by Anne Schroeder
The Spanish women of California have been popularly portrayed by Hollywood as vapid fashionistas or dark-eyed flirts peering over their fans at smitten suitors. In fact, these women were strong helpmates in a new land. In the early 1870s, interviewers under the direction of historian Hubert Howe Bancroft set out to record the memories of many aging Spanish widows. These anecdotal stories revealed amazing recall of dates, names and events that had occurred decades earlier. Girls were reared to be vivacious and charming, and they used their charm to bring down unpopular governors and uncover plots by their servants. They defied their Yanqui invaders by hiding bandidos, the true sons of the land, under their ball gowns, or in one case, in their birthing bed.
They were daring horsewomen. They slept on stiff cattle hides and made do without luxuries because the Spanish supply ship only arrived once a year. They were surprisingly robust when it came to childbearing. In many of the early families, 20-25 children born by a single mother survived childhood. Resolute in their Catholic faith and determined to be good examples to their Indian servants, they flourished in the remote outpost of California.
Every school kid knows the story of Sacagawea, leading the Lewis and Clark expedition across half a continent with a newborn baby and a sick husband. Then there’s Pocahontas, savior of the English colony and, later, wife of John Rolfe. After she was baptized under the Christian name of Rebecca, she became the toast of English aristocracy until her death at 22. But can you name another strong Indian woman?
I set out to write a series about a California native woman from a little-known tribe of Mission Indians. The Salinans lived in an area of sagebrush, forest and bottomland with a north-flowing river that runs from the Santa Lucia Mountains of the Central Coast to Monterey Bay, through what would later be known as the Salinas Valley.
Maria Inés was conceived as a result of rape by one of the soldados taxed with guarding the Mission. She is a native “everywoman” who endured in silence while she tried to assimilate her ranchería (village) traditions and her belief in the pagan god Cooksuy and the lesser gods of rain, sun and soil, with the demands made of the new white God that the padres brought. She was taken from her family before the age of 10 and placed in a monjério, a room with other unmarried girls and women who had not found a husband. Here they were trained by a trusted Spanish señora to spin, weave, wash clothes and groom themselves modestly in order to become fit wives and productive Spanish subjects.
For Maria Inés and her Indian sisters, California became a dangerous place. The Missions were the de facto inn keepers for travelers along El Camino Real, the long wagon track that led from Baja California. Strangers stopped for hospitality every night. Her blood was strong enough that she didn’t succumb to any of the white man’s diseases that decimated most of her people.
Anne writes memoir and historical fiction set in the West, especially California, including many published short stories and essays. She and husband now make their home in Oregon where they share a passion for old ruins and out-of-the-way places. If you want to learn more, ask your library to stock a copy. Maria Inés is published by Five Star Press, in hardbound in bookstores, Amazon and libraries. Cholama Moon is another novel in the Central Coast Series. Both are available on Kindle. Anneschroederauthor.blogspot.com