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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.”

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