Santa Teresa de Cabora: The Hummingbird’s Daughter in Boyle Heights, 1902-1903, Part Two

Editor’s Note:  This second part of Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez’s excellent post on Santa Teresa de Cabora goes into detail about her brief residence in Boyle Heights during 1902 and 1903.  It reflects a little-known aspect of a remarkable life that has otherwise been well-chronicled.  The post begins with Teresa coming to California after time spent in other portions of the United States.Paul R. Spitzzeri

Settling in Boyle Heights, Teresa again resumed her home-based healing ministry in response to the growing crowds who appeared at her doorstep. Later, she would also boldly participate in a seminal act of economic social justice in the streets of downtown Los Angeles. A stance that would have certainly disappointed her well-heeled New York hosts. 

On October 30, 1902, the Los Angeles Herald published the headline, “Santa Teresa Here” and added, “The slenderly built and rather sad-faced young woman has led a life full of varied and exciting experiences.” The article also noted that she had “won wide notoriety as the reputed inspirer of the Yaqui Indians in several uprisings.” The Herald also reported that despite her quiet arrival at the home of her married sister on the “east side of the river,” people began to seek out the “Girl Messiah” almost immediately.    

Teresa’s arrival in 1902 seemed to be a precursor to an interesting period in Los Angeles and for Boyle Heights since the city’s populace was beginning to experience a burst of religious fervor, along with the growing influence of the Christian-led temperance movement.

Los Angeles Herald, 30 October 1902.

For example, in April 1903, Carrie Nation, the radical leader of the temperance movement, spoke to members of the Boyle Heights Woman’s Christian Temperance Union at Korbel Hall, located at the southwest corner of First and State Streets, only three blocks away from the home where Teresa was conducting her healing sessions at the time. The stuccoed-over former Korbal Hall building still stands today.

The following year, the first small wave of Russian Molokans, members of a zealous sect of the Russian Orthodox Church, was just arriving in downtown Los Angeles; these immigrants eventually settled in for a decades-long stay in Boyle Heights. 

In March 1905, Seventh Day Adventists set up a “White Tent City” at the corner of First and Mott Streets in Boyle Heights for a day-long gathering of noted speakers, including Ellen G. White, one of the principal founders of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. (In 1915 the Adventists established the White Memorial Hospital a few blocks away). 

Los Angeles Times, 15 December 1902.

Not from Boyle Heights, in what became known as Little Tokyo, African-American minister William J. Seymour began, in 1906, the multi-racial Azusa Street Revival at a small church. The Revival eventually grew into the worldwide Pentecostal movement. 

In 1918, Canadian-born evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson arrived in Los Angeles and quickly made the city the home base for her popular brand of Pentecostal ministry. Though McPherson occasionally practiced “faith-healing” and “speaking in tongues” in front of large crowds, which helped launch her career early on, it could be said that Boyle Heights-based Santa Teresa is actually the first media-celebrated “divine faith-healer” to practice in Los Angeles. (Also notable, the late Billy Graham’s evangelical crusade first came to national prominence with 57 days of revival meetings at a “tent cathedral” at Hill Street and Washington Blvd. in 1949).

On December 15, 1902, the Los Angeles Times reported, “Teresa has purchased a little cottage at Brooklyn Avenue and State Street” and is “daily besieged by a pitiful throng of Mexican enfermos,” with some arriving as far as Sonora, Mexico in “drawn up wagons.” They also reported that Teresa, “treats free of charge poor people who come to her accredited but is not so generous to the rich.”

Los Angeles Herald, 16 January 1903.

The Herald of January 16, 1903, recounted a reporter’s impressions after visiting the “sweet-faced, olive-skinned” Teresa in her “tiny, darkened, barley-furnished treatment room in a bumble bee cottage on Boyle Heights.” After stepping off “the trolley car that conveniently stopped at State Street,” the reporter noted, “the lawn is covered with men, women and children, the majority Mexicans or Spanish. While waiting, some of them can be seen eating chili con carne and tortillas, while in the rear, horses eat hay off farm wagons.”

The Herald journalist reported that Teresa’s home was also “overrun by some good folks anxious to satisfy their curiosity about the live saint,” and witnessed “two well-dressed women who brushed past the front door, insisting they knew ‘Santa Teresa’ lived there.” Teresa eventually “asked for the advice and assistance of the district attorney in protecting her and her sister’s family from the forced intrusion of strangers.”

Concerning Teresa’s married sister, the newspapers never published her name (or a specific address for the Boyle Heights residence) but records indicate Teresa had a younger half-sister named Maria “Marie” Urrea who was born on March 16, 1882, in Sonora, Mexico to Tomas and Maria Urrea.  Sometime before Teresa arrived, Maria moved to Los Angeles, California where she lived with her husband, Valente Balderrama. Maria died in Los Angeles on November 11, 1942, at age sixty. 

Los Angeles Herald, 1 January 1903.

Despite Teresa’s demand for a degree of privacy from the throngs of visitors to her Boyle Heights home, she, nevertheless, agreed to become publicly involved in a newly organized Los Angeles worker strike. Known today as the El Traque Strike of 1903, it has been described by late historian Jeffrey Marcos Garcilazo as “one of the most dramatic expressions of Mexican track worker militancy in the early twentieth century.”

In March 1903, approximately eight hundred Mexican employees of the Pacific Electric Railway (PE) — the Los Angeles street trolley system owned by real estate tycoon, Henry E. Huntington — formed La Union Federal Mexicana (UFM), arguably, the first union in the United States to represent Mexican track workers. The traqueros (track workers) mostly lived in the immigrant enclaves of either “Sonoratown/Little Italy,” which today encompasses the Chinatown area, or “Boxcarville,” located in the “Flats” area at the eastern edge of the Los Angeles River in Boyle Heights.

After Huntington refused their wage demands for overtime, evening, and weekend work, UFM voted to strike in mid-April, securing pledged support from the local Socialist Party, as well as Mexican and Japanese labor unions in Oxnard. The UFM strategy was to leverage the fact that PE crews were rushing to complete the Los Angeles-to-Long Beach line in time for the annual (and ironically themed, given that almost no Latinos were involved) Los Angeles Fiesta in early May. Huntington responded by ordering all striking Mexicans fired and replacement workers hired immediately at one-half-cent more per hour, far less than what UFM was demanding.

Los Angeles Record, 28 April 1903.

Aware that La Santa Teresa de Cabora — famous folk healer and inspiration to the Mexican labor class and the indigenous resistance movement — was residing in Boyle Heights, UFM organizers invited her to participate in their collective action against PE. UFM was already up against the wall since PE quickly hired large numbers of scabs to replace striking workers and enlisted the help of a company-friendly police department to discourage demonstrations and picketing near work sites, all while receiving sympathetic coverage from the notoriously anti-union L. A. Times

In a display of solidarity, a group of women gathered at a downtown work site at Buena Vista Street (renamed Broadway in 1909), and according to the Times of April 26, 1903, “the women had come from Sonoratown and were relatives of, or sympathizers, with the Mexicans on strike. There were more than thirty Amazons [sic], and their declared intention was to take the tools from the workmen. The women threw the shovels to the sidewalk,” but the worker’s reaction was “simply walking over and picking them again.”

On March 27, the tactic was repeated, with Teresa leading the way. As reported by both the Los Angeles Record and the Herald on April 28, 1903, at 7:30 p.m. Teresa “marched” with 23 women to a rail trench at the corner of Sixth and Main Streets. Once there, a group of replacement workers (the Herald says 25, the Record says 50) threw down their tools, climbed out of the trench, and followed the women “to the headquarters of the Mexican federal union at 664 San Fernando Street.” According to the Herald, “members of the union assert that this visit by the women won thirty-eight men” with the “new recruits all admitted to membership at last night’s meeting.” 

Los Angeles Herald, 28 April 1903.

Although there are no direct quotes, the Herald briefly noted, “Santa Teresa addressed a union meeting at the Council of Labor Hall. She urged her countrymen to be true to their pledges to the union but avoid all troubles with authorities.” The latter part of her comment suggests a concern for the safety of the strikers and any potential confrontations with police. It was no secret that powerful Los Angeles civic and business leaders were adamant about maintaining the city’s open-shop (anti-union) reputation.

With the help of replacement workers, police intimidation, and a late-hour canceled walkout by primarily white PE conductors and motormen, Huntington was able to break the Traquero strike and complete the track line just before the Fiesta took place. However, this pioneering labor-organizing effort by the Mexican track workers proved to be only a precursor to future militant labor activism by Latinos in Los Angeles and throughout California. Though better known for inspiring indigenous resistance movements in pre-revolution Mexico, less known is that Teresa also provided crucial inspiration to a nascent labor movement in one of the most aggressive anti-labor cities in the United States.

In addition to press stories about her healing practice and labor activism, Teresa’s short-lived and disastrous marriage was well-documented by the time she arrived in Los Angeles to seek a divorce (on the grounds of “desertion and failure to provide”). Curiously, there is no mention in the press of John Van Order, or Teresa’s daughter, Laura, during her stay in Los Angeles. Regardless, some newspaper reports took on a mocking tone during her divorce proceedings, such as this report in the Herald on March 3, 1903: “Santa Teresa took off her halo yesterday while she donned a nice picture hat of the Merode pattern. Ordinarily, saints are supposed to be too ethereal to marry, but since (she) was married almost by force at the point of a revolver, her marriage is not to be counted against her sainthood.”

Herald, 26 March 1903.

Such press reports may have been generated by Teresa’s claims in court that she was forced into the marriage at gunpoint, contradicting Clifton eyewitnesses at the time of her marriage, and previous statements she gave to the press that she left with him freely. But her claim was likely designed to make the court more sympathetic to the circumstances of her request for an immediate divorce. However, the judge ruled the next day there were insufficient grounds to grant a divorce. After their testimony, he was left dissatisfied with the inability of Teresa, her sister, or her brother-in-law to give the court a “good reason” for their failure to make any inquiries about the fate of Guadalupe Rodriguez after he was arrested and jailed.

Realizing that it was going to be difficult to obtain a divorce in Los Angeles, Teresa left the city at the end of June. On July 1, 1903, the Herald reported that Teresa “has left her place of retirement in Boyle Heights” to “work among her people in Oxnard,” as well as “go to Ventura on a business trip.” By July 24the L.A. Times briefly noted, “Santa Teresa, the notorious Mexican divine healer is now located in Ventura, where crowds of the poorer classes and many rich as well, call upon her for treatment for all imaginable ills.”

Los Angeles Express, 27 August 1903.

If Teresa had any plans to return to Los Angeles, they went up in flames on Tuesday evening, July 25, when a fire destroyed her Boyle Heights “cottage.” According to the Times of August 27, 1903, “Just as the last streetcar was making its trip, the light of spreading flames was discovered at the rear of the house. Before the fire department arrived, the flames had done great damage. Dashing water soon completed the ruin.” Noting the absence of her healing ministry, the same article claimed, “This strenuous life was a tax on la senorita. The blinds of the cottage were lowered, and the knocks of the sufferers were unheard. Santa Teresa had bled [sic] herself away to the pleasing retreat of Santa Barbara.”

Tomorrow we’ll post a short postscript covering what happened to Santa Teresa after she left Boyle Heights, so check back then. – Paul R. Spitzzeri

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