Unforgettable: La Beata


September 1, 1834: the Mexican brigantine Natalia makes an unscheduled entry into San Diego Bay. Onboard are José María Hijar, Juan Bandini, and 129 settlers headed to Monterey to populate Alta California. Many have measles. A second ship, the corvette Morelos, continues north with 100 carpenters, shoemakers, teachers, and their families, along with provisions, sheep, and five Tibetan goats.

Hijar, leader of the group, has been seasick for the month-long voyage from San Blas. Some of his passengers have already died. The 185-ton brig drops anchor off La Playa. Glad to be ashore, Hijar quarantines the most stricken to nearby tanning houses. Reeking of stacked cowhides and orts of rotting gristle, the huts and barn-shaped structures almost make him landsick. He orders others to move inland to Huisache, a specific location by the rivermouth, marked by a small, sweet acacia tree. Only the truly healthy can go into town, he says, naming himself and Bandini. Otherwise, a plague of measles could decimate the pueblo.

While Hijar enjoys himself at Bandini’s casa, the Presidio comandante sends a message to the mission, asking for food and the services of Apolinaria Lorenzana to care for the sick and the dying. This request, given the times, ranks among the most unusual in San Diego history. The comandante asked not for a male doctor or a priest but for a woman. Even ten years earlier, the fathers would have deemed it a sacrilege. Maybe the comandante felt that a woman, in this circumstance, was expendable — or, more likely, that she would be able to make a difference. Lorenzana had become a renowned curandera, a native healer. Using herbs and folk medicine, she tended to the sick at Mission San Diego and traveled to other missions in the chain when the need arose. She always referred to herself as la cuña, the orphan. But in the 34 years since she’d come to Alta California, her reputation for spiritual gifts earned her the title la beata, the blessed one.

When she arrives at La Playa, colonists expecting humble piety — eyes down, soft-spoken — are surprised. Lorenzana takes charge. The woman, in her early 40s, orders families living in the area to feed the sick with mission food brought on two-wheeled, twisted-wooden carretas. She builds a central kitchen at Huisache. She tells servants to cart the dead to Mission San Diego, give them last rites, bury them, and burn every speck of their clothing.

“She came and helped them all,” said Doña Juana Machado years later. “The men, women, and children who were well continued their travels northward; the sick, as soon as they recovered, also followed.” Many must have wondered who the woman was who moved among them like a whirlwind with a purpose.

From La Cuña to La Beata. Abandoned in Mexico City at birth, seven-year-old Apolinaria Lorenzana had sailed to Alta California in 1800. She arrived with 19 other orphans ordered to help colonize the new territory. The boys were required to learn useful skills, the girls, “young healthy maids,” to marry, and remarry if widowed. All must raise large, Christian families and never violate their contract. In 1802, Lorenzana’s adopted mother fell in love with a soldier, married him, and sailed back to Mexico, leaving the nine-year-old girl behind.

Young Lorenzana moved in with the Carrillos in Santa Barbara, more as a nurse and servant than a daughter. In 1807 Raymundo Carrillo became comandante of San Diego Presidio, bemoaned by its inhabitants as the windiest hill on earth.

While living with the Carrillos, and later the Mercados, Lorenzana began teaching young girls to read, write, and recite their catechism. “She shared her knowledge with other women,” says Genaro M. Padilla, “in a society that generally discouraged women’s intellectual development.” It helped that both Sergeant Mercado and his wife Josefa were teachers. Lorenzana instructed “children of either sex to read, at the request of their parents.”

She had only been with the Mercados a short while when her left hand wouldn’t move. She couldn’t shake it back to life. Finally the hand became so paralyzed “it looked like it was dead.” She stopped teaching. She loved to sew, loved working with her hands, but couldn’t. Frontier society demanded that everyone live traditional lives and carry their load. Unmarried, and in her late teens, Lorenzana had become useless.

Father José Sánchez brought her to San Diego Mission. “He took me in,” she says. “I could not move my hand at all for about two years and eight months. Then, over a period of about four months my hand began to recover very slowly.”

During those three years, she began nursing the sick in the mission hospital, her left arm in a sling. Also at this time, if not sooner, Lorenzana made a choice. Given the turmoil of being uprooted, shipped from a major city to a forlorn frontier, losing her mother, and leaving the Carrillos and Mercados, Lorenzana fully embraced the one family that would never abandon her: the Church.

When she began nursing, Father Sánchez ordered her not to practice medicine, just “teach servants how to and supervise them.” But without official sanction, Lorenzana “always, as best I could, attended the sick.”

This was often done without medical supplies. After 1810, cargo ships from Mexico became fewer and fewer. Of necessity, Lorenzana learned native healing techniques: herbal remedies for headaches and fevers, potions for snakebite, salves for wounds. She doesn’t mention it, but a curandera also used prayer and ritual, like a shaman, to exorcise spiritual illnesses — among them “shock,” “fright,” and the “evil eye” — caused, it was said, by curses, demons, or lost, malevolent spirits.

When Lorenzana regained use of her hand, she returned to the home of Josefa Sal, whose husband, Sergeant Mercado, died in 1811. Josefa opened a school for girls at the Presidio, but since she also owned a garden and an orchard down the hill, she turned teaching duties over to Lorenzana. Over 40 years later, when she dictated her memoirs to Thomas Savage, Lorenzana recalled her students with fondness: “I taught Ignacio Martinez’s three daughters, and Tomasa Lugo’s niece…. Many other girls learned their first letters and other things from me.”

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.

The entire pueblo came to Pico’s home on December 24. Six girls, dressed in white with red mantillas, stood three on each side of the makeshift stage and sang Christmas music. Before Pico, a large man, could make his entrance and harass the innocent shepherds, a rifle butt pounded the door. Outside was Comandante Don José Castro and a squadron of “yellow jacket” soldiers come to arrest Pico for treachery. You can’t escape, Castro told the man in the Devil outfit. Your house is surrounded.

Festivities stopped. “The families retired to their houses,” writes Machado, “grieving over the fate of our captured countryman.

“I think it was during the detention of Don Pio [that] the sad event took place at his Jamul ranch.”

Next time: The Jamul Incident.

— Jeff Smith

Beebe, Rose Marie, and Robert M. Senkewicz, eds., Testimonios: Early California through the Eyes of Women, 1815–1848; Lorenzana’s recollections, pp. 165–192; Berkeley, 2006.

Haas, Lisbeth, Conquests and Historical Identities in California: 1769–1936; Berkeley, 1995.

Heilbron, Carl, History of San Diego County; San Diego, 1936.

Hernandez, Salome, “No Settlement without Women: Three Spanish California Settlement Schemes, 1790–1800”; Southern California Quarterly, vol. 72, no. 3, 1990.

Hutchinson, C. Alan, Frontier Settlement in Mexican California: The Hijar-Padres Colony and Its Origins, 1789–1835, New Haven, 1969; “Notes and Documents: An Official List of the Members of the Hijar-Padres Colony for Mexican California, 1834”; Pacific Historical Review, vol. 42, August 1973.

Machado, Doña Juana, “Times Gone By in Alta California” (trans. Raymond S. Brandes); The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, September 1959; also in Testimonios (pp. 119–144).

Martin, Luís, Daughters of the Conquistadores: Women of the Viceroyalty of Peru; Dallas, 1983.

Padilla, Genaro M., My History, Not Yours: The Formation of Mexican-American Autobiography; Madison, 1993.

Sánchez, Rosaura, Telling Identities: The Californio Testimonios; Minnesota, 1995.

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