Most women in Mexican California from 1820-1850 were Hispanized natives or mestizas, who assimilated into local Indian culture to fit in with their families’ situation. They practiced the art of home remedies using plants to heal snakebites and illnesses. Other women were religious healers, called curanderas, who used spirits and herbs to cure diseases brought on by witches (brujos) and other evil forces. The women handled most of the medicinal duties, as well as serving as midwives during childbirth.
Men and women shared a more equal position than in Spain due to the difficult living conditions. The two sexes had to get along in order to survive. Women were relied on to fight in battles right alongside men, when Indians attacked their village. They even performed labor traditionally considered to be “men’s work,” such as tending herds, participating in rodeos, and helping in the fields. Some women even were put in charge of large ranches; these women were called mayordomos.
Despite these shared responsibilities, Mexican California was hardly a utopia for women. Sexual abuse against women occurred often, at the hands of both Indian men and gente de razons (literally translated “people of reason.” Specifically refers to the white man). Although there are not many records of these abuses, what is known is the tradition of patriarchal domination enabled men to control women sexually. Men were rarely found guilty for any sexual attacks on women, but men could physically punish women for sexual misconduct. Fathers’ also had the power to arrange for their daughters’ marriages at a very young age.
There is little written about the lives of the thousands of women who lived in the Mexican frontier at this time. The best source of information from this demographic comes from Thomas Savage who interviewed four women living in San Diego around this time. These are all oral histories taken by a white male interviewer, so one must take into account how the interviews could have been affected by these conditions; however, they are still the best sources that exist today. This article focuses on four interviews conducted on four Mexican females.
Dona Josefa Carrillo De Fitch had an interesting story because she was one of the first Californianas in San Diego to marry a foreigner and she did so against her father’s orders. She planned to marry an American sea captain, who was baptized Catholic in order to be allowed to marry her. However, during the wedding a message arrived from Governor Echeandia saying the wedding was to stop because it was against the law. Josefa decided to elope with her man to Chile. In the following years she sailed the seas with her husband and had a baby. Her father threatened that if she ever returned, he would kill her for her disobedient and disrespectful actions. Upon her return she begged her father for forgiveness saying that she did not run away to dishonor him, but in protest of the governor. Her father forgave her because he too hated the tyranny of Governor Echeandia. This story is a great example of how women could manipulate patriarchy through the use of politics.
A second Californiana named Dona Apolinaria Lorenzana grew up an orphan who was raised by several families in Monterey and San Diego. When she was older, she taught herself to read and write, and became a teacher and a nurse at the missions. She began her teaching career in the Presidio of San Diego, where she taught young girls to read and write the doctrina. Unfortunately, she became very sick and suffered paralysis in her left hand. She was invited to the mission in San Diego Alcala to recover. Two and a half years later she began to feel better and tended to the sick at the mission. She also continued to teach religion as well as sewing to the neophytes.
She was also able to give a great account of what life was like in the missions and during the period in general. She spoke of how the sexes were separated. Most of the women were forced to live in strictly regulated housing while the men lived outside the mission on rancherias. As for punishments, depending on the offence, neophytes would get thrown in jail (calabozo) or whipped. The most extreme offenders would be handed over to the soldiers to be executed. She also expressed her sadness during the Mexican-American War and commented that many Indians seemed to be pro-American and were using the war as an excuse to kill the Californios.
For all her efforts to heal and educate the residents of the mission, Dona was given two ranchos, which were taken by American speculators after the Mexican War. Obviously, this was a very sore subject for her, so she refused to go into detail about it.
A third Mexican woman interviewed was Dona Felipa Osuna de Marron. Her life always seemed to get in the middle of conflict and political turmoil. During one incident, she overheard an Indian servant talking about a planned Indian attack on a village store. She informed others in the town and gave names of the conspirators, which resulted in executions of all allegedly involved. She felt great pain and guilt for her part in the ordeal.
Her family was always loyal to the Mexican government, yet they were accused of being pro-American due to an acquaintance that switched sides to the Americans. The scrutiny and threats from the Mexican government became too much for the family to handle and they eventually had no choice but to join the Americans for protection.
The fourth lady interviewed was Dona Juana Machado de Ridington. This interview was the least spectacular of them all because she simply told some stories about what life was like during this time, but never seemed to be involved in any major events herself. The most interesting part of her story was about another planned Indian attack, this time on the clergy, which was foiled by outside informants. The result was the conspirators were taken to the cemetery and shot without spiritual aid. She also gave a different opinion on Governor Micheltorena’s infamous Cholo troops, saying that there were many good men in that group.
Del Castillo, Richard Griswold. “Neither Activists Nor Victims: Mexican Women’s Historical Discourse: The Case of San Diego, 1820-1850.” California History, Vol. 3 (Fall 1995), pp. 230-243.