By the time she was visited by a historian collecting oral histories of early California, Apolinaria Lorenzana was already a very old woman.
As Thomas Savage is quoted by Ray Suarez in Latino Americans:
Many of the native Californians of both sexes spoke of her in the highest terms of praise. She was known by many as Apolinaria la Cuna and by most as La Beata. She appears to be a good old soul, cheerful and resigned to her sad fate, for in her old age and stone blind she is a charge on the country and on her friends, having by some means or other lost all her property. She was loath to speak on this subject, assuring me she didn’t want even to think of it.
Born in Mexico City in 1790, Apolinaria had been brought to Alta California as one of the niños expósitos, the abandoned children sent to the colonial Spanish outpost where “the governor distributed the children like little dogs among various families.” At the time California was nothing more than a string of Catholic missionaries hugging the Pacific coast, the first of which had been founded by the Franciscan friar Junípero Serra back in 1769.
By learning to read, write and perform other essential tasks — and by refusing to marry and have children — young Apolinaria avoided the confined life that was the fate of so many women in that early society, and she soon became a respected leader at the San Diego mission. Among her many roles were teaching nursing and sewing to indigenous women.
Suarez quotes Rose Marie Beebe, a professor at Santa Clara University:
She becomes the glue that keeps mission San Diego together. … Apolinaria was so well trusted the fathers would allow her to go to the ships when they docked in San Diego harbor. She would go to the ships with the list of goods that the fathers felt were needed at the mission. But she had the permission to buy anything that she thought they needed.
When Mexico gained its independence from the Spanish crown in 1821 and began the process of secularization, the priests were forced to give Lorenzana 9,000 acres of land. But her good fortune quickly began to fade when the United States invaded Mexico in 1846 and U.S. troops occupied southern California. Even though the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo — which granted half of Mexico to the United States — promised to respect the property rights of landowners in the newly ceded territory, a tangled web of laws and fees led many Mexicans to lose their properties. Less than 15 years after the war’s end, Lorenzana had lost her entire estate.
As Suarez himself writes:
Lorenzana was a symbol for the losses experienced in the transition, as people poured into the newly annexed territories from points east. … Her life would also become a cautionary tale, a reminder of the difficulty of making the transition from life in Mexico to life in the United States, even if you never emigrated to a new land, but a new land came to you.
Lorenzana died in 1884 at a ripe old age, still adamant that her land had been stolen from her by double-crossing land speculators.
Remembering La Beata — and the countless other unsung heroines whose work softened the blow of colonialism — is how we celebrate our heritage.