Unforgettable: La Beata


In the spring of 1878, Thomas Savage went to Santa Barbara to record recollections for Herbert Howe Bancroft’s massive History of California. In particular, Savage wanted to interview the family of José de la Guerra y Noriega, prominent Californios. But they weren’t available because one of the sons, Miguel, was fatally ill. Angustias de la Guerra said Savage should talk to Apolinaria Lorenzana, who lived nearby.

Savage had heard of Lorenzana when he visited San Diego in January: “Many native Californians of both sexes spoke of her in the highest terms of praise. She was known by many as Apolinaria la Cuna [the foundling] and by most as La Beata [the blessed one].” Some said she was stern and demanding. Others hailed her as a living saint.

Curious, and with time on his hands, Savage encountered an enfeebled old woman, dirt poor and “stone blind.” She’d spent the entire 19th Century in Alta California, she said with a cracked voice and proud Castilian accent. She’d taught school, nursed the sick, and helped administrate Mission San Diego. She owned three ranchos and lost them after the American invasion. Now the “good old soul” lived on the charity of others, which she decried as a burden to her. Although Bancroft preferred male histories, Savage decided to record the ancient woman’s story.

LA CUNA. NOVEMBER 1799. Twenty-one orphans leave Mexico City for San Blas, where they will board a ship and sail to Alta California. They are an experiment. At first the government sent skilled workers and their families to populate the territory. But since most returned after their two- to six-year contracts expired, the Viceroy wants the children of the new “orphan project” to find work, marry, and add to the 3000 settlers already in the region.

“Alta California was a most unattractive province to the success-seeking colonist of New Spain,” writes Manuel P. Servin. If adults objected to the duty, and most did, maybe homeless children might be more agreeable. The original plan called for 60 boys and 60 girls. Quartermaster Manuel Carcaba, who did the recruiting, found only 21.

Nine boys, 10 years old and under (when they turned 11, they’d be old enough to work), ride on horses and pack mules, 12 girls in a mule-drawn, covered four-wheel cart. Francisco Barron heads the procession. He bid 3600 pesos for the task and promised not to feed the “tender innocents” with “heavy foods that would endanger their health.” An escort, composed of “men of honor and good conduct,” rides along. Barron even screened the muleteers.

The children wear simple white cottons, wool skirts and pants, ironed by hand. They’ve marked their first names on every article. All share their benefactor’s surname. In 1767, Archbishop Francisco Lorenzana founded the Real Casa de Expósitos — the Royal House for Abandoned Children — in Mexico City. The orphans are all named Lorenzana, which tells the world they were left behind.

Although one of their medical examiners, Dr. José Vicente de Peña, said they “had inherited the weak character of the parents who abandoned them,” the 21 are well behaved as the caravan makes the 400-mile trek to the coast and the unknown. From afar they don’t look special: just a caravan of kids on their way to school.

Only one has objected. María de Jesus Torres Lorenzana, a 22-year-old orphan chosen to be the girls’ cuidadora (nursemaid), pleaded not to go in two letters to the Royal Minister. She didn’t want to abandon the children at the casa, who loved and respected her “as a mother.” And she feared for her “honor and soul” in the new territory.

The Royal Minister said no. She must help the girls “avoid the sufferings that might result from some disgrace with a sailor.”

Fears were so great in this regard, the ministry gave boxes of tobacco to seven of the older girls, “who smoked excessively,” so they wouldn’t have to ask sailors for cigars.

When the procession reaches San Blas, María writes again. She not only wants to return to Mexico City to continue her religious vocation, two of her youngest “orphan sisters” — Inez and Apolinaria — are ill and should go back with her.

The Royal Minister remains firm: María must find each child a home in Alta California. The King of Spain commands it.

At San Blas, only 20 orphans board the Concepción. One dies in the mountains. The frigate has made several trips up the coast stuffed with everything from soldiers to cattle to farm implements to letters from home.

A warship with three tall masts, its ironclad hull shimmering like a mirage in the heat of San Blas, must have been quite a spectacle to the youngest child, seven-year-old Apolinaria Lorenzana.

In 1793 or 1794, someone left her at the casa for abandoned children, rang the bell, and ran away. She had neither birthmarks nor a note of identification. Probably less than six weeks old, she was one of 601 admitted in 1793–94, when the casa had over 1000 children. In 1794, 405 died. In 1795, only 107 found families.

The chaplain, who labeled her “Spanish,” named the child Apolinaria, after a second-century saint, and María Guadalupe, after the Old and New World names for the Virgin Mary.

Apolinaria’s life at the orphanage, writes Rose Marie Beebe, “was highly structured, to the point of being monastic.” Boys and girls were segregated. Each hour in the day had a purpose, and no one wasted time. When she came to San Blas, she knew how to read (but not to write), sew, do “round number” arithmetic, and make artificial flowers.

In her memoirs, Apolinaria says she sailed north “with my mother.” But the passenger list has no such person. And her last name and lifelong tag name — La Cuna — make her a double foundling. She had been ill on the journey. It’s possible that she bonded with María de Jesus Torres, and the reluctant cuidadora became her mother figure.

The Concepción sailed in June 1800. For the two-month voyage, as the frigate tacked into tricky Pacific headwinds, young “recruits” wavered between feelings of exile — yet another abandonment — and the hope of finding a home.

On August 24, they rounded the white dunes of Point Pinos and sailed into Monterey Bay. To the children, who had come from the capital of Mexico and the bustling seaport of San Blas, Monterey must have seemed tiny. It wasn’t a city, or even much of a pueblo — just a presidio, a church, and a few houses dwarfed by dark, cypress-green hills. The orphanage had more people.

Military Commandant Pedro de Alberni distributed the children “like puppies” (“perritos,” writes Lorenzana) to the homes of various soldiers. Twelve of the youngest went to Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Five women, along with María de Jesus Torres and Apolinaria, remained at Monterey.

“Those that were already women,” writes Lorenzana, “were married very soon.” That included María Francisca Ignacio (17) and María Josefa Pasquala (19). Young Inez was wed within the year. Macedonio Suárez and José Timoteo joined presidio families. And Valeriana Lorenzana, who went to San Diego, married Desiderio Ybarra, a soldier.

At first, five of the young women resisted marriage. They were already betrothed to “Mother Church,” they claimed. Eventually all but one followed orders and found husbands.

Within two years, the “orphan project” proved a failure. “Raymundo Carrillo, the children’s protector,” writes Salome Hernandez, “complained that female orphans generally lacked those skills appropriate to their sex, such as cooking and sewing, [which] caused suffering since Carrillo found it more difficult to place them.”

“I do not believe,” wrote Carrillo, “that there are any advantages to be gained by sending more children as these. The inhabitants do not want to take them in, because they have growing families of their own. These children are so unhappy, it seems pointless to take them away from the capital and expose them to hardship. They are too young.”

Sixteen-year-old María Gertrudis married José Truxillo, a Catalonian soldier. When he died two years later, she begged to return to Mexico. She had fulfilled her contract, she wrote. No, said officials. She must remarry and could not return “because the rest would do likewise using the same or another excuse.”

The officials stressed that if she couldn’t find a mate, one would be found for her.

By the time Gertrudis sent the letter, in 1803, the government had forgotten the orphans. Her request, followed by word that many girls couldn’t sew and some boys had become criminals, led officials to abandon the experiment. The Lorenzanas were the only orphans sent to Alta California.

Officials tried a new strategy: married convicts, with no “bad habits,” and their families could escape prison sentences in Cuba and become settlers. That experiment failed. Carrillo, in charge of their distribution, complained of “scandalous” conduct: “The majority brag about their ugly crimes and even worse, do so without thinking seriously of reform.” Plus, they were “corrupting the Christian and pagan Indians and the children of the gente de razón.”

José de la Guerra y Noriega, scion of the clan Savage wanted to interview, advocated sending the convicts “a million leagues [away] for a couple of centuries, an occurrence which would be of advantage to both God and king.”

Apolinaria and her “mother” María lived at the home of Raymundo Carrillo. He and his wife Tomasa Lugo had room because their four sons were fully grown and their daughter, María Antonia, would marry José de la Guerra y Noriega in 1804.

Carrillo may have come to Alta California with Gaspar Portola on the first expedition of 1769. He married Tomasa in 1781. Father Junípero Serra conducted the ceremony. On December 8, 1800, the 51-year-old lieutenant became commandante of Monterey.

The Carrillos didn’t adopt María and Apolinaria. His wife was an invalid, and María became her cuidadera. Along with performing household duties, young Apolinaria helped María nurse Tomasa.

Apolinaria could read the catechism. But she couldn’t write, a skill women weren’t encouraged to acquire. In her spare time, she took whatever book was nearby and whatever “empty cigarette papers or a blank piece of paper that somebody had thrown out” and copied pages from the book. She carefully drew each letter, memorizing its shape, listening to its sound. Discarded scrap paper became a blessing. It meant she could practice self-expression. “That is how,” she later wrote, “I managed to learn enough to make myself understood in writing whenever I needed something.”

Life settled in: long, full days of nursing and servant’s duties and study in free time. Then María de Jesus, who had never wanted to leave Mexico City, met Miguel Briot, a young artilleryman. They fell in love and married in 1802. Apolinaria, who calls Briot “stepfather” in her Testimonio, thought she’d found her family at last — and that, when his replacement arrived, all three would sail home to Mexico.

During this time Carrillo was named commandant of Santa Barbara. María, Miguel, and Apolinaria moved south with the Carrillos. When Miguel’s relief arrived later in 1802, writes Apolinaria, “he took my mother with him” to Mexico on the frigate Princesa. They left the child behind.

Because María wasn’t, technically, her mother? Because Apolinaria was under contract to marry an Alta Californian? Other reasons? She doesn’t say.

“That is how I became separated from my mother,” the blind old woman told Savage 76 years later. “I never saw her again. Shortly after she arrived in San Blas my mother died, perhaps from a broken heart because she had to leave me behind.”

An orphan once again, Apolinaria Lorenzana was nine years old.

Next time: La Beata: The Child Is Mother to the Children.

— Jeff Smith


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

Virginia M. Bouvier, Women and the Conquest of California, 1542–1840: Codes of Silence; Tucson; University of Arizona Press, 2001.

Antonia I. Castaneda, “Engendering the History of Alta California, 1769–1848: Gender, Sexuality, and the Family,” in Contested Eden: California before the Gold Rush; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.

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

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

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

Rosaura Sánchez, Telling Identities: The Californio Testimonios; Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995.

Manuel P. Servin, “California’s Hispanic Heritage: A View into the Spanish Myth”; Journal of San Diego History, 1973, vol. 19, no. 1, winter.

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Fabulous article -- I love the perspective that Jeff Smith gives us not only on SD's past, but what it brings to the present of this wonderful area and California -- amazing stories, all of them, thanks for featuring his writing here and in the theatre section!

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