stories,” Anaya said. “At one point, I ran out of cuentos, so I started telling her my own. The first one I told her was of farolitos. My stories always started with a question — ‘How did farolitos come to be?’ You know? So, I made up a story.”

He has written a play from his book, “The Farolitos of Christmas,” which is scheduled to run at the National Hispanic Cultural Center Friday through Sunday, Dec. 14 to 16.

“The same thing with the hollyhocks story,” Anaya said, “‘How did they get here?’ So, I made a story.”

Like Otero, Anaya is also an educator. He pursued a teaching degree a the University of New Mexico, and started to teach shortly after graduation.

“I started in La Joya, which was a one-room schoolhouse,” he said. “I taught second grade, fourth grade and ninth-graders. I taught at Harrison Junior High in the South Valley. I taught at Valley High School, and then I was invited to teach at UNM.”

Now he is a UNM professor emeritus.

The literature he was reading during college encouraged him to write poetry.

“So, we had study hall in high school, and I would write poems, so the guys would come and say, ‘Hey, write my girlfriend a poem. I’ll give you a quarter.’ OK bro, so I would write a poem and he would take it to that girl,” Anaya remembered. “The girl would look at me, because she knew it was I who was writing the poems. I scored fantastic, right and left.”

When he met his wife at UNM, he wrote poems for her. Eventually he began to write stories.

“It was just a transition from — I tried every kind of poetry — but as an undergrad, I was reading both poetry and novels, and somehow the novel form stuck, and that’s what I wanted to write.”

He wrote a few novels that were never published, before he wrote “Bless Me Ultima” in 1972.

It won the Premio Quinto Sol Award for the best Chicano book that year.

“The Aztecs say we walk this narrow path, it’s like a precipice, and you can fall off to either side — to the dragon or to the whirlpool,” Anaya said. “So, they say there is no joy in life. What joy in life is there? And they say, ‘Flor y canto,’ flowers and song, that’s where you find some joy in this difficult life.

“They were philosophizing on how difficult this life is, and so they say, ‘What is lasting.’”

Everybody has a creative imagination, he says, but we all use it in our own unique way.

“Some of us do painting,” Anaya said. “Some of us do writing and some of us do helping people, nursing, there’s food people who are creative, you know.”

Both Anaya and Otero are inspired by their culture, and have great pride in it. They represent it through their art.

Their advice to young aspiring writers and painters is to practice, and “Keep your day job,” Anaya said.

Both of these New Mexico artists have taught school as their day job, and practice their art on a daily basis.

“You first have to get it down,” Anaya said. “That’s what I told my creative writing class.

“I didn’t know how to write when I first started writing, nobody knows how. It’s not a God-given talent, you just work at it.”

“It has to be encouraged, I think,” added Otero. “For me, when I was a kid, I didn’t know I was going to be an artist. I was actually very nervous about what I was going to become, because my dad was a plumber, and I hated working outside. I hated digging ditches. I hated it in the wintertime … so I was searching for something, and I guess in that search you find something, not always, but I did, and thank God I did, because it saved my life I think.”

As a teacher, Otero believes it is important to expose students to art of many genres.

“Because their gift might be there,” Otero said. “I think good teachers understand the need for that creativity.”

Otero’s education is in elementary education with an endorsement in art.

“We don’t want to make every student a writer,” Anaya said. “We want them to go away to anything they decide to do in life with an appreciation of art. So, whether they become an electrician, plumber, businessman, whatever, they can take that (with them) in their lives … our work is to appreciate truth and beauty, right? That’s all there is.”

Anaya says he believes every school should have art as a part of the regular curriculum.

-- Email the author at dfox@news-bulletin.com.