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Saint Teresita of Cabora

Saint Teresita of Cabora Note: For the past several years, I have been researching the life of my great-aunt Teresita. I am currently completing a novel based on this research. When I'm on the road, many of you ask me about her, and I thought the following article would at least give you a thumbnail sketch of her story. I have managed somehow to amass a huge bibliography of materials related to Teresita's life and miraculous works. Recently I was given almost 200 new pieces of information that have been hidden from view since 1969. When I'm through with my book, I will post the annotated bibliography here so that researchers, historians, students and seekers can find her for themselves. Until then, I hope this story will bring you comfort.

     I had scant knowledge of my great aunt, the Saint of Cabora, when I was growing up. They would tell at family gatherings in Tijuana of a Yaqui aunt, who could heal with a touch of her hand, and that when she died sometime in the last century the Yaquis took her body to a crystal cave in the desert of Sonora where she sits to this day uncorrupted and guarded by a cadre of elite Yaqui warriors. It was only later when I began to search Teresita out that I found the truth, a truth more marvelous than the family legends.

     The title "Queen of the Yaquis," like her better known epithet, Saint of Cabora, was bestowed upon Teresita by her followers--she never took the title of "saint" upon herself. Indeed, she insisted, "I am only a woman. I am not a saint." She lived with controversy and calamity throughout her life; she was considered a heretic by the Catholic church and an Indian agitator and political rabbit-rouser by the government of Mexico at a time when both the United States and Mexico were oppressing and exterminating large numbers of Native people. At the height of Teresita's fame in Mexico, the number of pilgrims camping on her father's ranch hoping to see or touch her was reported to be between 5,000 and 10,000.  At the turn of the century, after great upheavals and tragedies, she brought her healing work to the United States.

     This is her story.                                                                                                      

Teresita was born on October 15, 1873, on the dirt floor of a ramada outside of Ocoroni, Sinaloa. This was on the edge of the celebrated Río Yaqui and Río Mayo territories, where the fierce northern tribes were being systematically annihilated in a war of attrition with the Mexican government. The dictatorship of Diaz had constructed massive concentration camps in Yucatan, and Yaquis and other Natives of the region were being shipped south as slaves. There, they were quite literally worked to death--an Indian's life expectancy at some of the hacienda camps was a mere six weeks.

Teresita was the "illegitimate" daughter of  Don Tomás Urrea, a wealthy and powerful rancher, and a fourteen year old Indian girl, Cayetana Chávez. Tomás Urrea was a political progressive, and a Mason. Cayetana raised the child away from the Urrea household, keeping her true identity a secret. They lived in great poverty, and the situation on the Urrea ranch became unbearable for the young mother who dreamed of a better life. Cayetana one day vanished, leaving Teresita in the care of her aunt, Cayetana's sister. This aunt became abusive almost immediately, often beating the girl with a large wooden spoon. By the time Teresita was five, her aunt regularly belittled and insulted her, driven by a rage perhaps fed by envy and desperation.

Don Tomás had no way of knowing this little blond, green-eyed girl was his. He was involved in an ill-fated political challenge to the dictatorship. At great risk, he had backed the opposition candidate for governor of Sinaloa, thinking he could help break Diaz' grip on the nation. The Mexican government, when the candidate was seen to be winning, declared the election invalid and clamped down on the new party. Under threat of death or imprisonment, Tomás uprooted the entire ranch and moved to the neighboring state of Sonora where he owned two large cattle spreads, one of which was Cabora. Teresita is said to have ridden a donkey; she was six.

It was on this trip that a cowboy pointed her out to Don Tomás. He was astonished to learn that she was his daughter. He was further astonished to find her witty, talented musically and already an excellent horsewoman. Upon arriving in Cabora, he took her into the Urrea family.

One of the events that occurred at Cabora gives an interesting insight into the nature of Tomás Urrea's character. While the drive was underway, a neighboring Yaqui village, suffering starvation conditions and endless attack by Mexican troops, went to war and raided Cabora. They killed several of the cowboys, burned the buildings, and took away livestock and a number of women. Instead of rushing to slaughter them, Don Tomás rode into the heart of the settlement to speak to the head of the village. When the elder explained the situation, Tomás formed a personal treaty with the tribe: there would be no retribution if the Yaquis would return the hostages and leave Cabora in peace. In trade, Tomás gave them free run of the ranch, and every year, a cut of the herd would be presented to the village so the people would never again starve.

Teresita soon established a strong presence in the Urrea household, becoming a star equestrienne and a skilled guitarist. In an amusing scene, she once interrupted her father's political/Masonic meeting and undertook a lively political debate with the men gathered there (women were not allowed to take part in political debate, nor were they taught to read). Among these men was the newspaperman and engineer, Lauro Aguirre, who would have a great role in her life. Lauro and Don Tomás decided to go against tradition and give Teresita an education. Aguirre taught her to read and they both taught her history, politics, and theology.

Teresita's greatest education, however, came from an old Indian woman, Huila, the head of the ranch's domestic staff. Huila's true calling was as an herbal healer and midwife to the Indians of the region. Teresita had begun to show remarkable powers early on: she could put a woman in labor into a trance, making the birth painless. Huila took Teresita on her midwifing rounds and on a long, mysterious journey into the borderlands desert. There they met with a Yaqui medicine man who taught Teresita the uses of 200 herbs, plants and cacti.

Puberty brought on new abilities. Her half-sister claimed Teresita could fly and could take them on journeys to distant cities. (These girls had never seen a city, and had never read a book or a newspaper, yet they offered detailed descriptions of the streets of Mexico City.) Teresita also had the ability to change her body weight; she often delighted other children by making herself so heavy chat no number of them could lift her--even the cowboys couldn't get her off the ground.

In 1889, Teresita's life was altered forever by an act of violence. A ranch hand, a miner from the south of Sinaloa, became obsessed with her. He stalked her and one day assaulted her when she was away from the ranch. She was discovered in a seizure, rigid as if suffering from lockjaw. Not even Huila could bring her out of it. When they got her back to the ranch, she lapsed into a coma.    

On the twelfth day of the coma, Don Tomás realized she was going to die. The ranch hands built her a coffin. On the thirteenth day of the coma, Teresita died. She was examined by Tomás, Huila, and a doctor brought in from a neighboring town. She was cold, she had no pulse, and she was not breathing.

Huila took charge of the wake. The women bathed her and placed her in a white burial dress. They wrapped a rosary around her wrists, her hands folded in prayer. They put the coffin in the room with her. That night, as they prayed over her, she sat up. In the ensuing panic, she looked at the coffin and asked, "What is this!" When the terrified women told her, she said, "You will not bury me in it, bur you will use it in three days."

Within three days, Huila died. They buried her in Teresita's coffin. Teresita spent many days after returning from the dead in a strange trance. Although alive, she would not eat, and often stayed still as stone, forgetting to blink. Her body began to exude the scent of roses.

Later, she would not say where she had gone. She would only tell her family chat she had met God (the Great Spirit) on "the other side"  He and a Woman had taken her on a journey and shown her many things. They had given her a gift to bring back with her that she was to use to help the poor and helpless, that should never benefit her financially: the gift of healing.

One of her early healings was a Yaqui farmhand who had been kicked in the head by a mule. Teresita spat into a handful of soil and wiped the mud on the man's wounds; he was instantly healed. Word spread quickly among the tribal villages. Daily, more and more sick people found their way to Cabora. Yaquis and Pimas came. Mayos, Tehuecos, some Apache warrior bands, and Tarahumara people came to her. Soon the Mexicans joined the Indians. Once the Mexicans came, the Americans weren't far behind. Reporters and spies soon joined the flock. Along with reportage in the Mexican and neighboring Arizona papers, Teresita was written up in The New York Times, The San Francisco Daily Examiner, The Los Angeles Times, and The Overland Monthly.

Among Teresita's many visitors came members of a mountain village called Tomóchic, a fierce, religious people, known as the Tigers of the Sierra. The Tomóchitecos had come to see if the stories about Cabora were true. When Teresita cured one of their warriors of a tumor at the base of his skull, they made her their patron saint and had a wooden sculpture of her placed in the village chapel beside Jesus and Mary. This was the beginning of the end.

Two events conspired to bring catastrophe to Tomóchic and Cabora. First, a circuit-riding priest, Father Gustelum, was charged with maintaining Catholicism among the tribes. When he came into Tomóchic and discovered the "idol" of Teresita --- already troubling to him in her growing fame--he flew into a rage and telegraphed the president immediately. At the same time, Teresita had begun to preach liberation to the tribes. Her message was a simple one: "God gave this land to your fathers. It does no belong to the Mexican. It is Indian land and you cannot allow the government or the church to steal it from you. Government spies telegraphed Mexico City in the same week as Father Gustelum. It appeared to the dictatorship that a major Indian uprising was igniting.

In the violence that followed, Teresita and her father were captured and the Tomóchitecos were massacred, even the children and elderly. Teresita was transported under heavy guard to the prison in Guaymas. Fearing outright Indian war, the dictator Diaz decided not to execute her. Instead, he denounced her as "the most dangerous girl in Mexico" and deported her to the United States. Don Tomás joined her on the train. All along the line to Nogales, Indian warrior appeared on foot and on horseback and silently raised their weapons in salute as she passed.

Teresita's days in the United States were no less tumultuous than in Mexico. Followers hounded her in Nogales; after a time, she and her father made their way to El Paso where Teresita set up a tent downtown and began to attend to the sick. Still stunned to the point of catatonia by what had happened in Tomóchic, she refused to loin Lauro Aguirre in his plans to launch the Mexican Revolution (still over a decade away). Aguirre was now publishing a newspaper in Texas, El Independiente. She did agree to write columns for the paper and lend her name as an editor. Aguirre had a real hand in spreading her fame through the American southwest. Revolutionary fervor kept building among the Mexicans and Indians in Texas.  The border was open in those days--pilgrims could come and go freely, and many of them wore a picture of Teresita over their hearts.

On August 13, 1896, Aguirre led an armed revolt: Mexicans and Yaquis invaded Mexico from several points along the border. They blew up the customs house in Nogales, shouting: "Viva La Santa de Cabora!" during the entire battle. Several on both sides were killed. Teresita was aghast: she preached absolute non-violence. To escape the bloodshed, Don Tomás bought a small ranch in the mountains of the Clifton-Morenci region of Arizona where they settled.

All this time Teresita healed the sick. A group of reporters sent from Mexico City to discredit her were converted when a bald member of the group came out of their interview with peach-fuzz all over his head. Clifton was peaceful at first, but trouble followed her again.

Near her birthday in 1899, one of the ranch-hands, a half-Yaqui man named Lupe, announced his love for Teresita. Teresita had predicted that the man she married would be wicked and would try to kill her. Lupe was tall and is remembered as kind and friendly. In June of 1890, he appeared at the Urrea house with a rifle; he called out to Don Tomás that he had come for Teresita. Offended, Tomás ordered her to remain in the house. She refused him and joined Lupe. Stung that she had ignored his orders, her father disowned her. He never saw her again.

Lupe took Teresita out of town and then turned on her in an attempt to kill her. Fortunately, some town people heard her cries as he dragged her into a canyon, and Teresita was rescued. Utterly heart-broken, battered, and without a family, Teresita accepted an offer to visit some American devotees in San Francisco. There, she continued to heal, and was tricked into a deal with a "Medical Consortium" that essentially promised to keep her promise to God--that she wouldn't benefit financially from her powers--if she worked for them. The contract kept her in white-slavery as they carted her around the U.S., setting up healing sessions in rented houses.

During this sad time, Teresita's father died in Clifton. She wrote to friends in that town and asked if their Spanish-speaking son, John, could come translate for her; she still did not know enough English to understand what was happening to her. John came and they fell in love. Ultimately, they produced two daughters. Her travels eventually took her to New York, St. Louis, San Francisco, Los Angeles.

Tired and growing weak, Teresita returned to Clifton early in the 1900's. Her powers were diminishing. 

The Indians and Mexicans said she had given away too much of her spirit, that her medicine had actually pared her spirit away. In spite of her state, she built a small clinic where she practiced western medicine as well as her own healing. She rescued people in the flood of 1904, spending freezing nights in the water, making and stacking sandbags.

In 1905, Teresita was diagnosed with consumption. Pilgrims sill came to her from far away, visiting the house in Clifton where she greeted them. They streamed to her side on her birthday in 1905. She was too weak to stand but she entertained and blessed all who came. She had predicted she would die at thirty-three.

In January of 1906 she asked a driver to take her up Shannon Hill where Don Tomás was buried in an unmarked grave. It was raining. Teresita walked through the mud until she found the grave, and stood in the cold rain praying. She had a chill when she got home and her family carried her to bed where she fell into a deep sleep. They mounted a death watch over her, but again she awoke. "I can't go yet," she said, "my mother is coming."

The next day, Cayetana Chavez., who had been gone for almost thirty years, inexplicably appeared at Teresita's door. They ushered her into the bedroom where she sat on her daughter's bed and held her hand. Cayetana received Teresita's forgiveness and they spent a joyous afternoon together. That evening, Teresita said, "Now I will go to sleep," and she died. It was January 11, 1906. She was thirty-three years old.


Today, Teresita's legacy is being rediscovered by New Age seekers, Chicanos, Native Americans and healers, slowly bringing her lift story back from the brink of obscurity. Her presence and Medicine are still powerful, bringing comfort to an everwidening circle of pilgrims.

Viva La Santa de Cabora.



(c) Luis Alberto Urrea, 2006.
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