She claimed to have spoken to the Virgin Mary. Many believed she could heal with her touch. Rebellions were undertaken in her name. Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz called her “the most dangerous girl in Mexico.”
Who was this Mexican Joan of Arc? This beautiful young woman with the soulful eyes who became Saint Teresa to the common folk?
She was born Niña Garcia Noña Maria Rebecca Chavez on October 15, 1873, in Rancho de Santana, Sinaloa, Mexico. She was the illegitimate daughter of a fourteen-year-old Tehueco Indian and wealthy rancher and political figure, Don Tomás Urrea. While Don Tomás acknowledged her as his child and gave her his name, she was raised in the Latin fashion by her mother and the other women in her circle.
She was strikingly beautiful, strong, vivacious, and precocious. She did not attend school but around the age of nine learned to read. At this time she began calling herself Teresa. But it was her apprenticeship under an old Indian woman, a folk healer or curandera, that was to set the course for Teresa’s life. The curandera taught Teresa how to treat the sick and injured with herbs. She was a midwife and took Teresa along to deliver babies. It was said that Teresa could make the birthing less painful by using a form of hypnosis on the women in labor.
Even as a young girl, her father and others seems to recognize her special ability to put people at ease by a simple touch or a look into her dark eyes. Word spread about her miraculous ability to heal. She was unselfish in her aid, giving it freely. This talent afforded her a status that someone of her station in life could not have hoped for otherwise.
In 1880, Don Tomás, involved in his country’s politics, backed the candidate who ran against Porfirio Diaz. Fearing reprisals from the brutal new dictator, Tomás moved his family, including Teresa, to Cabora, Sonora. It is believed that around 1889 when she was 16, Teresa was assaulted and possibly raped. The incident plunged her into a coma, or a type of cataleptic state, that is said to have lasted several months. The doctor, at one point being unable to find a heartbeat, pronounced her dead. She was about to be buried when she sat up in the casket. When she awoke she claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary. One source says she continued to slip in and out of the “trance” and her healing powers became even more powerful.
Crowds began to gather outside her door, common people begging for her blessing and her healing hand. Hundreds of people every day lined up to see her, and she continued to give her aid freely. She became the Divine Teresa to these humble peasants. She began to stand up for the villagers in their struggles against the corrupt and cruel government of Diaz, who took their lands and forced them to work as slaves in the mines and on distant plantations, and who controlled every aspect of their lives. Although Teresa always claimed she was not active in politics, she often spoke out for the people and was quoted as saying, “God intended for you to have the lands, or he would not have given them to you.”
Several Indian tribes feeling empowered by her words started to fight back against Diaz’s cruel treatment. The best known rebellion involved several Indian tribes who defeated Diaz’s federales in the village of Tomochic. They held off Diaz’s soldiers for several weeks before the village was burned to the ground. The people of Tomochic practically worshipped Teresa, going so far as to have an icon of her in the church. After this battle the rebels began calling themselves Teresitas, and their battle cry became, “Viva la Santa de Cabora!” The Saint of Cabora.
Porfirio Diaz became concerned about the power Teresa was having over the people, even though she did not appear to be directly involved in the uprisings. And Diaz had not forgotten about her father’s loyalties and support of his opponent. After another small uprising, Diaz ordered the Urreas deported from Mexico. Five hundred soldiers showed up to enforce the exile. The entire family left for Nogales, Arizona, arriving by train in 1892. Still, people continued to clamor after Teresa, wanting to touch her, to ask for her healing powers. The family would subsequently move to El Bosque, then Solomonville, seeking peace and distance from the talk of Mexican revolution and conspiracies that always managed to involve Teresa.
She maintained her innocence, but to escape imprisonment, her father moved the family again in 1896 to El Paso, Texas. Teresa could not escape her notoriety. As soon as she arrived, there were 3,000 people who had come from all over the region seeking her miraculous cures, camping out, waiting for her. Those coming to see her now were not just peasants but the wealthy and prominent as well. She is said to have seen over 200 people a day while in El Paso.
The Indians attacked again in her name, this time on the customhouse in Nogales. She made a statement for the El Paso Herald which read: “The press generally in these days has occupied itself with my humble person in terms unfavorable in the highest degree, since in a fashion most unjust--the fashion in the republic of Mexico; they refer to me as participating in political matters; they connect me with the events which have happened in Nogales, Sonora in Coyame and Presidio del Norte, Chihuahua where people have risen in arms against the government of Sr. General Don Porfirio Diaz... I have noticed with much pain that the persons who have taken up arms in Mexican territory have invoked my name in aid of the schemes they are carrying through. But I repeat I am not one who authorizes or at the same time interferes with these proceedings. Decidedly I am a victim ... expatriated from my country since May 19, 1892.”
Teresa faced harassment and death threats from not only the Mexican government, but the United States government and the Catholic Church, forcing her father to move their family again, this time to Clifton, Arizona. Teresa resumed her healing practices, and in 1900 married a man her father didn’t like or trust. The man was Guadalupe Rodriguez, a Yaqui Indian and miner who, the day after the wedding, seemingly went berserk and tried to shoot her. Some believed he might have been a hired assassin under orders of Diaz. He was sent to an insane asylum and Teresa, at the suggestion of a friend, moved to California, becoming estranged from her father who remained in Arizona.
She took up healing again and hired an interpreter named John Van Order to assist her. She did not marry again but had two daughters with Van Order (1902 and 1904). They lived as husband and wife. When her father died in 1902 of typhoid fever, she was inconsolable. She and her family returned to Clifton, but her healing powers began to fade. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and died in 1906 at the age of 33, leaving her children in the care of a friend. She was buried next to her father.
Many believed that Teresa used up her healing powers on others. And that, coupled with the shock of her father’s death and the stress of her short life, she had no strength or willpower left to fight her own illness. Teresa Urrea is remembered still, and many continue to seek spiritual guidance and inspiration in her name, believing she was a true saint.