Skip to main content Accessibility help

From Saint to Seeker: Teresa Urrea's Search for a Place of Her Own

  • Brandon Bayne (a1)


On Monday, December 15, 1902, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed the feted arrival of the famed “Mystic Santa Teresa.” The paper regaled its readers with the circus like events that surrounded her arrival to the burgeoning West Coast metropolis: “Santa Teresa, the famous Mexican girl from the land of the Yaqui, in Sonora, who is implicitly believed in by the majority of Mexicans of the Southwest as a healer, who exercises supernatural powers, has settled in Los Angeles permanently, her followers say, and is daily besieged by a pitiful throng of Mexican ‘enfermos.’” According to the Times, wagonloads of hopeful “invalids” made the pilgrimage to Teresa's cottage at the corner of Brooklyn and State in the “Sonoratown” area of East LA. Noting the “Stream of Mexicans Flowing to Her Cottage,” it listed the diverse range of desperate immigrants seeking her healing touch: “The halt, the blind, the inwardly diseased, paralytics, almost helpless and others with bodies ravaged by consumption, are helped to her doors each day by friends and relatives; and none go there without the belief that by the laying on of her magic hands they will be cured.” The reporter attributed all the excitement to the inexorable pull exerted by this “magnetic young woman from the South.” He blithely summarized, “Santa Teresa … has been the subject of many fantastic stories, based more or less on fact. In some ways her influence is really remarkable.”



Hide All

1. “Flocking to See Mystic Santa Teresa,” Los Angeles Times, 15 December 1902, 8.

2. Vanderwood, Paul, Power of God Against the Guns of Government: Religious Upheaval in Mexico at the Turn of the Nineteenth Century (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1998); Valdez, Jesús Vargas, ed., Tomóchic: la revolución adelantada, resistencia y lucha de un pueblo de Chihuahua contra el sistema porfirista (18911892), 2 vols. (Juarez, Mex.: Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juarez, 1994); Holden, William Curry, Teresita (Owings Mills, Md.: Stemmer House, 1978); Brockman, Mirra Bank, Nobody's Girls: Women of the American Frontier, screenplay (1995); Domecq, Brianda, The Astonishing Story of the Saint of Cabora, trans. García, Kay S. (Tempe, Ariz.: Bilingual/Editorial Bilingüe, 1998); Urrea, Luis Alberto, The Hummingbird's Daughter: A Novel (New York: Little, Brown, 2005).

3. Gloria, L. and Richard, Rodríguez, “Teresa Urrea: Her Life as It Affected the Mexican-U.S. Frontier,” El Grito: A Journal of Contemporary Mexican-American Thought 5:4 (summer 1972): 48; Mirandé, Alfredo and Enríquez, Evangelina, “Chicanas in the History of the Southwest,” in Introduction to Chicano Studies, 2nd ed., ed. Duran, Livie Isauro and Bernard, H. Russell (New York: MacMillan, 1982), 156–79. For an extended discussion of the Chicano appropriation of Teresa, see Newell, Gilian E., “Teresa Urrea, Santa de Cabora and Early Chicana?: The Politics of Representation, Identity, and Social Memory,” in The Making of Saints: Contesting Sacred Ground, ed. Hopgood, James F. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005), 90106.

4. For the “worn out” theme, see Putnam, Frank, “Teresa Urrea: The Saint of Cabora,” Southern Calfornia Quarterly 45:3 (09 1963): 263; and Vanderwood, , Power of God, 304–6. Larralde, Carlos paints her as a bourgeois “sell out” in “Santa Teresa Urrea: A Chicana Saint,” in his Mexican American Movements and Leaders (Los Alamitos, Calif.: Hwong, 1976), 67. Leon, Luis has adopted a more nuanced position but still finds her “out of place and time”: Leon, La Llorona's Children: Religion, Life, and Death in the U.S.–Mexican Borderlands (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 151.

5. Leon, Luis, “Metaphor and Place: The U.S.-Mexico Border as Center and Periphery in the Interpretation of Religion,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67:3 (09 1999): 543 and 562.

6. Obviously, there are gender issues at stake here as well. Why is Teresa the only folk saint pictured as contaminated while male healers and martyrs are embraced for their entrance into worldly spaces? In Leon's telling Pedro Jaramillo, “El Niño” Fidencio Constantino, and Juan Soldado participated in scandalous controversies (cf. Juan Soldado's trial for the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl), modem technologies (whether Jaramillo's telegraphs or El Niño's lawyers), and public spaces (saloons, theaters, courtrooms, and prisons) without taint to their sainthood. But, Teresa is expected to remain forever a virgin curandera, safely hidden away on her father's Mexican ranch and forever innocent of the vices of American cities.

7. Alex Nava's recent article in the JAAR is similarly unhelpful. Arguing that Teresa should be interpreted primarily as a modern day mystic, Nava abstracts Teresa from many of the circumstances of her life, completely ignoring her decade career in the U.S.: Nava, Alex, “Teresa Urrea: Mexican Mystic, Healer, and Apocalyptic Revolutionary,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 73:2 (06 2005): 497519.

8. Vanderwood, , Power of God, 303; Domecq, Brianda, “Teresa Urrea: La Santa de Cabora,” in Tomochic, ed. Valdez, , 2:64. Setting the tone for most later interpreters, William Curry Holden suggested, “it takes the right kind of soil to grow a saint.” He wrote that while Teresa was “admired, adored, cherished, and protected, and her powers respected” in the border towns of Arizona and Texas, she was “just another faith healer” in the urban north where she fell victim to the exploitation of professional promoters, and “her sensitive nature” withered as “the climate grew cold, critical, and unsympathetic”: Holden, , Teresita, 183.

9. The reference here to Robert Orsi's Between Heaven and Earth: The Religious Worlds People Make and the Scholars Who Study Them is not accidental, being a model for this inquiry. I am also thinking here of the late Victorian spiritual seeking described by Schmidt, Leigh in Restless Souls: The Making of American Spirituality (San Francisco, Calif.: Harper, 2005).

10. Dare, Helen, “Santa Teresa, Celebrated Mexican Healer, Whose Powers Awe Warlike Yaquis in Sonora, Comes to Restore San Jose Boy to Health,” San Francisco Examiner, 27 07 1900. Teresa was a common enough name among Indians and mestizos in Sinaloa, and it had the added benefit of recalling another famous female mystic: Perales, Marian, “Teresa Urrea: Curandera and Folk Saint,” in Latina Legacies: identity, Biography, and Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 97119.

11. Some have suggested that an illicit affair, attempted rape, jilted lover, or drug overdose brought on the trance, but this is largely unsubstantiated speculation, later hearsay, or the overt opposition of her detractors: Hawkins, John Milton, “She is Not a Saint: Neither a Joan of Arc, an Indian Queen, nor a Nun … the Truth about Teresa Urrea,” Los Angeles Times, 20 09 1896, 19; Holden, , Teresita, 51; Valades, José C., La Opinión, 22 02 1937; Larralde, , Mexican American Movements and Leaders, 61.

12. Dare, , Examiner, 27 07 1900.

13. Vanderwood, , Power of God, 159 f.

14. Putnam, Prank, “Teresa Urrea: The Saint of Cabora,” 255; Maud Mason Austin presented the “court of sufferers” in this way: “The place of the señoritas abiding was indicated by the throng of Mexicans around the old adobe building. There were dozens of them, of all ages and conditions. … The entrance stands open to all, and they who linger within, loiterers, the deaf, the blind, the lame ducks generally, stand in no awe of the saint, but rather on terms of loving familiarity. Yet, they courteously wait, grouped about the open door to her room, until in turn called in to receive treatment”: “Teresa Urrea: The Unlettered Mexican Girl Who Claims to Heal the Sick,” Los Angeles Times, 23 August 1896, 18. For Teresa as modern and medical, see Hawkins, , “She is Not a Saint, Neither a Joan of Arc, An Indian Queen Nor Nun,” 19.

15. Hawkins, , “She is Not a Saint, Neither a Joan of Arc, An Indian Queen Nor Nun,” 19.

16. Urrea, Teresa, El Paso Herald, 8 09 1896; Los Angeles Times, 19 December 1902, A7; Romo, David, “Dónde Está Artaud?,” The Texas Observer, 17 01 2003.

17. Burtch signed her death certificate and seems to have been present at her home when she died. See Burtch, L. A. W. affidavit, July 17, 1906, Perales, “Teresa Urrea,” 119.

18. There is ambiguous evidence about Teresa's view of marriage. Some reports say that she was originally committed to lifelong chastity. Others remark that she had made a temporary vow to the Virgin Mary. “Yes, Papá. I do intend to marry some day, but when I do, it will be a simple, quiet affair. That will not be until I have completed my commitment to the Blessed Virgin. When I do marry, people will no longer consider me a saint, and that will make you happy”: La Ilustración Espírita (Mexico, D. F.), March 1891, 255 f. In one remarkable instance, Teresa became the center of an elaborate marriage hoax. Somebody placed an ad in the St. Louis Republic on March 3, 1899, stating that “Señorita Teresa Urrea, ‘the priestess and ruler‘ of the Yaqui Indians, offered $10,000 and the rulership of 5000 Indians to any American who would have her”: Los Angeles Times, 22 May 1899, 4.

19. Holden, , Teresita, 181, 196; Perales, , “Teresa Urrea,” 115.

20. There were always reports of people trying to kidnap Teresa, and she feared it as long as she lived. She was convinced that Guadalupe was covertly working for the Diaz government: “Saint Teresa's Peril: An Unknown Man Attempts to Assassinate Her,” Los Angeles Times, 14 January 1897, 1; New York Journal, 3 March 1901, 23; “Hubby Shot Saint: Trouble Galore in Little Town of Metcalf, Mexicans Beat Assailant of Senorita Teresa,” Los Angeles Times, 1 July 1900, 13; “To Kill Teresa Urrea: Husband of the Noted Mexican Attempts to Murder His Wife and Her Family,” Chicago Daily Tribune, 1 July 1900, 15; Dare, , Examiner, 27 07 1900; Putnam, , “Teresa Urrea: The Saint of Cabora,” 260. Marian Perales has questioned the validity of the wedding/riot story, arguing, “The local press seized on the opportunity to present Rodríguez as ‘demented‘ and ‘delusional‘ and Urrea as a ‘forlorn lover.‘ In this way, the mythologized version of Urrea as ‘la Santa‘—wholly pure, maternal, and altruistic—is reified”: “Teresa Urrea,” 111. However, Teresa herself repeated the story, concluding, “He was insane and they put him jail.” She later used his incarceration as a reason for divorce: Examiner, 27 July 1900; and Los Angeles Times, 18 December 1902, A2.

21. The laying on of her hands, which had been her trademark from the beginning, seemed to be particularly intriguing to the Examiner's reporter and presumably its audience. Along with close-up photos of the hands, Dare described them with intimate detail, “And she took my hands in hers—hands of singular slenderness and fineness, cool, smooth, supple, firm, delicately made, charming to the touch—and placed her thumbs against mine, holding with a close, nervous grasp”: ibid.; Examiner, 27 July 1900.

22. Dare, , Examiner, 27 07 1900.

23. For diverse cultural histories of medicine shows, see Anderson, Ann, Snake Oil, Hustlers and Hambones: The American Medicine Show (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 2001); McNamara, Brooks, Step Right Up, rev. ed. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995); Armstrong, David and Armstrong, Elizabeth Metzger, The Great American Medicine Show: Being an Illustrated History of Hucksters, Healers, Health Evangelists, and Heroes from Plymouth Rock to the Present (New York: Prentice Hall, 1991).

24. “Santa Teresa, the Yaqui Idol a Cause of Fierce Indian Uprisings Has Come to Heal Diseases,” San Francisco Examiner, 9 September 1900.

25. Perales, , “Teresa Urrea,” 111–13.

26. Paul Vanderwood suggests Teresa's followers felt this way, but makes clear his own agreement with this interpretation: Vanderwood, , Power of God, 306.

27. La Ilustración Espírita (Mexico, D. F.) began printing reports of Teresa's ministry as early as March 1891. For an account of Spiritism in Mexico, see Macklin, Barbara June, “Three North Mexican Folk Saint Movements,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 15:1 (01 1973): 89105.

28. Besides being one of Urrea's closest confidantes and possible co-conspirators, Aguirre also served as her first biographer, setting the trajectory of scholarship focusing on Teresa's early years as a mystic healer and inspiration to Mexican revolutionaries: Aguirre, Lauro, La Santa de Cabora (El Paso, Tex.: by the author, 1902).

29. La Ilustración Espírita, April 1891, 369; New York Journal, 3 March 1901, 1; Los Angeles Times, 23 August 1896, 18; Vanderwood, , Power of God, 7984. There are no recorded instances of Teresa entering a Catholic Church in America. Some reports explicitly argued that she led her family and followers out of the Church: Los Angeles Times, 20 September 1896, 19. Others suggest that she had been excommunicated long before in México: Examiner, 9 September 1900.

30. Los Angeles Sunday Times, 23 August 1896, 18; Examiner, 9 September 1900; Chicago Daily Times, 13 August 1899.

31. St. Louis Post Dispatch, 7 January 1901, 1.

32. Putnam, , “Teresa Urrea: The Saint of Cabora,” 256. On Theosophical travels in the “East,” see Johnson, K. Paul, The Master's Revealed: Madame Blavatsky and the Myth of the Great White Lodge (Albany: SUNY Press, 1994); and Prothero, Stephen, The White Buddhist: The Asian Odyssey of Henry Steel Olcott (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996).

33. Dare, , San Francisco Examiner, 27 07 1900.

34. New York Journal, 3 March 1901, 23.

35. For the gendered nature of debates over spirituality and rationality, see Satter, Beryl, Each Mind a Kingdom: American Women, Sexual Purity, and the New Thought Movement, 1875–1920 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999). On gender, class, Christianity, and Olcott's vision for Theosophy, see Prothero, Stephen, “From Spiritualism to Theosophy: ‘Uplifting‘ a Democratic Tradition,” Religion and American Culture 3:2 (summer 1993): 197216; and again on anti-Christian polemic in The White Buddhist, 156–57.

36. Macklin, , “Three North American,” 94; Los Angeles Times, 24 May 1899, 13; Chicago Daily Times, 13 August 1899, 26. Like Jesus, she often healed solely with her hands or at times with a little saliva and dirt. Just before her death, she supposedly predicted that she would imitate Christ by dying at age 33.

37. “Sixty Indians Attack Town, Beaten Off From Nogales, Mexico With a Loss of Seven Killed,” New York Times, 13 August 1896, A1.

38. Prothero, , The White Buddhist, 107–11; McGreevy, John T., Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: Norton, 2003), 124–26.

39. New York Journal, 3 March 1901, 1; Chakrabarty, Dipesh, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), 106. Likewise, Andrew Orta has described the way Aymara Indians have tangled, disentangled, and “braided” European modemities with indigenous traditions in ways that defy historical and anthropological categories in his Catechizing Culture: Missionaries, Aymara, and the “New Evangelization” (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), 23. See also Orsi, , Between Heaven and Earth, 9; and Schmidt, Leigh Eric, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000).

40. Among others, see Larralde's, Carlos seminal chapter, “Santa Teresa Urrea: A Chicana Saint,” in his Mexican American Movements and Leaders, 6768.

41. New York Journal, 3 March 1901.

42. For some remarkable examples of the displays of the Yellow Press, see The World on Sunday: Graphic Art in Joseph Pulitzer's Newspaper, 1898–1911 (New York: Bullfinch, 2005).

43. New York Journal, 3 March 1901.

44. Orsi, Robert, “Introduction: Crossing the City Line,” in Gods of the City: Religion and the American Urban Landscape (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), 46 and 56.

45. Taves, Ann, Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999), 348–52.

46. Perhaps for this reason, many have simply identified her as a curandera, a woman who blended traditional indigenous remedies with Catholic ritual to perform private cures. Given her background and own testimony, these traditions surely had a major influence on Urrea's later ministry. However, her social and political import as a saint, relationship with trained physicians, public performances of her treatments, travels to northern cities, and investigations of Theosophy together set her apart from more traditional and local curanderos of her day. For interpretations of Teresa as curandera, see Leon, , La Llorona's Children, 145 f.; and Sánchez-Walsh, Arlene, Latino Pentecostal Identity: Evangelical Faith, Self, and Society (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 21.

47. New York Journal, 3 March 1901.

48. Cresswell, Tim, Place: A Short Introduction (London: Blackwell, 2004); Tuan, Fu, Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), 6.

49. At times Teresa requested protection from police and her privacy to be guarded from the numerous female pilgrims that were “bothering her to death.” However, tales of deception and reclusiveness must be balanced by the report quoted earlier that Teresa welcomed uncountable pilgrims: Los Angeles Times, 30 October 1902.

50. On the burning, see Los Angeles Times, 27 August 1903, A6. Despite some evidence that Urrea retreated into relative familial privacy, Marian Perales has uncovered evidence that Teresa was involved in labor strikes in support of better wages and protection from abuse for immigrants in the Union Federal de Mexicanos (UFM) during her time in Los Angeles: Perales, , “Teresa Urrea,” 113–15. For diverging perspectives on the relationship between Catholic folk healers and Mexican American Pentecostals, see Sánchez-Walsh, , Latino Pentecostal Identity; Ramirez, Daniel, “Borderlands Praxis: The Immigrant Experience in Latino Pentecostal Churches,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 67 (summer, 1999): 573–96; Espinoza, Gaston, “Borderland Religion: Los Angeles and the Origins of the Latino Pentecostal Movement in the United States, Mexico, and Puerto Rico, 1900–1945” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Santa Barbara, 1999), 108 f.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Church History
  • ISSN: 0009-6407
  • EISSN: 1755-2613
  • URL: /core/journals/church-history
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed