Unforgettable: La Beata

In 1813, while Lorenzana was at the mission, workers enlarged the church building to its current size, the fortified walls buttressed against earthquakes. Two years later, the mission built a second infirmary, which would become the women’s hospital.

One day, shortly after she returned to the Presidio, Father Sánchez came to say Mass. He took Lorenzana aside. Gather your belongings and return to the mission, he told her. She would be nurse for the new infirmary. “That job was an act of charity,” she says, “because I was still quite ill and could do very little work.”

As before, Father Sánchez ordered Lorenzana not to practice medicine: she should only oversee the operation and “make sure they did the job well.” As before, she disobeyed.

She battled plagues of measles, smallpox, and influenza. These came, wreaked havoc, and departed. The consistent killer was morbo venereo — venereal disease. Every day she treated llagas, syphilitic sores and brown skin rashes caused by sexual liaisons — often rape — between soldiers and native women.

To combat “bad behavior,” the mission segregated men and women in the compound. Single women and neophyte girls, aged 11 and older, slept in the monjerio, a nunnery. Every night an elderly matron locked the door and gave the key to a priest. During the day “the matron followed the girls’ every move,” says Lorenzana, who clearly approved of the policy, and “never let them out of her sight.” Girls only left the enforced incarceration after they were married. (Mission Santa Barbara’s nunnery had three locks, a different person holding each key. No one could enter without the consent of all three.)

At Mission San Diego, a church bell woke the girls at 5:00 a.m. They spent most of the day in a patio, connected to the nunnery by a high-walled corridor. They spun wool and received instruction. A blind woman taught them to pray. Lorenzana taught them to sew, everything from intricately stitched church garments to coarse woolen skirts for the women and blankets (“both men and women received one blanket each year”).

Neophyte boys also slept in locked, segregated quarters called jayuntes. Most worked in the fields or with livestock, wearing cotton shirts and loincloths. If they neglected their duties, the priests would order punishment. Even “somewhat serious” offenses resulted in a whipping.

The five p.m. bell signaled the workday’s end. “Everyone was required to go and pray, except for those away from the missions.” Neophytes ate the evening meal of atole — corn-flour porridge sweetened with brown sugar or vanilla and eaten like soup — followed by the nightly lockup.

Over the years, Lorenzana’s duties expanded. She discovered a knack for frugality. Since “San Diego was a poor mission,” this often meant making ends meet. Along with the distribution of rations to soldiers, she oversaw the sale of wheat and corn to outsiders. When ships sailed into the bay, the priests made lists of goods they needed. If she wasn’t busy at the hospital or teaching, they’d ask Lorenzana to make the bumpy, six-mile trek to La Playa to witness the exchange. They developed such trust, they authorized her to purchase whatever goods the mission might need, “even if they were not written on the list.”

Lorenzana rejoined the hospital sometime in 1815. By 1822, says Doña Juana Machado, “everyone called [her] la beata.” The term, like curandera, has a long cultural history. “To the common people,” Luís Martin writes, “the beata was a person endowed with special gifts and power to whom one could turn for religious and spiritual help.” Beatas practiced daily acts of charity, became Mother Confessors, and often peacemakers. Lorenzana never refers to herself as one. That she was a beata and a curandera, says Salome Hernández, makes her “unusual and extraordinary.”

When she was a girl, a young man fell in love with her. He “tried hard to get me to marry him.” But she politely refused. Rejected, he left for Mexico. Two years later, he came back, married but without his wife. He contacted Lorenzana. She doesn’t report what they said, but “shortly after, he returned to Mexico.”

Lorenzana never married. Though she valued “such a sacred institution,” she was “not drawn to the state of matrimony.” She preferred being a midwife and a madrina (godmother): “I, who had no daughters, had to care for the children of all.” She was godmother, she estimates, to between 100 and 200 children, a sad percentage of whom died at birth.

Blind and feeble in Santa Barbara, Lorenzana dictated her memoirs to Thomas Savage in 1878. “I had the satisfaction of being well loved by young and old and rich and poor. Maybe it was because I was good-natured and would do whatever I could to help people. I imagine that if I went to San Diego, I would be well received. But I live far away.”

A favorite scene from the 1830s recalled one of her worst memories.

The first plays performed in San Diego were pastorelas, yuletide pageants that Lorenzana organized. Her group gave a Christmas Eve performance in Old Town, then another one eight days later at the mission, followed by several in people’s homes. “I was always at those fiestas,” she says, which were the only ones she attended.

In effect, Lorenzana may have been San Diego’s first artistic director of theater. She cast the various roles for the religious comedy — “especially the role of the angel,” Gabriel, who saves the shepherds going to Bethlehem from the wily but always outclassed Devil. She conducted rehearsals and oversaw the design and sewing of the costumes for what was always the happiest night of the year.

For the 1837 pageant, Lorenzana asked Don Pio Pico to play the Devil. Owner of Rancho Jamul and later governor of California, Pico’s separatist ideas for the region made enemies in the conservative north — especially José Castro, the military commander — and in Mexico. They would have called his Devil typecasting — if he had indeed performed.

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