Unveiling the life of a folk saint

Times Staff Writer

“This exiled ‘saint’ seems to be the embodiment of simplicity, and to look into her mysterious dark eyes one would never think her capable of instigating an insurrection.”

Los Angeles Times

August 1896


Teresa Urrea was born into impoverished obscurity, the daughter of an unwed 14-year-old Tehueco Indian girl in northern Mexico. Yet by the time she was a teenager, she was known as “Santa Teresa,” her name a battle cry for abused peons whose rebellion against the theft of their ancestral lands would ultimately coalesce into the Mexican Revolution.

The Porfirio Diaz dictatorship exiled her at 19. But it was powerless to halt her immortalization in the pantheon of Latin American folk saints. Santa Teresa de Cabora became a beloved Everywoman, a living incarnation of the biblical edict that the last would come first. Her precise origins were shrouded in myth or forgotten.

Until now.

In his recent historical novel, “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” award-winning author Luis Alberto Urrea traces the life of this charismatic Mexican Joan of Arc -- from her origins as a folk healer to the historic explosion that converted her into a goddess of war -- against a panorama of peasants, vaqueros and revolutionaries that seems to have walked out of a Diego Rivera mural.

The story is, in part, Urrea’s inheritance. Teresa was a distant relative his family called “Aunt Teresa,” and he grew up steeped in legends of her exploits.


“What really brought her to life for me were the stories people told. They were full of folklore, and they were alive,” Urrea, 49, began, settling into the red leatherette booth of a dark bar in downtown Los Angeles, not far from where Santa Teresa once greeted her followers.

Still, Urrea wasn’t convinced Santa Teresa actually existed until someone pointed out a reference to her in a book in 1979. He began researching her for a biography, pulling up old newspaper stories and running down leads.

Years later, at a 1998 family reunion in San Diego, he met his aunt, Elba Urrea, who was also a healer. She walked him out to her car and opened its trunk, revealing a mountain of yellowed newspaper clippings and documents on the life of Santa Teresa.

His aunt was “dying of lung cancer. It was sort of her last gesture,” he said. “She felt like her time was short and she wanted to pass on her legacy. ‘Come back and study with me,’ she said. ‘I’ll teach you everything.’ ”

By then, Urrea had become an accomplished storyteller, and he had begun to fill in the blanks in Teresa’s life with his imagination. When he finally finished her story, it was a 500-page novel. He had already written 10 other books -- fiction, nonfiction, poetry -- and won such honors as an American Book Award, but in many ways, the story of Santa Teresa was his most important work.

“Everything in my life has been a diversion from this book,” Urrea said. “All the books I’ve written were things I did while trying to write this.”

While he was researching her story, Urrea made numerous pilgrimages to the Sonoran Desert, an arid dreamscape known for its red-rock canyons and riot of spring flowers -- the region where reports of Santa Teresa’s miraculous healing powers drew thousands of pilgrims. The area is rich with indigenous folklore and myth, leading one historian to remark that it “bred messiahs like mushrooms after a storm.”

“The northern desert is beautiful, overwhelming, frightening and dangerous,” Urrea said. “Even in the Aztec days it was seen as mystical.”

Teresa lived in the Sonoran Desert region with her father, Don Tomas Urrea, the owner of the ranch where her laborer mother gave birth to her in 1873. Her father, a political liberal who was an opponent of the Diaz dictatorship, moved to the remote pueblo of Cabora in 1880 to avoid reprisals. While still a child, Teresa began an apprenticeship there with a midwife.

When she was in her mid-teens, Teresa fell into a coma and was declared dead. When she recovered at her wake, word spread that she had been raised from the dead. People asked her to lay her hands on the sick and the crippled.

University of Texas historical accounts suggest she began to articulate a message of social justice for the numerous Indian farmers in the region -- Yaqui, Tarahumara, Tomochic and others -- who were being forced from their ancestral lands, known as ejidos, by agribusiness. The removals were often violent, setting the stage for tensions that would erupt into the 1910-1917 Mexican Revolution.

There was a hunger for heroic leadership.

“She was trying to stop the theft of their land. They were sending people off to be worked to death in the Yucatan and selling their lands to foreign investors,” Urrea said. “She started out as a religious visionary but you can see her getting politicized.”

In August 1891, a politician learned of the cult of Santa Teresa when he went to a tiny church in the remote village of Tomochic to steal some religious paintings created by a long-dead artist whose work had skyrocketed in value, according to a newspaper account of the time. Villagers had carved a statue of Teresa and placed it in the church among saints recognized by the Roman Catholic Church, Urrea said.

“The church really frowned on it,” Urrea said. “You cannot have a homemade saint.”

A priest was sent to Tomochic to denounce Teresa from the pulpit of the church as a “heretic and evil-doer,” according to news clips of the time. The priest wrote a report on the cult of Teresa and sent it to the Vatican, Urrea said, and local military officers sent word to Mexico City that Santa Teresa was “fomenting an uprising.”

Soldiers were sent in, and when tensions escalated, they slaughtered 300 men, women and children in an infamous incident Urrea compares to the U.S. massacre of Indians at Wounded Knee in 1890.

Santa Teresa maintained she played no role in the confrontation. But she was accused of inciting it and others that were waged in her name.

“There were a lot of people who wanted to get the revolution rolling,” Urrea said. “She seemed like the greatest fuse to get lit.”

Authorities deported her, and as she traveled throughout the Southwest, her cult spread. She was rescued from an assassination attempt in Arizona by cowboys, and she preached in Los Angeles, St. Louis, El Paso and San Francisco.

Immortalized as Santa Teresa de Cabora, she joined a number of Latin American folk saints whose followings have flourished for years without Catholic Church approval.

Theologians say many recognized religious figures began as folk saints. One of South America’s most popular saints, San Martin de Porres, the son of an unwed Afro-Panamanian woman and a Spanish hidalgo in 1579, was not canonized until 1962. By then, he had been worshiped for hundreds of years as Peru’s merciful patron saint of the poor and ailing.

The Virgin of Guadalupe was first sighted in 1531 at the hill of Tepeyac, which was the home of the Aztec mother of the gods, known as Tonantzin, a patron of childbirth. The Virgin of Guadalupe is still known as Tonantzin, or “our mother.”

Many of Mexico’s folk saints arose, as Santa Teresa did, during the turbulent years around the Mexican Revolution. Like Santa Teresa, they are often cast as protagonists in decidedly secular existential dramas, and their human qualities and faults blur the line between sinners and saints.

Depictions of many such folk saints are on sale in downtown Los Angeles.

At the Farmacia Million Dollar on Broadway, Urrea pointed out a bust of Jesus Malverde, who is said to have been a Robin Hood-like outlaw who robbed from the rich and gave to the poor around 1900. Later, he was adopted as the narcosanto, or patron saint of narcotics traffickers.

On a shelf sat a framed image of Juan Soldado, a patron saint of illegal immigrants, who was executed by firing squad in 1949 after he was accused -- wrongly, his followers believe -- of molesting and murdering a girl in Tijuana. He became a martyr of the unjustly accused, a living illustration of the Latin American saying that “the law is a snake that bites the barefoot.”

However, “most of the sinner-saints, if not all, are male,” Urrea said. “It is a very macho kind of a thing. It’s a boys-will-be-boys thing.”

The patriarchal view of popular sainthood would lead to Santa Teresa’s undoing, Urrea said.

She brought her cult with her when she arrived in Los Angeles. “Of fierceness or warlike intentions no visitor could suspect her,” wrote one of the Los Angeles Times reporters who interviewed her in 1896. “Rather, did she look to be one whose loving kindness to all had left its mark upon her face, stamping purity, gentleness ... the beauty of holiness.”

Yet even then, she was showing signs of tiring of being a religious celebrity. She took up with a common-law husband, her translator John Van Order, for which her father immediately disowned her. Many of her followers abandoned her too after the couple had two daughters, Urrea said.

“There was a certain backlash,” he said. “She was in some ways culturally punished for not being a virgin. If you ask me, that’s a sexist response.”

Santa Teresa died of tuberculosis in 1906 at 33.

Today, Urrea said, many of those who continue to revere her are women.

“People look to her,” he said, as a woman who “put herself in the way of the Man’s military to stop the indigenous people from being exterminated.”

If the legend of Santa Teresa was once obscure, Urrea is ensuring it will not remain untold. Now, one of Santa Teresa’s great-granddaughters is sharing family stories and photographs for Urrea’s second volume on his illustrious ancestor.

“But if I die today, I’ll be happy, because I told the story I wanted to tell the most,” he said.