Saturday, October 29, 2016

Girls of Early California by Anne Schroeder

Hi, Thanks for having me. My name is Anne Schroeder and I’ve spent most of my life living around the California Missions that sit beside El Camino Real, The King’s Highway, a former wagon track that brought Padre Junipero Serra and his motley crew of soldiers and brave families from Spain.

Life in early California was clearly a guy’s thing. Back in the day, a true caballero, a highborn Spaniard man, didn’t do anything he couldn’t manage from the back of a horse. Women rode side saddle, with huge skirts that frightened their mares. There were two kinds of Spanish horsewomen: Experts and dead.

Spanish papas trotted out their daughters at 14 to bat their eyelashes over the tops of their fans at eligible bachelors. But no kissing allowed! Once Papa arranged a marriage, the bride’s job was to start producing a family. Sisters competed against sister to see who was the most fertile and each couple often produced 24 or more children. Starting early was the key. Sixteen was considered a spinster. Too much education was thought to weaken the body, so girls weren’t taught to read or even to sign their names.

El Camino Real crawled with wild and licentious men looking for opportunity. Soldiers carried disease from the brothels and prisons of Mexico City. Later, starving Yanqui gold miners ransacked the land. Indian girls were the only available females.

As was done to protect the señoritas in their homeland, the Padres built a rectangular room called a monjerio. Indian girls were taken from their families at age 8 and taught to conduct themselves like “little Spaniards,” and to prepare themselves for marriage. When a girl received a proposal of marriage, she left and took up married life in a small apartment or a tule hut with her husband. If she never married, she remained in the monjerio and taught the younger girls.

The girls were locked inside each night. The Padre kept the key, usually under his pillow so that no one had access until the maestra led the girls to morning prayers. The maestra was a Spanish woman of good virtue, a wife of one of the soldiers, who never let the girls out of her sight. She spent her days overseeing these girls and teaching them to cook, sew, spin, clean, hoe, wash clothes and keep their bodies immaculate.

The adobe rooms of the monjerio had high adobe walls and usually only a single window for young Indian men to stand outside until the girl made up her mind about him. This could take several visits while she tested his sincerity. The room was crowded and often smelled like a stable, but the suite usually had a patio with shade trees and a fountain. Mission Santa Barbara’s was 47 feet by 19 feet and held from 100-150 girls.
Maria Ines, my newly released historical fiction, tells the story of a Salinan Indian girl from Mission San Miguel Arcángel. She witnesses the political intrigue and greed of Spanish, Mexican and Yanqui invaders who plunder California, destroying everything she loves. She struggles to survive while she reclaims her family, her faith and her ancestral identity. You can request that your local library order a copy. My publisher, Gale/Cengage sells to the library market as well as in bookstores and online.   or


Andrea Downing said...

Welcome to Cowboy Kisses, Anne, especially with such a fascinating post. I realized the upbringing of a Spanish/Mexican maiden was strict but not like this! Thanks for sharing this with us.

Anne Schroeder said...

Andrea, it was a harsh land and duenos (tilda on the n) were expected to keep the maidens in line. That and papa's wrath. I think it's the same in other parts of the world today. I'm glad I'm a modern gal. Thanks for the comment.

Unknown said...

Hi Anne. I've got a question for you on a non sequiter historical woman topic.
Another writer and I disagreed about the rules of nursing a baby during this time period. She had written that a mother sat in a quiet corner in the lobby of the hotel, covered herself with a blanket, and nursed her child.

I don't have the historical knowledge that you possess, but this seems wrong for Caucasian or Spanish culture. Because southern women weren't even supposed to expose their ankles, I wouldn't be surprised if you said women had to stay home until the child was weaned

Do you have any info about nursing etiquette and did it vary by culture?

Good article. Thanks for the insights. Good luck on the book.
BK Froman

Brigid Amos said...

The women back then really had to be tough to survive at all!

Anne Schroeder said...

Dear Unknown, There were no hotels in the Spanish era. The Missions supplied hospitality free of charge to all travelers. The Indians provided all the food, bedding, etc. including food and wine for the journey. In regards to nursing, the sexes were strictly segregated. The women spent their days in the hacienda. When they traveled, a nursing mother would ride in the carreta (ox cart) with her baby. In either case she would nurse in privacy, probably with a blanket thrown over her. I can't imagine a situation where men would be able to encounter a nursing mother. They were extremely modest, naturally and coupled with the strict teachings of the Church.

Anne Schroeder said...

Brigid, for sure.