Toypurina: A Legend Etched in the Landscape of Los Angeles


In Partnership with the South El Monte Arts Posse
"East of East" is a series of original essays about people, things, and places in South El Monte and El Monte. The material traces the arrival and departures of ethnic groups, the rise and decline of political movements, the creation of youth cultures, and the use and manipulation of the built environment. These essays challenge us to think about the place of SEM/EM in the history of Los Angeles, California, and Mexico.

Nestled within communities on either side of El Monte, two vibrant works of public art commemorate the life and the legend of Toypurina. In East Los Angeles, a 60-by-20-foot mural in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights adorns the main wall of Ramona Gardens, a large and well-known public housing complex historically tenanted by Latino families. At the center of the mural, the striking face of a youthful indigenous woman commands all attention. Around her, in technicolor, all the vitality of the Ramona Gardens community is depicted -- from its children enjoying the recently established library, to the lively sporting activities of the community's many young residents. Toypurina, the woman holding our attention, is, according to one of the mural's creators, representative of "the ultimate strength, the woman fighter, the mother who protects her children from harm at Ramona Gardens." 1

A little west of El Monte, at the Baldwin Park Metrolink Station, another monument pays tribute to this spirited Gabrielino woman. Consisting of a 20-foot arch and a 100-foot plaza, L.A. artist Judy Baca's "Danza Indigenas" (1993) is an artistic recreation of an archway from the nearby San Gabriel Mission. Beneath the archway, the mission's abstracted floor plan is etched into the colored concrete of the open plaza that connects the footpath of the Metrolink Station to shelters where commuters wait for trains. According to Baca, her artwork seeks to actively "put memory back into a piece of the land." 2 In particular, a stone mound within the installation is designed as a replica of one the Gabrielinos would have used as a place of prayer, and is meant as, Baca explains, "a tribute to Toypurina." 3

The placement of these artworks in such prominent and populous public spaces, their larger-than-life scale, and the veneration of Toypurina that is their shared goal, marks the presence of an active and shared community memory. These artworks also attest to the fact that even though Toypurina's home was originally in the area closest to the San Gabriel Mission, her life and her legend have extended their relevance far beyond the geographical confines that mapped her mortal life. Through art, history, and memory, Toypurina's story has been woven into the very fabric of the landscape surrounding the specific places where historical events unfolded to make her legendary. This short article touches upon the history of Toypurina's life in connection to the foiled uprising at Mission San Gabriel in 1785, the emergence of new theories about Toypurina's role in the rebellion, and what the longevity of her story might suggest about the communities who claim her.

A Toypurina mural in Pacoima created by HOODsisters, an all womyn crew of artists and public art advocates.

Toypurina and the San Gabriel Mission, 1785

Few details survive about the life of the Gabrielino medicine woman Toypurina, but she is undoubtedly best remembered for her direct involvement in a planned revolt against Spanish colonial rule in 1785. Born into the Kumivit tribe of Southern California from the area around Mission San Gabriel, Toypurina's tribe became known as the Gabrielino (today, their descendants also refer to themselves as the Tongva people) after Spanish contact in the late eighteenth century. Franciscan missionaries at the time had founded more than twenty missions from San Diego to Sonoma between 1769 and 1823. 4 These missions encroached on the lands of numerous tribal nations in the area, exploited the labor of their people, and proselytized for their conversion to the Roman Catholic Faith. From the perspective of the colonists, these missions were intended to act as a chain of defense around the Spanish empire in the north.5

It was in this context that Mission San Gabriel was established, near the banks of the Río Hondo on the southern edge of the San Gabriel Valley in September 1771. The mission remained at its original site for half a decade, until May 1775 when it was moved several miles north to its present site, which is located on Gabrielino land. Historians estimate that in 1770, the Gabrielino numbered about five thousand, and their territory encompassed about 1,500 square miles of the Los Angeles Basin.6 This land included the watersheds of the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, Santa Ana, and Río Hondo rivers, and it extended west to the islands off present-day Los Angeles. Within that territory were more than fifty independent and competing communities, whose populations ranged from 50 to 150. 7 By the time Toypurina became involved in the rebellion against the Mission in 1785, the missionaries at San Gabriel had baptized well over 1,200 Indians, counting approximately 843 Gabrielinos among these baptisms. 8

In an effort to protect the self-sufficiency of their communities, retain their tribal cultures, and uphold their religious practices and beliefs, many Native people at this time had long been actively resisting the imposed Spanish rule and attempts at acculturation. Toypurina emerged as one such individual. In October 1785, she joined a group of Gabrielino neophytes from Mission San Gabriel in their plot against the mission. Most prominent among the instigators of this rebellion was the discontented neophyte Nicolás José, who not only initiated talk of the plan among other Gabrielinos inside the Mission, but also rallied key individuals, including Toypurina, from as many as eight Indian villages in the surrounding area. 9

Historians have concluded that their plan was provoked in the final instance when Spanish officials forbade the practice of traditional dances. 10 Up until this point, the Padres had shown some degree of leniency, permitting a number of Indians to maintain their roles in traditional ceremonies. José in particular is said to have been accustomed to living in ways that allowed him to equally balance commitments in both of his cultural worlds. 11The authoritarian decision to suddenly ban all traditional dances among the Mission Indians was thus the latest in a long string of ongoing affronts and atrocities (violence, rapes, forced religious conversions, and slave labor) committed against the Gabrielinos since the beginning of the Spanish invasion. José and his allies therefore set out to destroy the San Gabriel Mission.

Toypurina by Daniel Gonzalez | Courtesy of the artist and SEMAP

Toypurina's support of this effort is believed to have been crucial, due to her extraordinary powers as a medicine woman. It was intended that she would use her divine influence to immobilize the Catholic priests during the revolt, while her male counterparts would eliminate the Spanish soldiers. 12 On the night of October 25, 1785, Toypurina and the other insurgents attacked the mission as planned, but unbeknownst to them, a corporal of the guard had been informed of the revolt ahead of time, allowing the Spanish to mount an ambush. When Toypurina arrived, she and several others were arrested. Spanish officials held a trial, sentencing five people to twenty-five lashes, and another twelve to receive fifteen or twenty lashes. 13 Rather than torture or kill the offenders behind closed doors, these floggings were carried out in public, so the entire mission population would see the consequences of the rebels' actions.

Likewise, the Spanish officials found Toypurina, José, and two other men (Temejasaquichí and Alijivit) guilty of leading the attack. 14 As punishment, Toypurina was exiled from Mission San Gabriel after being held there as a prisoner for the duration of her trial, and in which time she was also baptized into the Catholic Faith. She was sent to live out her life further north, first at Mission San Carlos Borromeo, located near Monterey in present-day Carmel. There, she remarried, to a Spanish soldier named Manuel Montera. 15 Between 1789 (the year of their marriage) and 1794, Toypurina and Montera had three children: Cesario, Juana de Dios Montero, and Maria Clementina. In 1799, Toypurina passed away at Mission San Juan Bautista, and was buried there. 16

New Historical Understandings

The precise nature of Toypurina's role within the uprising is a matter of some historical debate. It is unclear to what extent she should be understood as its principal leader, and her motivations for getting involved in the first place have been reconsidered by scholars in recent years in light of new historical evidence. At the time of the rebellion, the Spanish reportedly depicted her as a seductress and sorceress -- a witch who used her powers of persuasion to orchestrate the events. While the Spanish may have acknowledged that the idea for the uprising originated with José and others among the Mission Indians, at the trial, they reportedly attributed most responsibility to Toypurina because of her kinship connections and her renown in the area as a powerful medicine woman, which served to intimidate people into joining the cause. Toypurina and her brother were said to have contacted and convinced several people in surrounding villages to participate in the rebellion, giving the plan the necessary momentum and the numbers it needed to get off the ground.

Since the 1960s, historians have continued to view Toypurina as a central player in the rebellion, but they cast her actions as that of a freedom fighter, resisting colonialism in the name of her people. This interpretation has dominated academic circles since 1958, when the historian and genealogist Thomas Workman Temple II became the first scholar to examine the transcripts from Toypurina's trial, and subsequently published an influential article about the rebellion based on his reading of the proceedings. 17 Temple's interpretation of the interrogation transcripts identified Toypurina as the "star witness," and he dramatized various key events that have now become staple features in multiple retellings of her story.

According to Temple's account, as Toypurina was brought into the interrogation room, she kicked aside a stool that was provided by her captors, preferring instead to stand while delivering her testimony. Temple also reported that she was the last of the witnesses to testify, and was quick to take credit for organizing and leading the attack, stating her motives plainly: "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 be done with you white invaders!" 18 According to Temple, these were Toypurina's "exact words," and moreover, he claimed that they were corroborated by the testimonies of the other Indian defendants at the trial, who not only spoke of Toypurina's "bewitching powers," but also identified her as the prime instigator and leader of the rebellion. 19

Toypurina stencil | Courtesy of Whoseland

For the most part, this is also the version of events that has become popularized outside of an academic setting, and which still reverberates most widely in the community memories of places and people connected to this history. In this prevailing understanding of events, Toypurina has become the symbol of Gabrielino resistance to the missions and an icon of California Indian women's resistance to colonial oppression. Toypurina's dramatic story has been publicly and permanently memorialized in this way through the two artworks discussed at the opening of this article, as well as a short film (the trailer of which can be accessed here). 20 The Mission San Gabriel Playhouse is also currently preparing to host a production entitled "Toypurina," which will open in July 2014. The publicity for this stage play promotes Toypurina's heroism and her leadership as the focal point of the story: "Written by two members of the Gabrielino/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, and based on real-life events of their ancestors, "Toypurina" charts the life and times of the play's namesake, a young Native American woman who led a rebellion against injustice and oppression. In 1785, at the young age of 25 and pregnant with her first child, Toypurina used her vision, charisma, and determination to challenge the authority of the Spanish settlers. It was an action that would impact the rest of her life." 21

Most recently, the historian Steven Hackel has reinterpreted Toypurina's involvement in the rebellion. While not calling into question her bravery or her important role in the uprising, Hackel's new historical narrative casts Toypurina's actions in a more nuanced light, and furnishes us with new possibilities for understanding the diverse and complex motivations of the various participants. In contrast to the widely held belief -- both at the time, and in current popular understandings of the history -- that Toypurina was the rebellion's main orchestrator, Hackel suggests that more attention should be paid to the roles of Nicolás José and another organizer, Temejasaquichí. 22 Hackel writes that, "All four of the suspects questioned, including Toypurina, identified Nicolás José, a thirty-seven year-old mission Indian -- not Toypurina -- as the rebellion's prime instigator." 23 Moreover, according to Hackel, it was Temejasaquichí -- not Toypurina -- who visited the mission to convince the neophytes ''not to believe in the Padres but rather only in her.' '24 Whether or not these new insights change our perspective on Toypurina's role in the rebellion, at the very least, they might encourage us to reconsider the extent to which any one person can be held responsible for the execution of the plan.

In revisiting the transcripts from the trial, Hackel also reports that the records provide no indication that Toypurina implicated herself through insolent conduct during her interrogation -- she did not kick over a stool, speak of white invaders, fire-spitting sticks, dirty cowards, or the despoliation of her forefathers' land. 25 Rather, the soldier who recorded her testimony documented only that "she was angry with the Padres and with all of those of this Mission because we are living here in her land." 26 Whereas Temple and later scholars have embellished Toypurina's testimony in order to emphasize the ways in which her actions and words were an indictment of the "white invaders," Hackel reads the evidence in a slightly different way. If taken at her word, Toypurina's statement clearly indicates that her anger was directed towards "all of those of this mission," not only the Padres and soldiers. This is significant, Hackel reasons, because it suggests that Toypurina's grievances may have been directed equally towards "all of those" Indians who lived at Mission San Gabriel. In other words, Hackel tries to move us beyond a straightforward story of Indian solidarity against the Spanish. Instead, he emphasizes the likelihood of multiple and overlapping motivations among the many participants.

Exterior view of the western end of Mission San Gabriel Arcangel ca. 1900 | Photo: Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

To substantiate this suggestion, Hackel takes the local political, social, and economic context into account. For instance, he points out that between 1780 and 1785, the number of Indians, as well as the livestock population at the mission, had increased dramatically. In almost five years, the Mission population nearly doubled, while the number of livestock increased threefold. 27 These dramatic changes were not due to a natural increase of livestock and people already in the area, but rather, the relocation of more than 560 Indians into the San Gabriel Valley from numerous distant villages. 28Many of these newly transplanted neophytes had come to San Gabriel from communities that were historically antagonistic toward villages near the Mission.

Thus, if we bear in mind that these changes in the five years prior to the rebellion were placing inordinate pressure on pre-existing Indian subsistence patterns in the area, and bringing numerous conflicting groups into the San Gabriel Valley, we can start to understand the actions of Toypurina, the other unbaptized insurgents, and the Indians from within the Mission, as being motivated by a far more complex, and potentially quite varied, set of considerations. The attack, according to Hackel's re-interpretation, while obviously part of a general and longstanding effort to resist colonialism and expel the Spanish, was thus also a specific and targeted response led by the Gabrielinos, to reassert their dominance against other newly arrived Indians in the area. In understanding what motivated Toypurina and other participants in the revolt, Hackel therefore underscores the significance of recognizing that multiple goals were at stake. Moreover, Toypurina's actions as a freedom fighter weren't simply and only a response to the Spanish presence; they were also imbued with a long history of inter-tribal conflict and competition that pre-dated colonialism.

Toypurina's Importance for the History of El Monte and South El Monte

Indigenous scholars have compared Toypurina to Joan of Arc because "both were religious leaders of their people, both organized revolts against invading foreign powers, both led rebel forcers in the field, both were betrayed, both were subjected to sham trials, and both suffered tragic ends." 29Toypurina's story has therefore been taken up today by communities who either trace their lineage to the Gabrielinos, or who might in some way relate to a narrative of oppression and resistance. The two works of art first discussed in this article attest to the ways in which two distinct communities in Los Angeles have embraced Toypurina's story as representative of their own. For the artists commissioned to create the mural in Ramona Gardens, it was Toypurina's exemplary strength and her role as a protector of her peoples that made her an obvious choice for their piece, entitled "Conoce Tus Raices," or "Know Your Roots." The artists drew on Toypurina's image and her legend as a means of conveying the important role played by mothers within the Ramona Gardens community in protecting the culture and safety of their children. 30

For Gabrielino traditionalist and Chicana artist Judy Baca, who was hired by L.A. County to erect a monument in the largely Latino city of Baldwin Park, it felt "appropriate" to use her artwork "to put [Toypurina] back into her own territory." 31 In an interview with the L.A. Times, Baca explained that her artwork as a whole aims to portray an "authentic" and "truthful" vision of the area's history. 32 Returning Toypurina to her homeland was thus one means of expressing this vision. She also achieved it by etching carefully chosen words and quotes into different parts of the monument. Under the central arch, for example, is the word Sunigna, the Gabrielino name for the area, as well as a quote from Latino author Gloria Anzaldúa, which states, "This land was Mexican once, was Indian always and is, and will be again." 33 At the most distant shelter from the plaza are engravings of the words "memory" and "willpower," which, according to Baca, are "what any culture -- the ones living then and those living now -- has to have to preserve itself."34 The memory of Toypurina, and the willpower she demonstrated to protect the survival of her people and culture, are thus integral features of this work of public art and memory.

Throughout her life, Toypurina stood as an exemplar of the challenging circumstances and choices that California Indians faced in the wake of Spanish contact and settlement. She openly resisted the mission and participated in an attempt to destroy this symbol of Spanish colonialism in her homeland. After the revolt failed, Toypurina made several adjustments in her life to Spanish colonialism, including her baptism and marriage to a Spanish soldier. As historians have recently pointed out, though, these changes in her later life did not necessarily entail a full acceptance on Toypurina's part, of either Catholicism or the Spanish order. Instead, what it shows is that she and other Native Californians adapted to their circumstances and attempted to shape events to their advantage. It is questionable, for example, whether Toypurina or any other American Indians genuinely accepted baptism or knew the full extent of its meaning. In Toypurina's case, this is especially complicated given that evidence would suggest she had been coerced into baptism, and since she was still imprisoned at the time.

Her adoption of Catholicism may therefore have been evidence of a survival strategy rather than any abandonment of her traditional culture. A similar interpretation of her marriage to Manuel Montera might also be made. Rather than signaling her acceptance of Spanish religion and ways of life, Toypurina may have just been seeking ways to protect herself and survive. Marrying a soldier may have been the most expedient way of safeguarding her future. Though the revolt at Mission San Gabriel was ultimately thwarted, it therefore stands as a symbol of, and testament to, the spirited survival of the Gabrielinos, and of wider indigenous resistance to oppression.

The ongoing significance of Toypurina's story in particular clearly does not end with the foiled rebellion, nor even with her banishment from her traditional homelands. Rather, her life's story in its entirety reflects a narrative of resilience, survival, and a persistent will to adapt to difficult circumstances. Toypurina emerges from the historical record as a woman who not only confronted Spanish colonialism in Southern California, but who also lit a path for the survival and the endurance of her people. Herein lies the continuing significance of her memory and her legend for the present day communities who claim her, in and around El Monte and South El Monte.

Top Image: "Art Heals" by Raul González, Ricardo Estrada, and Joséph "Nuke" Montalvo at Ramona Gardens, East L.A. (2008) | Photo: Daniel Medina

1Raul Gonzalez, 'Interview with Lisbeth Espinosa', cited in L. Espinosa, The Changing Aesthetics of Murals in Los Angeles, MA Thesis, Department of Latin American Studies, California State University, Los Angeles: 2011, 81.
2 Judy Baca, cited in Zan Dubin, 'Muralist Honors California Indians Art: Judy Baca's $60,000 project to spruce up the Baldwin Park Metrolink rail station puts `memory into a piece of land'.' Los Angeles Times, 10 Aug 1993: 8.
3 Ibid.
4 Steven Hackel, "Sources of Rebellion: Indian Testimony and the Mission San Gabriel Uprising of 1785". Ethnohistory 50: 4 (Fall 2003): 648.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid.
10Ibid., 651.
11 Ibid., 652.
12 Ibid.
13Ibid., 655.
15 Ibid., 658.
17 Thomas Workman Temple II. ''Toypurina the Witch and the Indian Uprising at San Gabriel,'' Masterkey 32, no. 5 (1958): 136-52.
18 Ibid., 148-9.
19Ibid., 144.
20 Ralph Nabor, Trailer for 'Toypurina: A True Story', accessed at: <>
21A copy of the production's promotional flier can be accessed at: <>
22Hackel, "Sources of Rebellion", 654-57.
23 Ibid., 651.
24Ibid., 654.
25 Ibid.
26 According to Hackel's reading of the testimony, these were Toypurina's exact words: ''Estaba enojada con los Padres y con todos los de esta mision porque estamos viviendo aqui en su tierra.'' See Hackel, 655, n.75.
27 Ibid., 656.
28 Ibid.
29 Ernest P. Salas Teutimes, et al. Toypurina: The Joan of Arc of California. Kizh Tribal Press, 2011.
30 Raul Gonzalez, 'Interview with Lisbeth Espinosa', cited in L. Espinosa, The Changing Aesthetics of Murals in Los Angeles, MA Thesis, Department of Latin American Studies, California State University, Los Angeles: 2011, 81.
31 Judy Baca, cited in Zan Dubin, "Muralist Honors California Indians Art: Judy Baca's $60,000 project to spruce up the Baldwin Park Metrolink rail station puts 'memory into a piece of land'." Los Angeles Times, 10 Aug 1993: 2.
32 Ibid.
33 Ibid., 1-2.
34 Ibid., 2.< />< />

This piece was originally published on Tropics of Meta in January 2014.