Thursday, May 3, 2018

La balada de Ventura y Teodosia

La balada de Ventura y Teodosia
22 de junio de 1835

De pie en la oficina 
del Alcalde de Monterrey,
le pido que mi esposa
vuelva a vivir conmigo.
El hombre con la vara de justicia
dice que ella tiene que regresar,
pero los colonizadores,
no nos dieron la menor oportunidad.

¡Cristo! no es nada fácil—
ya ves lo difícil que puede ser 
Tal y como van las cosas 
terminaremos crucificados.
Les llaman gente de razón—
Don Romero, Don Silva,
Padre José María Real—
pero todo lo que hacen 
es una locura. Primero 
nos esclavizan, toman 
nuestra tierra, nuestra forma 
de vida. Ahora toman 
nuestro orgullo.
Mi esposa está hambrienta, 
entonces le dan tortillas y carne.
Mi esposa quiere vestidos 
sin agujeros; los hombres 
de la razón quieren su cuerpo, 
y ella se lo entrega.
El Alcalde le advierte 
que no vaya con esos 
hombres, él la castigará 
con toda la fuerza de la ley.
Él le dice que esto 
es un comercio criminal.
Él piensa que mi esposa 
es una puta.
Mira alrededor. Todo lo que 
ves nos pertenecía. 
Sabíamos cómo proteger 
y honrar a nuestra madre. 
Ahora ni siquiera puedo 
alimentar a mi esposa.
Teodosia, el padre dice 
que debo azotarte. 
El Alcalde dice que debes 
ir a la cárcel. No hablan el idioma 
de nuestros antepasados, mujer. 
Quiero hacer un hogar contigo. 
¡Cristo! no es nada fácil—
ya ves lo difícil que puede ser. 
Tal y como van las cosas, terminaremos crucificados.
Teodosia, ¿te acuerdas 
de nuestro idioma?
Misalaya kolo, tanoch. 
Deborah A. Miranda
Alcalde – magistrado, juez o alcalde de un pueblo durante la era mexicana del sur de California
La vara de justicia – bastón de cabeza plateada otorgado a los Alcaldes como insignia de su cargo.

Misalaya kolo, tanoch – Te amo mucho, mujer (en el idioma Esselen)
Many thanks to Dr. Emily Davidson, colleague from Pacific Lutheran University, who helped me with proofing and translation questions!

Just published in Pluma, the Spanish language literary journal of Washington and Lee University.


I've been working on a chapter about my Ancestors, Ventura and Teodosia.  Teodosia was my great-great-great-great grandmother Josefa's sister.  Ventura married into a family of strong-minded women, and did so just at a crucial cusp in time: the end of the Mission Era in southern California.  In fact, Ventura was born into the mission system as it was run by Spaniards, lived through the difficult transition to Mexican rule, and continued his life through secularization. 

(What was secularization? Between 1834 and 1836, the Mexican government confiscated California mission properties [primarily large tracts of land with cattle, sheep, and other livestock, as well as any tools and buildings present, where Indians lived and worked] from the Catholic church. In other words, the missions were no longer religious spaces; they were secular, not bound to or subject to religious rule. These massive properties were then sold or given away as ranches to private citizens, primarily Mexicans. Secularization as imagined by the Church was supposed to return the land to the presumably suitably civilized Indians after ten years of missionization, but many complications meant this never happened. Indians still living at the missions at the time of secularization were turned out; very few had any homelands left to return to, although some did withdraw far into interior California.  Most became homeless, some found work on Mexican ranchos for room and board, and many died. While a few Indians did receive small pieces of land, the vast majority were not able to keep that land under subsequent American rule.)

Ventura next endured the takeover of "The Americans" - considered to be even more brutal than Spanish or Mexican rule - and California's statehood, along with the devastating effects of the Gold Rush.  He lived at least into his seventies, quite an accomplishment for a time when the survival rate for Indigenous children born in the mission was seven years of age.

In going over the pieces of Ventura's life that come to me through Isabel Meadows, mission records, and historical events, it became clear that Ventura was the keystone of this new chapter: his life, the new direction I needed to take in order to tell another missing piece of my Ancestors' story.  

This particular story begins on July 14, 1816 when the Spanish priest Juan Amorós baptized an Indian boy child as Buenaventura, baptismal number 02998.  The child’s age is not given; it is merely noted that he was a legitimate “niño” born at San Carlos Mission of parents named Emerano Quittit and Dorotea Hijaxom, both neofitos of San Carlos (also known as Mission Carmel).  At this point in missionization, Indians were given a Hispanic name at baptism, but their Indigenous names were also written down in the records phonetically, and frequently used as surnames. Ventura, as this child came to be known, was probably a day or two old at the time of baptism; he was second-generation, raised completely within the mission.

By the time secularization came to Mission San Carlos in 1935/36, Ventura was about twenty years old.  He had married another neophyte, Josefa Real, in 1833; Isabel Meadows has many stories about both of my Ancestors, many of which detail how their combustible personalities contributed to a rocky marriage.  In my research, I uncovered the handwritten document (above) in a book made up of scattered records bound into one volume:

The Alcalde (or Mayor) recorded this encounter, noting that he had met with  ". . . the neophytes from the town of San Carlos Ventura and Maria Teodosia: the first demanding of the second that his wife doesn’t want to make a life with him ...  The aforementioned Teodosia expressed that she doesn’t want to make a life with her husband because [he says] she was giving it out with the men but as she has explained those words are empty/don’t resemble the truth."

And so the battle begins: both parties bring witnesses for their case, as allowed by Anglo law, and the Alcalde listens, then gives his verdict.  He warns Teodosia not to continue her illicit behavior, and - interestingly - tells her that if she feels Ventura is abusing her in any way, there are people to whom she can turn (no doubt counseling with the priest).  What is clear is that no matter what is going on in the marriage on either side, escape from this relationship is not a possibility. 

Reading this over many times (thank you Dr. Seth Michelson for help with translation), I slowly began to try to imagine what forces brought Ventura to the point of dragging his wife in to see the Alcalde for help with his marriage.

Look at the context: all throughout missionization, the mission priests completely, forcibly, took over the institution of marriage for Indigenous people.  Marriage, in the Catholic church, was mandatory; early marriage was better still; and reproduction an absolute requirement.  If widowed, an Indian was required to remarry quickly, preferably with another widow or widower; priests often paired up unpartnered Indians as a matter of course.  In addition to marriage, monogamy was, of course, also required, but even the priests had difficulty enforcing that - though try, they did.  Both men and women caught having extra-marital sex were punished (extra work, meals withheld, floggings, time in isolation or stocks) at the priests' orders.  Couples who did not conceive - for whatever reason - were subjected to punishment and/or physical examinations by the priests. Arguments or physical fights between Indians were adjudicated by the priests, along with punishment or other consequences. 

In short, for Indigenous people to work out an issue amongst themselves was so fraught with the "threat" of pre-mission cultural mores being perpetuated that the priests could not allow such self-governance.  

And so missionization taught Indians to go to the priests for every kind of conflict; they might not get the judgement they wanted, but the priest was their only recourse; in the missionized world, the priest stood at the apex of authority. 

So why didn't Ventura take Teodosia to the priest?

In 1935, something had happened at Mission San Carlos; not just a new nation in power (which had brought Mexican-trained priest Jose Suarez Real to replace the Spanish priests), and not just the uncertain chaos of secularization hovering over everything.  An incident which I have written about previously may have been instrumental in changing the multi-generational relationship of dependency between priest and neophyte: the rape of a young Indian girl named Vicenta, by Padre Real.  In Isabel's story about this, the priest was run out of Carmel by the girl's relatives, maybe all the way to Spain.  In truth, Padre Real fled Carmel, but only went as far as Monterey, where he continued acting as priest another few years from the Presidio's chapel.

So Ventura had no priest in Carmel to go to, and even though he went into Monterey, where Real still served, he may have had no wish to consult with Padre Real.  In addition, Ventura's wife, Teodosia, was one of three sisters known in San Carlos as "The Real Women" precisely because they were known to have a sexual relationship with Padre Real (I examine the complexities of this situation in my essay, "'Saying the Padre Had Grabbed Her': Rape is the Weapon, Story is the Cure" in Intertexts Volume 14, Number 2, Fall 2010 pp. 93-112, 2011).  

Thus, Ventura was doubly thwarted in his search for someone in authority to whom he could appeal for help.

Finally, the power of mission priests had greatly diminished just within the space of Ventura's lifetime.  No longer the judge and jury, no longer in control of huge ranches, hundreds of subjugated workers, or the tremendous wealth of the missions at their height, and stripped of all political power, a priest in Alta California was no longer The Father with absolute power over each Indian's life. Padre Real was no longer useful to Ventura even if he had not had a disturbing record in dealings with Indigenous women.

This is difficult material for me: the old Spanish handwriting, the translation of sometimes obscure words or idioms, the subject matter (reading about the suffering of Ancestors is painful and often creates unexpected blockages in a project), and making connections between multiple documents to piece together a coherent narrative.  As so often happens in situations like this, what I struggled with in my scholarship emerged in my poetry.  Perhaps because many of my materials were in Spanish, and because this is the language Ventura had to use to speak to the authorities (he was also fluent in his Indigenous language, as was Teodosia), I wrote the above poem in Spanish, sometimes using phrases or lines directly from the Alcalde's record.  I tried to get into Ventura's mind, his heart: what was he feeling, how was he seeing this moment of betrayal, anger, frustration with Teodosia?  

In the writing of the poem, I came to realize the core of this chapter is about Indigenous masculinity.  What might that have looked like, pre-mission?  How did missionization affect Indigenous masculinity for California Indian men?  In what ways did they suffer, compromise, make syncretic choices, search for safe ways to be Indian men in a colonized world when their identities were heavily policed, and disobedience often resulted in death, either directly or indirectly? 

Because Ventura was a remarkable man, because he exists both in Isabel's narratives and in European historical records, I have been able to trace some of his struggle to achieve a manhood that satisfied him as both an Indigenous person, and as a practical-minded man living through repeated invasions by foreign powers.  Ventura's "secret power," if you will, was music.  

He became a musician and chorister for the San Carlos padres, training from young boyhood to read and sing Latin, able to perform and lead the entire Latin Mass for every occasion.  This talent had many benefits, some obvious, others obscured, but all of which created a pathway for Ventura to maintain a sense of his Indigenous cultural masculinity, and satisfy the limitations and rules of his Spanish colonizers. 

More about all that later.  For now, I wanted to share Ventura's voice as it comes to me in this poem.  A translation (with apologies to John and Yoko):

The Ballad of Ventura and Teodosia
June 22, 1835

I'm standing in the office
of the Monterey Alcalde,
trying to get my wife
to come back and live with me.
The man with the staff of justice
says that she must return,
but the colonizers,
they don't give us a chance.

Christ! you know it ain't easy--
you know how hard it can be.
The way things are going,
they're gonna crucify us.

They call them men of reason--
Don Romero, Don Silva,
Padre Jose Maria Real--
but everything they do
is insane. First
they enslave, take
our land, our way
of life. Now they take
our pride.

My wife is hungry,
she wants tortillas and meat.
My wife wants dresses
without holes; the men
of reason want her body,
and she delivers it.

The Alcalde advises her
that if she goes with those
men, he will punish her
with all the force of the law.
He tells her that this
is a criminal commerce.
He thinks that my wife
is a whore.

Look around. All you 
see belonged to us.
We knew how to protect
and honor our Mother.
Now I can't even 
feed my wife.

Teodosia, the padre says
I must whip you.
The Alcalde says you must
go to jail. They don't speak the language
of our ancestors, woman.
I want to make a home with you.

Christ! you know it ain't easy--
you know how hard it can be.
The way things are going,
they're gonna crucify us.

Teodosia, do you remember
our language?

Misalaya kolo, tanoch.

Deborah A. Miranda

Alcalde – magistrate, judge or mayor of a town during the Mexican Era in Southern California.

La vara de justicia –silver-headed staff awarded to mayors as insignia of his position.

Misalaya kolo, tanoch – I love you so much, woman (in the Esselen language)


  1. Your poem is wonderful and so are you for giving Ventura his own voice. It gave me chills to see your information about him, having read of his involvement in giving Wm. Garner what he had coming in 1849 in what looks so much like a planned act of resistance. [Forest Clingan, The Californians Sept/Oct 1992 p.42-47]. Garner enslaved Indians in his lumber operation and was a participant in harassment of "wild" Indians in the San Joaquin Valley. He was married to my 3rd great-grandmother's sister. Their grandmother was Rumsen.

    1. Hi there. Thanks for your comment on the poem! I hate to burst your bubble, but I'm sure that the Indian named "Ventura" in that story about Garner is not the same person. For one thing, Ventura Cantua/Soto rarely (if ever) left the Carmel/Monterey area in his lifetime. He shows up on the 1852 California State Census living in Monterey under the name Ventura Soto, with step-father Francisco Jabier [Javier], half-brother Jose Hilario, and step-sister Maria Jabier. According to my research (not yet published), Ventura had already been blind for quite some time at that point. The Garner story happened in May 1849, four years earlier, and quite a long way from Monterey. While I don't have proof he was in Monterey at that time, Isabel Meadows narrates a great deal of Ventura's life in her stories, and never mentions him as either leaving Monterey to be part of Indian resistance, or having any such inclination. Also, Ventura was not "raised" by Garner; he was born and raised in the San Carlos Mission. Although I'd love to claim that Ventura was that kind of a warrior, without more evidence, I can't claim him. Sorry!

  2. Dang, there I go again jumping to conclusions. There's still a mystery Bentura out there somewhere though. Thanks for setting me straight. Your poem speaks to the very heart of why so many families did not survive.


Comments on this blog are moderated.