Used by permission from the Arizona Historical Society
“It just seemed to me that the only way to get to know the kids was to speak their language – so I set out to learn Spanish. I told them it was a beautiful language, that it has been spoken in this big valley of Santa Cruz for 200 years before English was … I wanted to help them come to love literature and good music and have trained imaginations and to make them feel compassion for all living creatures.”… wrote Sister Bourne about her Spanish-American students.
Eulalia “Sister” Bourne was one of Arizona’s most fascinating citizens. She was also one of the state’s most enigmatic figures; although she published three autobiographical novels, and became the subject of many newspaper and magazine articles, she managed to keep the details of her private life to herself.
Born in the Texas Panhandle “when the 19th century was dying,” she was dubbed “Sister” by a little sister who could not pronounce her name. She was raised in the White Mountains of New Mexico, and at the age of twelve attended a college preparatory school in Albuquerque. When she was sixteen, she moved to Humbug, Arizona as the wife of thirty-nine-year-old William S. Bourne. With the help of a local schoolteacher, Sister fled the unhappy marriage and traveled to Phoenix, where she obtained her teaching certificate. After losing her first teaching job in Beaver Creek for dancing the “one step” to a jazz record, she found her next job in Helvetia, a village in the Santa Rita Mountains southeast of Tucson. It was here that Sister came into her own as a teacher. Her story is best expressed in her own words:
“I had all Mexican pupils except for one little girl who was adopted by a Mexican woman. She had real white hair-very, very blonde. The little girl could talk English … so she was my interpreter in school.”
“They had a rule in Arizona at the time: no Spanish on the school ground. Not a word. I thought that was the silliest thing I ever heard. I determined that if I was to teach them, I had to be able to talk to them. So I sent off to Los Angeles and got a Spanish grammar, and I studied it. [One afternoon], after the primary grades had been dismissed, I said, ‘0igan’ [Listen] I have been teaching you English all day. Now will you teach me Spanish? ‘Sure’, they said, so they began telling me the words for different things around the room. They told me about a hundred words and how they laughed when I missed one. But everyday we did that – they taught me Spanish for five minutes. It was wonderful.”
The Pima County superintendent found Sister a job in the Tucson school district so that she could study at the University of Arizona. In 1930 she received her B.A. in English, with a minor in Spanish. After graduation, she taught school in Redington and took up one of the last grazing homesteads in Pepper Sauce Canyon. She bought fifty head of cattle and built her own adobe house. For the next forty years, she taught school in rural Southern Arizona towns like Baboquivari, Sasabe, and Pozo Nuevo. She retired from teaching in 1957. In 1951 Sister traded her ranch for land just across the valley in the foothills of the Galiuro Mountains, where she actively managed the ranch even doing her own roping and branding. It was during this period that she began to write her autobiographical books about ranching and teaching. Woman in Levi’s was published in 1967; Nine Months is a Year at Baboquivari School appeared in 1968, and Ranch Schoolteacher was published in 1974. She also wrote a children’s book, The Blue Colt. In 1979, she gave all royalties from her books to the Eulalia Bourne Scholarship Fund at the University of Arizona.
Sister’s books inspired their readers, who showed their appreciation by showering her with awards. The Arizona Press Women named her Woman of the Year in 1973-74; the Society of Southwestern Authors named Ranch Schoolteacher the best book of 1974; in 1975 she received a Distinguished Citizen Award from the University of Arizona (U of A) Alumni Association; the U of A Department of Reading gave her a Service Recognition Award in 1980; and in 1983 she was named Arizona’s Outstanding Author by the Arizona State Library Association.
Sister stayed on her ranch in the Galiuro Mountains until the very end. She died in bed on May 1, 1984.