Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

Toypurina: LA Freedom Fighter

Art Heals by Raul González, Ricardo Estrada and Joséph “Nuke” Montalvo, Ramona Gardens

For Women’s History Month I want to look at someone from the earliest years of Los Angeles, Toypurina. In many cultures and countries around the world there are legendary historical women, leaders who rallied their people to fight foreign invaders. Examples include Joan of Arc in fifteenth century France, who emerged from a humble background to lead the French Army, with considerable success, against the English, and Boudicca, a first century Briton, who led a huge rebellion against the Roman invaders that almost ended its rule on the islands. Such a figure in many respects is Toypurina, a Tongva medicine woman in the San Gabriel Valley, who led an uprising against Spanish colonists at the Mission there, in 1785. Although she was unsuccessful in ending Spanish rule, she has since become a folk hero to marginalized First American communities in California and a potent symbol of resistance to oppression.

Spain had claimed pretty much the entire West Coast of what’s now the U.S. in 1542, when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo undertook a voyage of exploration of the area for the Spanish King. However, no effort was made to colonize these territories until the late eighteenth century, by which time the Russians, British and French were all casting covetous looks at what’s now California. Anxious to ensure his claim, Charles III ordered what would become the Portolà Expedition to head North from Mexico and establish bases all the way up to San Francisco Bay.

San Diego Old Town
San Diego Old Town

In 1769 the expedition set out and slowly made its way up the coast, establishing Missions as it went (the first one being in San Diego). Missions were a key element of the Spanish effort to colonize California, every bit as important as the military Presidios (forts) and Spanish settlers who were to follow. The new Missions (ultimately there would be twenty-one in California) were manned by Franciscan friars, whose job it was to convert the local people to Catholicism. Once baptized First Americans effectively became slaves of the religious order, who would be resettled on the Missions and do the bidding of the friars, building the new settlements and doing agricultural work. The lifestyle that they had followed for thousands of years was over, they were forbidden from following any of their old cultural or religious customs.

In 1771 the San Gabriel Mission was established at the Whittier Narrows, on fertile ground where the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River pass through the Puente and Montebello Hills. Ironically the Portola Expedition had gone to great lengths to establish good relations with the First Americans they came across, probably because they wouldn’t have lasted long if they hadn’t, but once the Spanish began to colonize California that honeymoon period ended. In 1776 the Spanish moved the Mission to its present location, about five miles to the Northwest, near the Tongva village of Shevaanga.

There are estimated to have been about five thousand Tongva, the name for the people who lived in the Los Angeles Basin, when the Spanish arrived. Within that 1,500 square mile area there were at least fifty different communities, numbering between a hundred to a hundred and fifty inhabitants each. The largest village was where City Hall is now and was called Yang-Na (place of the poison oaks). Disputes would sometimes arise between these communities (as they do in all societies), but they essentially lived in harmonious co-existence with each other. Indeed, the Portola Expedition described the Tongva as being particularly friendly and helpful (something modern Angelenos have in common with them, no doubt). Perhaps that was one cause of their downfall, although it would have been incredibly hard for them to resist the Spanish for long anyway.

The first danger for the Tongva was unseen – disease. They had very little natural resistance to European diseases, since many of them were caused by living in close proximity to animals that the First Americans didn’t have, such as chickens, pigs and cattle. No one knows how badly diseases such as syphilis, small-pox and measles ravaged the Tongva, but over six thousand indigenous people are buried at the San Gabriel Mission, many thought to have died in this way over the decades following its establishment. A missionary during the period reported that three-quarters of all children born there died before the age of two, a staggering mortality rate, even in those days.

Then there was the enslavement of many at the Mission in San Gabriel. Think that’s just the judgement of an Angeleno living in the early twenty-first century? Here’s what French sea captain the Count of Lapérouse, who passed through Los Angeles on a round-the-world-voyage in 1786, said: “the moment an Indian allowed himself to be baptised he relinquished every particle of liberty and subjected himself body and soul to tyranny, from which there was no escape. The church then claimed him as its own… and enforced its claim with the strong hand of power”. Bear in mind that he wrote this several years BEFORE the French Revolution! Of all the Missions in California, San Gabriel’s was the most prolific baptiser, performing the ceremony on no less than 25,000 between 1771 and 1834 (when the Mission was secularized).

This is the background to the abortive rebellion, led by Toypurina, against the Spanish. The immediate cause for the uprising seems to have been when the Padres banned the Tongva from holding their traditional dances, which were extremely important for helping the dead find their way to the Afterlife. Without the dance being performed their kin would be trapped in a kind of limbo, stuck between worlds. Up until this point the Franciscans had been relatively lenient and allowed some customs to continue, but it seems that they were disturbed that even the neophytes (newly-baptised First Americans, numbering over six hundred) were holding onto their “paganism”. 

After this provocation a neophyte who lived at the Mission, called Nicolás José, approached Toypurina to see if she would rally the surrounding villages and lead an assault on the Mission, in October 1785. Relatively little is known about her, but it’s clear that she was a highly regarded medicine woman and religious figure, despite being just twenty-five years old. She was also pregnant with her first child. It seems that that José and the other leaders, Temejasaquichí and Alijivit, believed she could use her divine influence to immobilize the priests, while they and the other rebels killed the Spanish soldiers. In addition to the banning of the ritual dances, Toypurina was motivated to oppose the Spanish after seeing some Spanish soldiers kill a local chief and then rape his wife. She was instrumental in convincing as many as eight local villages to join their rebellion.

On the night of October 25 the insurgents crept up on the Mission under cover of darkness. Unfortunately for them a corporal had overheard Temejasaquichí warning Tongva residents of the impending attack, and the Spanish soldiers were waiting in ambush. The Spnaiards quickly quelled the nascent revolt – the Tongva didn’t have any firearms – and arrested dozens of the rebels, imprisoning them at the Presidio, where they would be interrogated (which usually involved torture).

It’s here that Toypurina’s role really comes to the fore in historical accounts. According to Thomas Workman Temple II, a Socal historian who was the first to examine the interrogation and trial transcripts and translate them into English, Toypurina “kicked aside a stool that was provided by her captors, preferring instead to stand while delivering her testimony”. Moreover, she stated clearly and plainly that “I hate the padres and all of you, for living here on my native soil, for trespassing upon the land of my forefathers and despoiling our tribal domains… I came [to the mission] to inspire the dirty cowards to fight, and not to quail at the sight of Spanish sticks that spit fire and death, nor to retch at the evil smell of gunsmoke, and to be done with you white invaders!” Temple maintained that these were here “exact words”, but more recent research by Steven Hackel suggests that a soldier recorded her saying that “she was angry with the Padres and with all of those of this Mission because we are living here in her land”.

Spanish officials held a “trial”, sentencing five people to twenty-five lashes and another twelve to receive fifteen or twenty lashes, the sentences to be carried out in public, so the other Tongva would know the price that defiance would exact. Toypurina herself was held in solitary confinement for sixteen months and repeatedly flogged, during which time her child was taken from her, and she was forcibly baptized. Finally, in 1789, she was exiled to the Mission San Carlos Borromeo, near present-day Monterey, far from her home. There she took the name ‘Regina’ (meaning ‘Queen’), married a Spanish soldier, called Manuel Montera, and had three more children, Cesario, Juana de Dios Montero and Maria Clementina. We don’t know If her conversion was genuine – it seems, to say the least, unlikely – or if her marriage was a survival strategy, or motivated by love for Montera. She died in 1799, at the age of just thirty-nine, and is buried at the nearby Mission San Juan Bautista.

As for the Mission, in the 1790’s the Spanish Viceroy forbade the Franciscans from using the First Americans as slave labor (mainly because the rich Rancheros claimed that it gave the Church an unfair competitive advantage), but working conditions on the ranches were little better. In 1834, after Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the Missions were secularized and their lands sold off.

Even a century later a Federal investigation reported that there were still significant numbers of Tongva people living in the area:

In the colonies in the San Gabriel Valley… they live like gypsies in brush huts, here today, gone tomorrow, eking out a miserable existence by days’ work.

Helen Hunt Jackson, 1882

The Mission itself fell further into disrepair, until 1908, when Claretian Missionaries arrived and began the process of rebuilding and restoring it. The Claretian Order still operates the Mission today and there are Elementary and High Schools, and a museum, on the site. There was a devastating fire on July 11, 2020 and you can donate to the restoration fund on their website here.

History has shown that Toypurina was right to resist the encroaching Spanish, although she and her people paid a heavy price for the invasion. By the 1830’s the last Tongva left their ancestral lands and their culture ceased to independently exist. When the U.S. seized California from Mexico the government signed a treaty with the First Americans, promising them 8.5 million acres for a reservation, but it was never ratified by Congress and quietly ignored. There are now less than two thousand people who identify as Tongva and the language has, sadly, ceased to exist, although some of their names survive: Topanga, Pasadena, Pacoima and Cahuenga (the name for the pass through the Hollywood Hills). 

So, bearing in mind that, like Boudicca, Toypurina’s rebellion was unsuccessful, why is she considered such an important symbol of resistance to oppression? Well, if one looks at the entirety of her life’s journey, including her exile to Monterey and remarriage, it’s about so much more than a foiled uprising. It’s about resilience, survival against the odds and the ability to adapt to often incredibly hostile circumstances – the story of oppressed people everywhere really. There are an increasing number of murals of Toypurina throughout the San Gabriel Valley today, but perhaps the most poignant is the one at Baldwin Park Metrolink station, where an artwork by Judy Baca simply says ‘Sunigna’ under the central arch, which is the Tongva name for the area.

If you have any feedback on Toypurina: LA Freedom Fighter please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

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