"Pongo Mi Demanda":
Challenging Patriarchy in Mexican Los Angeles, 1830-1850
In 1850, Gregoria Romero went before the Los Angeles justice of the peace to ask that criminal charges be filed against her husband Manuel Valencia for abusing her physically and verbally. He "gives me a mala vida, " she told the judge, "mistreats me with beatings, defames me, . . . threatens me with death at every step, denies me indispensable nourishment, . . . and instead of giving good advice and sustenance as a husband should do, he gives me a distressing and miserable life. I request a separation." The judge took the case under submission, but before he could render a decision, Romero reappeared in court two days later with her husband at her side. "My husband has promised me that, in the future, he will treat me well and provide me with the considerations a wife deserves," she stated. "I retract my [criminal] charge, forgiving the mistreatment he has previously inflicted." Romero's husband affirmed that he had changed his ways. "Never, for my part, will there be cause for fights," he declared, "nor anger between us." He promised to "follow a straight path and subject [him] self to scrutiny by the civil authorities." The judge, already predisposed to salvaging marriages, agreed to Romero's request and dropped the charges against her husband.
By going to the judge with her complaint Romero had boldly indicated her unwillingness to tolerate her husband's repeated abuses. However, by later recanting her charges solely on his promise to reform, she revealed not only faith in the sincerity of her husband's pledges but also Mexican society's high regard for the inviolability of marriage and the husband's place as master of the home. Mexican and, earlier, Spanish legal and social norms were steeped in patriarchal ideology that recognized men as the heads of the households to whom wives and children owed their obedience. Those same norms also placed restrictions and responsibilities on men: they had to provide food, clothing, and shelter for their families and were forbidden to use
excessive force in guiding and instructing their wives, children, and household servants. The Los Angeles court records, as in the case of Gregoria Romero, reveal that men sometimes abused their authority, and women, when necessary, invoked the law to protect themselves and check errant husbands and fathers. The records also indicate that justice could elude women and that the courts often interpreted the law in ways that reflected deeply rooted gender biases.
In exploring women's experiences with the judicial system in Mexican California, this study relies on extant civil and criminal court cases that came before Los Angeles's Court of First Instance between 1830 and 1850. Though the tribunal existed prior to 1830, no earlier records have survived. In 1850 the court ceased to exist as a result of the ratification of California's state constitution and the introduction of the American court system. These records, which total 502 court cases, include 78 cases involving women in civil and criminal matters. Of these, 47 have been selected for study because they reflect the ways in which women of different ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds dealt with husbands, fathers, and men in the larger community who violated their authority by physically abusing them, neglecting to provide for them, or unlawfully coercing them. These cases also illustrate how local leaders handled individuals who transgressed standards of propriety. Cases involving women's property disputes and other civil matters, while equally significant in elucidating their experiences with patriarchy in Los Angeles, are not treated in this discussion because of space limitations and because they deserve a paper of their own. The focus here is on those women who appeared in the civil and criminal conciliation courts (usually as the plaintiff but sometimes as the defendant). Though these women constitute a distinct minority (approximately 9 percent of the 665 women who resided in Los Angeles during the 1830s and 1840s), they represent a crosssection of gente de razón (non-Indian) women (500) and Indian adult females (165). They include married, widowed, and single women from impoverished, middling, and elite backgrounds.
Though recent historians have greatly enriched our understanding of the daily lives of women in Spanish and Mexican California, none has utilized court records with their abundance of first-person testimonies from women. Scholars have, with success, drawn on the narratives collected by Hubert Howe Bancroft and his assistants, but these accounts describe events long after they occurred and lack the immediacy of oral testimony describing life as it was being lived.
Drawing on sources such as court cases, which focus on adversarial relations, clearly skews our view of male and female interactions, and may suggest an inclination for men and women to engage in violent confrontations. Placing the material within its proper cultural context, however, allows for a more nuanced understanding of how and why gender relations
turned sour as well as the ways in which the community handled such strife. And, more importantly, the evidence reveals not only women's anxieties, expectations, and attitudes but also how women of different circumstances—gente de razón (non-Indians or, literally, "people of reason"), neófitos (baptized California Indians), and gentiles (unbaptized California Indians) fared in the legal system and in the broader society.
The discussion that follows begins with an examination of the gente de razón's understanding of marriage and the family, and then shows how women used local institutions to deal with heads of households who exceeded their paternal authority. The principal reasons women went to court—physical abuse, inadequate support, adultery, and unlawful coercion—receive close attention here. The essay also explores how women of different ethnicities and socioeconomic levels contended with men in the larger community who abused them, and the ways in which men responded to women's grievances. Finally, the discussion analyzes women's use of extralegal means to escape their troubled households, and shows how figures of authority sought to maintain their power.
Mexicans inherited from Spain strong convictions about the centrality of marriage and the family to the survival of civilized Catholic society. These convictions seemed self-evident to the residents of Los Angeles, a precarious and small community on the northern frontier whose gente de razón and Indian populations together barely numbered 2,300 as late as 1844. At the most elemental level, stable marriages and families produced the children who would secure the future and also ensure continuity in cultural and moral values as well as in the inheritance and transfer of property. To the clergy, marriage was a sacrament, a bond sanctified by Christ for the procreation and education of children as well as companionship. Except through death or a church-sanctioned annulment, marriages, preached the padres, remained indissoluble, even when one spouse was extremely cruel to the other. The clergy, in their goal to keep marriages intact, frequently sought the help of civil authorities and sometimes publicly berated them and went over their heads to higher officials if their support was not forthcoming.
Most local officials lacked formal legal training, but they familiarized themselves with the relevant civil codes on marriage and the family, most of them derived from Spanish laws and decrees. Permeating that law was the widely held tenet of paternal authority (patria potestas ) that came from deep in the Iberian past and was embedded in Las Siete Partidas and Leyes de Toro, thirteenth- and sixteenth-century compilations of law that located familial authority in male heads of household—fathers and husbands—the assumption being that such delegation of power ensured a well-ordered family and stable society. A man had virtually complete authority over his dependents—wife, children, and any servants in the household—who, in turn,
owed him their obedience. Qualifying a man's authority was his obligation to support, protect, and guide his dependents. The law and social mores also required a husband to respect a wife's person, but it conceded him the right to dole out mild punishment—the meaning of which varied with time, locale, and circumstance—to her and his other dependents as a way of guiding or teaching them. The ideal home (casa de honor ) was a place where husband and wife, regardless of socioeconomic status or racial and cultural identity, treated each other well, supported their dependents, practiced their religion, remained faithful to one another, and otherwise set a good example for their children.' Men who abandoned or neglected the well-being of their households or engaged in excessive punishment violated not only the law but also the norms of the community.
As members of the community, women had the right to hold men responsible for neglecting to fulfill their obligations or for exceeding their power and authority as heads of households. To deal with such men, women sometimes felt compelled to turn to the Court of First Instance. Depending on the matter at issue, the tribunal convened a civil or criminal trial in the first court (juzgado primero ), presided over by the alcalde, or a conciliation trial (juicio de concilio ) in the second court (segundojuzgado ), presided over by the justice of the peace, or juez de paz. In particularly violent and abusive relationships, the alcalde—with the consent of the individual issuing the complaint, usually the woman—would order a criminal trial, treating the physical violence in the home as a crime punishable by possible imprisonment or banishment. In matters that involved so-called "light" (leve ) crimes of physical abuse or some other transgression the court considered mild, justices ordered a civil trial or conciliation hearing, in which the aggrieved and defending parties each appointed his or her hombre bueno, or good man, who served as an advisor to the court. The goal of these sessions, which were common throughout Mexico and its possessions, was to reconcile the disputing couple, thus preserving the marriage for the good of the family and social stability. In the case of an unmarried couple living together, the purpose was to separate them. In many instances, women found that these sessions functioned only as "quick fixes" that failed to restrain a consistently violent husband. Women wanting legal separations or annulments usually received a hearing in the civil branch of the court, though the clergy preferred to handle such matters through ecclesiastical channels.
In the criminal, civil, and conciliation courts, women voiced a host of complaints against heads of households. Married women complained about husbands who physically abused them, failed to support them and their children, and otherwise set a bad example in the household. Luisa Domínguez's troubles with her spouse are representative. In 1843, she went to the conciliation court, complaining to the justice of the peace about her husband ángel Pollorena. "My husband's treatment is insufferable," she told
the judge and the hombres buenos. "At every moment he beats me [and] I ask for a separation." To prove how badly she had been abused, she exposed her body to the court, revealing the scars left from the wounds. Pollorena, also present in the court, responded, "my wife is a bad woman." "The fight began after I punished one of her children," he explained, "and, as she has [already] had three children outside of our marriage, she wants to return to the same [behavior]." "I have had two children outside of the marriage," Domínguez admitted, but "now that I am with him he does not support me."
The judge and hombres buenos believed that the marriage could be saved and ordered the couple to attempt a reconciliation. "I agree to reunite with my husband," replied Domínguez, but "with the condition that he treat me well, not punish excessively my children, or give them a bad example." Pollorena accepted her demands, though he, too, set a condition. "I promise to educate the children, comply with my obligations, and forget the past as long as she [is] prudent." To ensure that Pollorena kept his promise to Domínguez, the judge appointed several men to keep close watch over his behavior.
Complaints like those of Luisa Domínguez often accompanied accusations of infidelity from women as well as men. Adultery, which the authorities treated as a criminal act and flagrant threat to marriage and the family, prompted women to appeal to the conciliation court and, if they felt especially wronged, to file civil or criminal charges against their husbands. Sometimes they even asked for the indictment of his accomplice on the grounds that the other woman had provoked the marital troubles. In 1844, Francisca Pérez accused her husband and his lover (amasia ) of adultery, telling the judge that the other woman had "caused my husband's infidelity and refusal to give me sustenance." Marina García likewise informed a judge in 1845 that she had a "bad life with my husband Francisco Limón because of Manuela Villa, who is living" with him. To ensure an end to these relations, wives demanded the banishment of such women. "Having caught my husband in flagrante delicto with Nicolasa Careaga," Marta Reyes told the justice of the peace in 1843, "I ask that [the court] punish him and banish her from the town." When Reyes's husband admitted that he was "at fault" and "put himself at the court's disposal," the judge, with the agreement of the hombres buenos, ordered him to "treat his wife well" and sent Careaga to an undisclosed destination.
A woman's decision to file a formal complaint against her spouse for abuse or adultery did not come quickly or easily. In most instances, women turned to the courts only after a prolonged period of contentious relations. Their testimony is usually filled with numerous examples of earlier abuse. Typical were Ramona Vejar and Luz Figueroa, who, in the criminal court, described years of mistreatment. "My husband Tomás Urquides," Vejar stated to the alcalde in 1842, "hits me because of Dolores Valenzuela
[with whom he] has been living . . . for more than two years. . . . He has hit me so many times with a rope or whatever else he can find that I can not recall the exact number." Witnesses verified Vejar's account and also testified that Urquides had fathered a child with Valenzuela. Urquides admitted knowing Valenzuela but denied having an affair with her. He also acknowledged hitting his wife, though he said he did so in order to correct her insolence. "One day, she came to my mother's house," he informed the court, "looking for someone, and when I asked her what or whom she wanted, she responded, 'I am looking for that [sexually promiscuous woman] who is your friend and your mother who is an alcahueta [a mediator between lovers].' . . . I only hit her when she gives me cause to do so," he insisted, "not because [Valenzuela] tells me to do so; I do so when she neglects the children or leaves without my permission."
When Valenzuela was called to testify and admitted to a long affair with Urquides, the judge moved quickly to end the relationship. He ordered Valenzuela's banishment: she had to live at least ten leagues (thirty-five miles) from the town in a casa de honor where she and her children would be watched. Urquides, on the other hand, received only a reprimand for "correcting" his wife and a fine of ten pesos for his sexual misconduct. Within six months, Vejar was back in court complaining that Urquides had returned to his old habits. "I ran to take shelter [from him] in a nearby home," she told the judge, "but he pulled me out, beat me, and then tied me up with a rope." Before the authorities could apprehend him, Urquides fled from the town, forcing the authorities to drop the case until he could be located.
Like Ramona Vejar, Luz Figueroa experienced years of abuse from her husband, Juan Riera. Figueroa's problems, however, lasted more than a decade, culminating in 1849 with flight from her husband and an appeal for help from the local priest. "What should I do?" she asked him. His response: "return to your husband." Dutifully, she returned to the household only to be beaten again by her husband. This time she turned to the court for help, describing for the judge her husband's years of abuse and his latest attack. He "picked up a leather rope and he struck me once in the face, and did so repeatedly on my back," she stated. "Luckily I was able to escape . . . and found help in a nearby house. But soon my husband found me, and pulled me from the house, dragging me through the streets and telling me to follow him or else he would kill me with the knife he pulled out of his pants." She showed the judge the scars that the many beatings had left on her body. "What [punishment] do you request for your husband for having beaten and publicly humiliated you?" asked the judge. "I request his banishment from this city because I fear that a grave injury may happen to me. He has always given me a miserable life, and in the twelve years I have been married to this man, there have been numerous relapses into his bad habits." The judge ordered the arrest of Riera whom he questioned and then imprisoned
pending a full criminal investigation. What that investigation revealed is unknown, since the surviving records indicate only that Riera was freed but not the reasons why. What is clear was Luz Figueroa's attempt to have him removed from her life.
Women challenged not only abusive and unfaithful husbands but also coercive fathers. Though fewer women issued complaints against fathers than husbands, those who did so frequently won the support of local authorities. In 1842, for instance, Casilda Sepúlveda complained to the judge in the civil court that her father, Enrique Sepúlveda, with the support of her stepmother Matilda Trujillo and the local priest, had forced her to marry Antonio Teodoro Trujillo. She asked the judge "for the protection of the law against such an attack on my personal liberty" and to grant her an annulment. The judge examined witnesses and found that, indeed, she had been married against her will, and he nullified the marriage. The judge then informed the local priest at Mission San Gabriel, Tomás Estenaga, of his actions, prompting Estenaga, in turn, to notify Francisco García Diego y Moreno, the bishop of both Alta and Baja California, about what had occurred. The bishop, convinced that the judge had exceeded his authority by interfering in a religious matter, reacted angrily. "Judging the validity or nullity of marriage is absolutely reserved to the ecclesiastical domain," the bishop wrote to Santiago Argüello, head of the prefectura, or prefecture, the highest civil authority in southern California directly responsible to the governor. Bishop García then ordered Estenaga to speak privately with Sepúlveda and urge her to reconcile with Trujillo. If she refused to do so, then she and her relatives should go to Santa Barbara, the current residence of the bishop, and plead her case before the ecclesiastical tribunal there. At first, she balked at going, preferring to "present her reasons, in writing, to the Bishop," but under the prodding of Father Estenaga, she finally consented to go.
The hearing in Santa Barbara concluded with the bishop announcing that the marriage had been forced and annulling it. Sepúlveda's success in attaining an annulment, a rare occurrence in California and Mexico, was a triumph over paternal authority and her family's insistence that she marry a man whom she had refused as a husband. Her victory, however, did not come without consequences. Shortly after returning to Los Angeles, she was again in court complaining that her father had retaliated against her. "I don't want to return to my father's house," she declared, for "he refuses to support me[,] refuses to recognize me as his daughter[, and] wants to disinherit me. What shall I do?" The judge's response and her long-term relationship with her father and family are unknown, since the record ends abruptly. But even if the alienation from her family was short-lived, it reveals the risk that women in this frontier community took when they challenged patriarchal authority.
Sepúlveda, like all the women who used the courts to challenge male
heads of households, identified herself as a member of the gente de razón. The extant court records involving Indian women—a total of nine cases—provide no instance of a neófita (baptized Indian woman) or gentil (unbaptized Indian woman) bringing a complaint against a spouse or father. Perhaps the neófitas took their complaints against family members to the priests or governors who exercised greater direct authority over their lives than other non-Indians did. Similarly, the gentiles may have avoided the courts in favor of tribal customs when it came to similar problems. The evidence indicates, however, that Indian women did use local institutions in dealing with non-family members, both Mexican and Indian, who committed depredations against them.
Vitalacia, a married Indian woman who resided at San Gabriel Mission, was the only neófita to bring a complaint to the local court, in this case the criminal court. In 1841, she told the judge that Asención Alipas, a Mexican man who was not her husband, had "maimed and cut [her] with a knife." "Last week," she informed the court, "I was at the mission gathering wheat when Lorena [an Indian woman who worked at the mission] informed me that Alipas had arrived." With a knife in hand, he "approached me and in a derisive tone asked, 'why do you no longer want to be with me?' When I told him [again] that I didn't want to be with him anymore, he took the knife and cut my hand and my braid." Alipas told the judge, "I have been having relations with Vitalacia for about four or five years past, and have sacrificed the earnings of my work in supporting her." When "I arrived at . . . the mission . . . I saw a behavior in Vitalacia that I disliked, [and] I became violent and grabbed her, cutting her hair with a knife." The cut on her hand was of her own doing, he insisted. In "trying to take the knife away from me, she grabbed the blade, and because she refused to let go of it, I pulled on it, and she cut her fingers."
What angered the judge was their extramarital relationship. "What do you have to say about using a married woman?" he asked Alipas. "It is true," he responded. "I recognize my crime, but an offended man becomes violent." Puzzled, the judge pressed his inquiry. "What offense did she commit against you; she is not your wife." Alipas attributed his anger to Vitalacia's disregard for her obligations to him, particularly the sexual services that she owed him for his economic support. "She never appreciated that," he stated. The judge was unsympathetic. He found Alipas guilty of adultery and injuring Vitalacia and sentenced him to labor on public works. He urged Vitalacia, whom he also found guilty of adultery, to stay away from Alipas. Vitalacia's case is significant because it reveals that, although occupying a subordinate position in relation to the community of gente de razón, she used the court successfully to extricate herself from the grip of Alipas, whose gender and ethnic status would have normally placed him in a dominant position.
Women, whether neófitas, gentiles, or de razón, often had the assistance of their immediate families when they turned to the courts or other civil or religious authorities in dealing with men in the larger community. At times, family members, especially fathers or brothers, represented the women, particularly in instances of sexual assaults. The socially and politically prominent gente de razón viewed rape not only as a grave offense against a woman's reputation, or honor, but also as a stain on the family's honor. Hispanic law reflected this attitude, as it allowed male family members to kill a perpetrator who was caught in the act of rape. The threat that rape posed to elite females and their families emerged sharply in 1840 in a criminal complaint filed by María Ygnacia Elizalde, wife of the prominent José María Aguilar, a former local government official in Los Angeles who continued to have political influence. She accused Cornelio López with attempting to rape her. "López broke into my house and entered my room," she told the judge, "with the intent of wanting to use my person in the [sexual] act when he saw me alone. . . . With much struggle I managed to resist the force with which he surprised me. [It was not] until Raimundo Alanis arrived that López separated himself from me, giving me the freedom and opportunity to come [to the court] to report this."
The judge ordered a full investigation followed by a trial at which Elizalde repeated her charges. López, she testified, "tried to force me to have a [sexual act] with him, but I absolutely denied him. He told me, 'why do you not want to have relations with me? Have you not already been with others?' But I continued to resist and, eventually, he relented, but only momentarily. At that moment, he looked out the [bedroom] door to see if anyone else was around, and then returned to my bed to try and force me [to have relations]. He remained an hour, after which time he left, no doubt [because] he saw Alanis sitting outside the door. I then proceeded immediately to complain to the authorities so that they would restrain him."
When López took the stand, he denied forcing her to have sex with him. On an earlier occasion, he stated, she had promised to have relations with him, but, now, when he asked her to comply, she refused, causing him to become incensed. Making him even angrier, he declared, was the extramarital affair that she was having with another man, José Avila.
Presenting the case for the prosecution was Elizalde's husband, Aguilar. The court typically either appointed a prosecutor or asked the aggrieved parties to select one, family member or not. And, usually, those selected were socially or politically prominent in the community. "During my absence," Aguilar began, "in which I had to travel to Santa Barbara, Cornelio López took advantage of my wife's solitude, and with a bold move he profaned the home of an honorable citizen." He continued, "on the morning of the nineteenth of the past month, my wife was resting in her bed from her do-
mestic work, when suddenly Cornelio López appeared and, as if possessed with the devil and with the most obscene words, attempted to force my wife to have carnal relations; my wife, who was surprised to see this man, heroically resisted . . . this treacherous man, who . . . attempted to use her for his pleasure." López's attack, he argued, "disregarded the respect that [was] due to the institution of marriage and [that was among] the duties of a man in society." Upset about the effect of the attack on his social standing in the community, Aguilar declared that "López has made me look like a common alcahueta in public . . . and [has] offended my honor." Furthermore, he told the court, López's "immorality" had not only threatened his marriage, but also that of José Avila. To redeem the "offended honor of [my] wife and family," Aguilar asked the court to banish López for five years to the presidio (military garrison) of Sonoma "where work and reclusion," he continued, "will teach him not to commit such excesses and to respect the society in which he lives; and perhaps then he will be an honorable citizen."
The defense, headed by Juan Cristobal Vejar, argued that Elizalde's gender was to blame for López's behavior. "Man is susceptible to the inclinations of the female sex," Vejar argued. "That the defendant approached an honorable woman is not a crime." López's behavior may have been improper but not criminal. On the other hand, acknowledged Vejar, Aguilar had every right to be angry with López, for his anger is "founded on the insult that López caused by approaching his wife and disrespecting her [married] state." But, Vejar emphasized again, an insult is not a crime.
Before rendering a verdict, the judge waited for the authorities in Monterey to convene the first appellate court. Recent legislation, enacted in Mexico in 1837, required verdicts and sentences in criminal courts, including those in California, to be reviewed by a higher court. (Earlier, appeals had gone to the governor.) The Los Angeles judge waited more than two years for creation of the Superior Tribunal, composed of three justices. Following that action, the judge at last rendered a verdict on López, who all the while had been incarcerated, finding him guilty of the attempted rape of Elizalde. "For having wanted to use with violence a married woman . . . I condemn him for the public satisfaction of José María Aguilar so that the honor of this man's wife is free from damage." Since Lépez had been jailed for nearly three years, however, the judge believed he had served his sentence and so he set him free. The case then went on appeal to the Superior Tribunal, which responded with mixed approval to the courtroom proceedings as well as the sentence: "since the [court] proceedings lack the formal prerequisites that are necessary in overseeing personal injury cases . . . and given the time that Cornelio López has suffered in prison, the judge's decision to free López is approved." López deserved freedom, the Superior Tribunal continued, "not because of the [need for] public satisfaction" of
José Maria Aguilar, but because the Los Angeles judge had committed a procedural error that mandated López's release. To the tribunal in Monterey, the law took precedence over redeeming the honor of Aguilar and Elizalde.
While sexual assaults by Mexican men on Mexican women were considered an affront to the honor of the women and their families, similar attacks on unbaptized Indian women brought dishonor only to the Mexican men and their relatives. Indian women were seen as lesser beings possessing no honor or esteem that could be insulted. This was the message of a rape case involving an Indian woman in 1844. That year a gentil named Anacleto accused two Los Angeles residents, Domingo Olivas, an assistant of the court, and Ygnacio Varelas, a friend of Olivas, of raping his wife at their ranchería near San Bernardino. Anacleto filed his charges with the local judge in San Bernardino, José del Carmen Lugo, who gathered additional evidence and then persuaded a Los Angeles judge to hold a criminal hearing at which Lugo presented his findings. According to Anacleto and other witnesses, Lugo informed the judge, the incident occurred shortly after Olivas and Varelas arrived at the rancheria with the intent of taking Anacleto to the court in Los Angeles (for reasons that do not appear in the public record). They found Anacleto, who was blind, and his wife inside their home. The two then "took the woman," Lugo told the judge, "and used her by force, threatening her with a knife and saying they wanted to kill them both." About this time, "some Indians and a Mexican approached" whom Varelas threatened with the knife." When the "men warned Varelas that they were going to inform the local authorities about what had occurred, he fled the scene."
Varelas challenged Lugo's testimony, insisting that he and Olivas had not sexually assaulted the woman. Rather, they had offered her money for sexual relations, and she had consented. When Olivas testified, however, he contradicted Varelas and admitted to the crime which he attributed to drunkenness. Prior to the incident, he and Varelas had drunk aguardiente (locally brewed alcohol) that blurred their senses and led to the "lewd acts." He begged that the crime not be made public. "In view of my remorse and frank confession, please consider that I am married and have children, and I live in good harmony with my family. Therefore, I ask and beg you that this situation not be made public." He also pleaded with the judge for "a punishment that is prudent and discreet."
The judge was moved by Olivas's appeal. "The confession and guilt of Olivas and Varelas have been established," the judge ruled. "The former has violated a woman by force and the latter was his accomplice. I should condemn Olivas to service in public works," he declared, "but in order not to disrupt his marriage [or] . . . harm . . . his minor children . . . I order Olivas to pay a fine of twenty pesos and his accomplice to pay ten." The judge made no effort to compensate the Indian woman for her (or her family's) loss of
honor, nor did he, in fact, make any reference to a dishonored household. He obviously placed greater value on Olivas's public reputation and family life than on the crime committed against a gentil woman or on her reputation. Clearly, gender along with ethnic and class biases influenced the court's decision in this matter. How often the court demonstrated such prejudices is unclear, since the extant records are incomplete and this is the only surviving case illustrating such biases. Further research in other materials, including the legal records of communities elsewhere, should shed additional light on this important issue.
Beyond dispute is the evidence showing that both Mexican women and neófitas devised extralegal means to contend with figures of authority whose abuses were not effectively checked by local authorities. Some women simply fled from violent households. In 1845, María Presentación Navarro, a single Mexican woman, left her home in Los Angeles because she feared the wrath of her angry father. Earlier that year, she and Antonio Reina, a married Indian man who befriended her father and family, had engaged in sexual relations that resulted in her becoming pregnant. Frightened of her father's reaction, she asked Reina to "help me escape from my father's side. . . . I fear that he will kill me." Reina took her to Rosarito in Baja California. Learning of their flight, her father asked the authorities to apprehend them and to punish Reina who, he believed, "has forcibly pulled her away from her family."
The couple were captured and returned to Los Angeles where a full investigation and trial soon got under way. During the trial, the judge not only learned about the reasons for their flight but also about the tense relations between Navarro and her father. Recognizing Navarro's physical danger as well as the possibility that, in her emotional distress, she or perhaps even her father might kill the child, the judge ordered her "put in reclusion [in a casa de honor] . . . under the care of the owners of the house, [who] will oversee her pregnancy so that an infanticide will not be committed." Keeping her from the public's view would also lessen her and her family's dishonor in the larger community. As for Reina who had impregnated Navarro, the judge "banished [him] to the port of San Diego until Navarro reaches estado [twenty-five years of age] or leaves the municipality."
While the majority of flights involved Mexican women, neófitas also ran away from abusive households. And they, too, had to deal with disapproving male figures of authority, particularly husbands. In 1841, Manuela, a married neófita, left Los Angeles and fled to her mother's home at Las Flores rancheria because of prolonged mistreatment by her husband, a Mexican man. She employed a ruse to escape, asking him for permission to go to the center of town and then hiding in a nearby house, waiting for an opportunity to leave the pueblo. When two men approached on horseback, she asked them to take her to her mother's home at Las Flores. They agreed, but
in the meantime her husband alerted the authorities, who apprehended her at Las Flores and took her back to Los Angeles where she was brought before the judge. When asked why she had left her household, Manuela explained that her husband "always hits me and has me locked up." The judge refused to believe her, concluding that the two men had seduced and then coerced her into leaving her spouse. He ordered Manuela to return to her husband, found the two men guilty of abducting a married woman, and sentenced them to labor several months on public works. Though the court thwarted Manuela's effort to flee her abusive husband, she had nonetheless been willing to chance an escape.
Some women took even more drastic measures to get away from an unsafe environment. Rather than fleeing Los Angeles, they took up with other men in the town. By cohabiting with these men, they brought down on their heads the wrath not only of their husbands but also of religious and civil authorities and the entire community. Petra Varela's decision to leave her spouse for another man in 1847 resulted in her husband, Esteban López, bringing charges of illegal cohabitation and adultery against her and Antonio Valencia, a former employee of the household. "I found my wife and Antonio Valencia locked up in a bedroom," López reported to the criminal court, "and while I overlooked this incident, since then they have continued with their relations. I finally decided to leave the household," he continued, "and yet Valencia remained living there, giving a bad example to the family." When the judge questioned Varela about her behavior, she denied the charges. Valencia "is my servant," she told him. "Since the day he arrived he has consulted only with me; everything [in the household] belongs to me." Though she initially denied having relations with Valencia, under closer questioning she finally admitted to cohabiting with him. Her explanation: "my husband is disinterested and doesn't work . . . and fails to support me." Witnesses corroborated her complaints, testifying that her husband had not supported her for years, forcing her to work in order to pay household expenses, including the wages of several laborers. Even then, she had fallen into debt. López's failure to fulfill his obligations, she argued, had absolved her of any sexual obligations to him and freed her to live with Valencia. The judge held otherwise. "Petra Varela must reunite with her husband and carry out her obligations of matrimony," he ordered. As for her husband López, he "must [meet his obligations] because there are indications that he does not fulfill [his duties]." To guard against a reoccurrence of the incident, the judge banished Valencia to the port of Loreto in Baja California.
Religious authorities also vigorously condemned sexual improprieties like those of Varela and Valencia. When Juana Gómez left her husband in 1837 for another man, the clergy, as was their custom, denounced the couple and used the occasion to preach about the moral evils of adultery. Gó-
mez had abandoned her unhappy marriage in Sonora and gone north to live with Manuel Arzaga in Los Angeles, taking her two children with her. When Tomás Estenaga, the same Mission San Gabriel priest who had been involved in the Casilda Sepúlveda case, discovered that the couple were living as "husband" and "wife," he went to Narciso Durán, head of the ecclesiastical tribunal in Santa Barbara, and obtained permission to ask the civil authorities to end the scandalous relationship. "Arzaga is living with a Sonoran woman named Juana . . . and cohabits with her as if she is his proper wife," Estenaga wrote to Gil Ybarra, a local judge, whom he urged to apprehend the woman and confine her at San Gabriel Mission until her husband could take her home. Ybarra promptly approved the request.
With Gómez under the watch of the priest at San Gabriel, Ybarra traveled there to ascertain the reasons for her behavior. "Who is your spouse? Please state his name and where you were married." "I am a married woman," she responded. "They say I married in Sonora and [that] my husband is there, but it is false. . . . I consider Manuel Arzaga to be my husband. Since the first time we have been together, he has supported and maintained me and I have lived with him." Her explanation did nothing to change the civil and religious authorities' view that she and Arzaga had committed adultery. Durán declared them to be "sacrilegious profaners of holy sacraments," and recommended that she "be restored to the authority of her legitimate husband who will either forgive her or demand that she receive the appropriate punishment, which shall be best, as it will serve as a lesson to all." Judge Ybarra accepted Durán's recommendation, ordering Gómez to return to her husband and banishing Arzaga to San Diego, forbidding him to have contact with her.
Attempts to leave households sometimes led to violence. This was the experience of Ysabel, an orphaned Navajo woman, who, in 1843, attempted to depart from the family that had adopted her in infancy and raised her to be a servant. Ysabel was considered a genízara, or detribalized Christian Indian. In Abiquiu, New Mexico, the family's point of origin, genízaros were captured Indians, most often Navajo and Apache, whom Spanish raiders sold or exchanged for payments in cash or in kind. As spoils of war, they were pressed into domestic service and, for all practical purposes, were slaves.
After toiling nearly her entire life for Guadalupe Trujillo and her family in New Mexico and, later, San Gabriel, Ysabel made plans to leave. The first sign of her intention was her refusal one day in 1843 to complete her household chores. Trujillo reacted angrily to the disobedience. "Why do you refuse to do what I say? Since you haven't cooked the meal, why don't you go and complete the wash," she demanded. "I don't want to, I don't want to be with you any longer, I want to go wherever I please," Ysabel declared in defiance. "Why is it that the Indian women from the mission work less than
I do and [they] have skirts made of indianilla [presumably a fine cloth]? I am leaving the household." "You are not free to go anywhere because I have raised you since you were a child," Trujillo retorted. "I am too free," Ysabel countered. At that instant, Ysabel ran and grabbed a knife from the kitchen and threatened to use it. Alarmed, Trujillo asked, "what are you doing with that knife?" "You'll see," Ysabel responded. Trujillo then tried to take the knife away, and in the ensuing struggle Ysabel's throat was slashed and she fell to the floor, dying a short time later. The Los Angeles court, while not finding Trujillo guilty of murder, nonetheless concluded that she had unnecessarily contributed to Ysabel's death and banished her to Sonoma for three years. On appeal, the Superior Tribunal agreed that Trujillo had committed a crime but it believed that mitigating circumstances called for a different sentence. "It has been proven that Guadalupe Trujillo killed her servant, and for such an act deserves punishment; but as the [punishment] should fit the crime and as the crime Trujillo committed was a homicide done in self defense . . . [we] revoke the sentence of three years of seclusion." Instead, the tribunal ordered her to the port of San Diego for one year, allowing her to remain in proximity to her family in the San Gabriel-Los Angeles region.
The evidence adduced in this paper from the court records of Mexican Los Angeles show that women—Mexican, neófita, and gentil—suffered from discrimination. That same evidence, however, reveals that the discrimination faced by women of different ethnicities and socioeconomic levels did not prevent them from challenging and sometimes checking patriarchal authority whether manifested in the law, government, church, or family. The court cases demonstrate that women took legal and, sometimes, extralegal measures to protect themselves from men who abused them, neglected to provide for them, or unlawfully coerced them. While some women turned to the civil, criminal, and ecclesiastical courts for help, others took matters into their own hands and fled from intolerable lives at home even at the risk of severe punishment by secular and religious officials as well as family members. Despite frequently oppressive laws and cultural norms, there were women—Mexican and Native American—who boldly sought a better life for themselves and their families.