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LA BEATA: THE LIVES AND TIMES OF APOLINARIA LORENZANA (Part One)

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.

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MsP June 30, 2008 @ 9:58 a.m.

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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