||La Gente Press
Merchants have always loved the Santa Fe trail. The Mexican-American War was fought to gain more land, but it was also about controlling trade, and that meant controlling Santa Fe: it was the first foreign capital captured by the U.S. An unbelievable influx of men occurred, but nary a word has been written about how that affected the New Mexican women. Until now.
Price: $3.99 (eBook)
Download to your Kindle (eBook)
Sandra Ramos O'Briant
Winner of Best Historical Fiction and Best First Book, ILBA, 2013. When Alma flees with her young lover to Texas to escape an arranged marriage with a much older man, she sets in motion a drama that will put the sisters and their legacy at risk. Pilar, a 14-year-old tomboy, is offered as a replacement bride, and what follows is a sensuous courtship and marriage clouded by the curses of her husband’s former lover, Consuelo. She will stop at nothing, even the use of black magic, in her effort to destroy the Sandoval family. The Mexican-American war begins and the Americans invade Santa Fe. The sisters are caught in the crosshairs of war from two important fronts-New Mexico and Texas. Their money and ancient knowledge offer some protection, but their lives are changed forever.
Chapter 1: The Secrets
“All that praying and what does Teresa leave me? Daughters!”
The Sandoval History:
Estevan had no time for Alma and Pilar and left them completely in my hands. I taught them to read the Sandoval
diaries and to keep their own. The latter you have before you; what we wrote during the innocent time before the war years,and an accounting of what happened when we lost love and land. We wrote as we lived through the events, and we wrote what we remembered later. Which are the more true, the memories then or those simmered over time?
The diaries afforded an extensive education all on their own, one that included many generations and the experiences of both men and women, but my sisters and I also studied history and languages, including English. We were the Sandoval sisters to the world, even though I first entered their
compound a barefoot slave.
Estevan had traded for me—a bag of flour for a ragged peasant girl of five—after I had been captured by Apaches in
Mexico. He brought me to this high mountain desert, to Santa Fé, the City of Holy Faith, as a wedding present for his bride. I became doña Teresa’s favorite, who was sixteen and far from her family in Mexico City. She taught me to read and to cook, and christened me
Oratoria because of my skill with languages. When I came to her, I spoke only the native language of my village, but the Sandovals spoke the cultured Spanish of their Castilian ancestors. Because of their overland trading expeditions, they also had a command of English, and a smattering of French,
I rode to Santa Fé in the back of a wagon loaded with reeking buffalo skins. It was the last wagon in a caravan of
six. It rumbled along and I stared out at where I’d been: lost in a savage wilderness. A whirlwind of dust kicked up by the wagons made me cough and my eyes water. They watered more at night when I felt the most alone.
One man cooked for all the others. He shoved a plate of food at me every morning and night, but he and all the other men ignored me. Estevan commanded them, and I feared him. I didn’t know what lay ahead and began to forget the
life I’d left behind.
Another day wore on and I continued my vigil in the back of the dead buffalo wagon, but shouts and whistles from the
men signaled something new. Crawling over the skins, I peeked out the front. The land was flat, but in front of us a
huge wall blocked our way. A double gate swung open, and men and women appeared. Women! I pressed my face into
the bison fur beneath me, afraid I’d imagined them. Looked again. The women were laughing.
A large house lay behind the gate, and Estevan entered it. The other men remained outside the compound unloading the wagons. One of the women led me to a trough from where the horses drank and motioned me to get into it. I sat in the
water and stared at all the comings and goings of the people in the compound. After the woman scrubbed me and gave me
a change of clothes, I entered the Sandoval hacienda.
Estevan frowned down at me, but a small woman, a girl really,laughed and stepped around him. She knelt in front of me
and squeezed my shoulders.
“She’s mine,” Teresa said.
She took my hand, and wonder replaced fear as Teresa led me around my new home. There were many rooms and
unfamiliar objects, but Teresa taught me what she knew. She was lonely, patient, and talkative. I learned her language fast,and thus began my immersion in the Sandoval mysteries.
“My father was eager for me to marry a rich man, even if his family was disreputable,” she told me. Rich in land
granted to them by royal decree enturies ago, the Sandoval luck remained strong and they had increased their holdings in
the usual way: through marriage, gambling, theft, murder, and prayer.
“I don’t understand why they choose to live on the undesirable side of Santa Fé,” Teresa said. Many months had
passed since I’d joined the household, and we often sat together in the library. She looked up from the Sandoval
diary she’d been reading, a leather-covered tome, its pages scribbled in fading ink. “We could build to the north, around the plaza, where the other ricos live.” She returned to the
book. “It’s their own contrary decision to live here. Our old Spanish blood makes us stubborn . . . and different. It says so right here.”
Of course, I didn’t understand about the blood when I first came to live there.
“Old blood marries old blood,” doña Teresa said. She was a cousin, also a Sandoval, although from a poorer
branch of the family, and her children with Estevan would bear the rare Sandoval y Sandoval surname. Some celebrated the joint mastery of the name, while others feared the
awakening of dark powers for which the Sandovals had always been suspect. Not only had they acquired wealth in a
desert frontier, they had survived Indians and epidemics while
others perished. They could read, too, and their home was sumptuous with
white marble pier tables, Brussels carpets and wood floors. This, while many New Mexicans lived in one-room adobe hovels alongside their goats. To make matters worse, they were handsome people. All good reasons to fear and respect them.
“My mother told me to ignore the gossip and concentrate on being a dutiful wife,” doña Teresa told me.
This meant cooking, managing the household of servants
and never criticizing her husband, her adored one, who left
her alone while he caroused in town. Oh, to be sure, Estevan
made love to his wife, loudly and often. All the rooms
opened onto a large central patio, so the entire household
heard him. But not a peep escaped from Teresa, who
conceived and miscarried one baby after another. And then,
even the pregnancies stopped.
It would be ten years before she was able to bring a child
to term, and in the interim I became her pupil, her plaything,
and her daughter.
Many of the books in their library were written in Latin,
and Teresa arranged for the priest who had baptized all the
servants of the household to tutor me. Like all the others,
bought and paid for, the baptismal record listed only my first
name. Had they asked for a last name, I could not have given
one. I no longer held a memory of my former life. To their
credit, Estevan and his father did not begrudge the childless
Teresa’s affection for me, and if anyone else thought it
unusual, they said nothing . . . to the Sandovals.
Over time I became the sole expert on those forgotten
tomes. Since I’d also shown a talent for cooking, Teresa
had a desk made for me and moved to a corner of the
kitchen. It set next to the patio doors so the light was good
all day. I could cook and read and stare out at the birds.
“This is yours, Oratoria,” she said, waving her arm toward
her gift. It was smaller than Estevan’s unused desk in the
library, but not so tiny that I’ve outgrown it. Delicate floral
carvings, painted turquoise and red, graced the locking doors
underneath the tabletop. A shelf above the desk held a few of
the diaries. She handed me two keys. One was large and
unlocked the doors, but the second key, tiny and delicate, was
for a secret compartment concealed behind the shelves below.
“My mother said a woman must have a secret treasure,”
She encouraged me to read the ancient diaries of the
Sandoval heiresses, said to contain delectable recipes
guaranteed to whet a husband’s appetite and keep him at
home. The recipes were there, but so were their fears and
ecstasies, their seductions and adulterous affairs. The diaries
were cookbooks of love.
I transcribed the recipes and Teresa made her choices.
The savory aromas and tasty dishes I cooked assured don
Estevan’s presence at supper, but he usually left for town
when he'd finished, and did not return until the morning.
Sometimes he remained away for days. Teresa turned to
prayer. She filled the niches in the hacienda with santos and
set up altars in every room.
Making our household rounds required a stop before each
martyr. I followed her, kneeling and making the sign-of-thecross
when she did. I mumbled fervent prayers for God to
make my benefactress fruitful. Teresa drank teas made from
foul-tasting herbs guaranteed to make her womb fecund. She
sought the advice of a bruja, a witch, who instructed her to
smear honey and lard on her nethermost region and mount her
husband from above. I held Teresa’s hand while the witch
spoke and felt her pulse quicken.
“I read about doing that in the diaries. It sounded
foolish,” Teresa said. “I’ll ask Estevan’s permission, of
The bruja drew her lips back and showed her teeth—not a
smile, more the kind of mirthless leer I’d seen on Estevan’s
face when he’d been drinking. This witch was not what I’d
expected. She was young and plump, not the toothless,
desiccated old woman children were told to avoid.
“Yes, ask Estevan,” the bruja said, speaking as if she were
talking to a child. She held out her hand to receive the coin
Teresa had promised.
The prayers continued, as did the teas, and honey and lard
were hidden beneath her mattress, but there was no sign of a
pregnancy. One day, Teresa led me to the library.
“How do I keep him home all night, Oratoria?” She
glanced at my bare feet, but ignored my transgression for the
moment. “The Sandovals know about such things. The
recipes for charms are here, but we must be careful. Not all
of them are for love. That is why la gente fear us.” She
pulled two books out at random, handing me the thickest.
“Ah! Providencia Sandoval. She had three husbands. She
must have been beautiful, or a talented cook . . . or a
knowledgeable lover.” Teresa raised innocent eyes to mine.
“She may reveal something, or nothing. One never knows
with the Sandovals.” She opened the book in her hands. “I’ll
read this one. Epiphenia Sandoval was known to be pious.
Almost a saint.”
She left me in the library, thumbing slowly through the
diary of a murderess. If Teresa had read Providencia’s
recipes for poisoned pie, instead of Epiphenia’s directions on
proper self-flagellation, who knows how the Sandoval history
might have changed? The charms and formulas devised by
lusty and daring wives were beyond my ken. They awaited
the true hand of a blood Sandoval.
The secrets of their line were revealed in those journals,
entire lifetimes recorded. A community of blood, the curtain
drawn aside, allowed my voyeuristic peek. Human dreams
had been written in archaic Spanish, and terrible sins
described in faded brown ink on whisper-thin paper. The
entire spectrum of love was examined: practical jokes and
puns, recipes for desperate wives and artistic poisoners,
centuries of words put down for those who followed.
“What does Providencia advise?” Teresa asked one day
when I was reading.
My head snapped up and I stared at her, confused, pulled
out of the intrigues and conquests of that formidable
Sandoval. “You must keep his seed,” I said. The lie sprang
to my lips easily, though Providencia’s advice had concerned
pleasure only. “When he spills, hold him tight within you.
Clench your womb.”
Teresa’s face brightened, and she nodded. “Yes,” she
said, no doubt already planning to ask Estevan’s permission.
“Yes, this makes sense. Thank you, my lovely, for wading
through her diary. It is by far the weightiest.” She kissed the
top of my head, and turned to leave, but not before she
kneeled and signed before the altar. I continued reading.
The Sandoval blood was not mine, but I felt their stories
had been written for me, my fate intertwined with theirs. The
ancestral voices rang true in my ear. Their ecstasies and petty
misfortunes became my catechism; they were now my family.
Perhaps my improvised advice worked, for Teresa became,
and remained, pregnant. In her joy, she took me to the priest
and had me baptized again. This time she added Sandoval to
my name on the Church rolls, a precious gift, usually earned
only after years of dedicated service.
My fervor renewed, I studied the diaries and wrote what I
learned in my own journal. I cooked for the family, and was
a loving daughter. Then, a true daughter of the blood was
born in 1827. I watched Alma come into the world. I was
also there, three years later, at the delivery of Teresa’s second
“Take care of your sisters,” Teresa said, as she lay dying
from birth fever. “And try to wear shoes.”
And just like that, I became Oratoria Sandoval, the elder
Before Teresa was in the ground, the whole town arrived
to pay their respects. Instead, they witnessed a drunken
Estevan destroy the altars his wife had set up. He tossed the
wooden saints and rosaries into a bonfire he’d started in the
“All that praying and what does she leave me?
Daughters!” He spat on the ground.
Estevan’s drinking friends laughed, and said, “The
Sandovals have no fear of God.”
Their laughter gurgled to a choking stop, as if their throats
had sobered up before their minds. They crossed themselves
and hurried away, followed by the other townspeople, who
cringed at their close brush with such satanic activity. A few
uttered prayers for us, the motherless Sandoval sisters,
shaking their heads, sure that we were doomed to perdition.
My sisters became my life. I read the diaries for
guidance and learned that in every other generation of
Sandovals, the burden of old blood, thick with family
secrets, flowed into one person’s soul. The truth of the
blood made itself slowly known, and that individual’s
destiny was cast. Past recipients of the Sandoval secrets had
become wily political raconteurs, owners of vast land grants,
goatherds, or insipid priests. Tradition held that the blood
flowed solely to the Sandoval males, but it was suspected
that an occasional dotty old aunt hoarded secrets.
Estevan Sandoval thought he was the chosen one. He was
lucky at cards, and always bet on the fastest horse in a race.
But he was an ordinary man who’d had a few good hunches.
It was his daughter, Alma, who inherited the telling blood. At
fourteen it thickened in her veins, and saturated her senses
with its heat. Ancient memories unraveled and revealed
themselves to her. I had only to lean close to Alma to hear:
“Hidalgo Sandoval, sadist and hypocrite, in the year of our
Lord, 1484, puts to the rack seven Jews and confiscates their
property,” she might begin. “He disembowels a crone who
practices midwifery, and takes her virginal daughter by force.
He keeps her as a mistress and loves her deeply, though she
continues her mother’s line of healing arts. Providencia
Sandoval, murderess and cook, 1563, poisons three husbands
with ground castor beans. A recipe book written by her is
treasured by generations of Sandoval women. Jesús
Sandoval, swindler and incidental murderer, 1735, salts a
mine in the Manzano Mountains with gold, and sells it to his
cousin. The cousin later kills his family and himself when he
discovers that he has squandered his fortune on an empty hole
in the ground.”
It would go on, a continuous reel, like the player piano in
the parlor. When she reached the end, she would begin again.
With each recitation a new secret would be added to the
never-ending list of Sandoval sins and misjudgments. Her
lips moved incessantly, as if in prayer, and the people of
Santa Fé, la gente, thought she recited novenas for the repose
of her mother’s soul.
The caballeros sang Alma’s praise: “What a prize your
daughter is, Estevan, so beautiful and pure.” She was the most
obedient of daughters, and read the Sandoval diaries as if they
were parables, unlike Pilar, who laughed at the ancestral
She called the diaries lies, and made jokes, and ran wild,
doing as she pleased, even secretly riding her father’s stallion
bareback. But she wrote in her diary like all the Sandovals
who came before her. Pilar was a handful, but her father
ignored her completely, focusing his attention on Alma, the
daughter of marriageable age.
Sandra Ramos O’Briant’s debut novel The Sandoval Sisters’ Secret of Old Blood sets the stage for a fascinating series about Anglo/Hispanic interaction in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the struggle to control the Santa Fe Trail. The author introduces the Sandoval sisters Oratoria, Pilar and Alma who are independent and resistant to the restrictions placed on women in that place and time. Each controls her own destiny, making unconventional choices and always standing by family and friends.
Told in the sisters’ voices, the reader learns of each woman’s loves and losses and follows them on their trail to the end of the novel when the sisters need to come together to preserve their lands and livelihood from the new legal system that threatens the patrimony of many in what is now the Southwest United States.
Oratoria, the eldest, is not a sister by blood. Purchased at age five for the price of a bag of flour, Oratoria was originally Estevan’s gift to his lonely sixteen-year-old bride. Oratoria becomes a family favorite and indispensable to them all, truly integrated as a family member. She is the keeper of the old diaries that provide insight into the Sandoval heritage as well as instruction on cures and spells. She raises her sisters, making sure they are educated and independent thinkers. She is there when they need her and sacrifices herself to protect their livelihood.
Headstrong Alma, determined to not marry her father’s choice for her, runs off with the love of her life (Bill) only to discover once they arrive at his family home that she really does not know him as well as she thought. Cultural clashes between her Spanish background and his Anglo family, clashes with his domineering, mean spirited mother and betrayal by a woman she believed was her friend present the reader with an interesting read and better understanding of the climate of the times and the challenges faced by those who married across boundaries.
The youngest sister Pilar is more of a free spirit than the other two sisters yet she is most suited to marriage to Alma’s rejected elderly suitor, Geraldo. Because of his patience and maturity, Geraldo provides Pilar the blessing of love but more importantly, independence and autonomy. Pilar is able to fend for herself (and others) upon his death. She is more than up to the challenge presented by being one of the landed, moneyed families of the region.
Woven among the stories of love and life is eroticism, mystery, witchcraft, folktales, superstition, political intrigue, corruption, violence, and told with a fluid style that grabs you from the first page and leaves you hungry for more at the end.
About the Author: Sandra Ramos O’Briant‘s work has appeared in numerous journals, including Label Me Latina/o. In addition, her short stories have been anthologized in Best Lesbian Love Stories of 2004, What Wildness is This: Women Write About the Southwest (University of Texas Press, Spring 2007), Latinos in Lotus Land: An Anthology of Contemporary Southern California Literature, (Bilingual Press, 2008), Hit List: The Best of Latino Mystery (Arte Publico (2009), and The Mom Egg (Half Shell Press, 2010). A complete list of her work can be found at www.thesandovalsisters.com
The Latina title for her has been hard won because growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico no one would accept that her mother was Mexican. The O’Briant last name tagged her gringa and put her on the outside looking in. But the outsider condition led to observing, and listening, and longing, all of which informs her writing.
Dr. Michele Shaul, Professor, Department of Foreign Languages Queens University of Charlotte
Family Saga! Historical Novel Review
The Sandoval Sisters' Secret of Old Blood is a novel about three sisters during the Mexican-American wars. The Sandoval family are wealthy land owners in the late 1800’s. An old family tradition exists where the women keep extensive diaries of their lives. The diaries date back centuries and are all carefully kept and shared amongst them. In this way, family secrets, recipes, potions, and life stories are shared to future generations as a way to share knowledge and preserve information.
The novel draws the reader in quickly, and as the three women go forth to the their own destinies, their individual stories, heartbreak, triumph, and secrets are revealed. And of course, no novel that deals with old history is without its share of potions, witchcraft, and black magic. And that’s what I found most entertaining about this novel – is how the old intersects into each woman’s life.
This is a novel with a unique setting, intriguing characters, filled with both turbulent and challenging life issues. There was plenty that kept me interested and reading until the last page. Highly recommended, especially for those who love a good family saga!
StoryCircle Book Review
In The Sandoval Sisters' Secret of Old Blood, author Sandra Ramos O'Briant weaves a tale drenched in the history and culture of Spain and the Southwest. Diaries passed down through the lineage of Sandoval women string together a cluster of lives as bold as a chile ristra. The journals begin in Spain during the Inquisition and each generation adds another volume to the collection where "human dreams had been written in archaic Spanish and terrible sins described in faded brown ink on whisper-thin paper." Finally, we find Oratoria poring through the texts in 1841—"a dangerous time for Anglos in Santa Fe."
New Mexico stands on the fault line between worlds, on the edge of the Mexican American war, at once part of Mexico, with the United States moving ever closer. We experience the turbulence of this time with the Sandoval sisters: Oratoria, bought by the family after her capture by Apaches in Mexico; her sister Alma, who runs away from an arranged marriage into the heart of Texas; and Pilar, the youngest sister who escapes every night to ride her father's stallion through the northern desert until dawn. In turn, each sister seeks the diaries to find that "the recipes were there, but so were their fears and ecstasies, their seductions and adulterous affairs. The diaries were cookbooks of life." Wisdom gained through the generations, combined with the fortune of their family, brands the Sandoval sisters as witches by la gente, the people. Each shares her story in her own voice, and through these stories we experience love, heartbreak, erotic desire, witchcraft, and the human yearning to be free and take care of one's own.
Ramos O'Briant tells the complex story of history of the Southwest—complicated, a clash of cultures steeped in slavery, kidnapping, murder, blood, and also love, family, and the creation of fused cultures forever etched into the landscape.
Ancient journals, the thickness of old blood, sensuous love, and the life-altering choices we all must make, set against the rich backdrop of history, compose the heart of The Sandoval Sisters' and the Secret of Old Blood. Ultimately, this is a novel of self-determination, of the sisters, a people, and a land. This era, sometimes wondrous, often violent, creates families of both heritage and circumstances, borne of love and of loss, all deepening the kinship of blood and land. The Sandoval sisters create their role, each in her unique way reflected in future generations, and each with individual courage, for "witches do not ride broomsticks on moonlit nights. They prefer stallions."
Want to review or comment on this
Click here to login!
Need a FREE Reader Membership?
Click here for your Membership!