El Paso-based photographer Charles Rose was concerned. He had agreed to take photographs of the popular Mexican curandera and reproduce them for sale. This much was not a problem. It was what Rose did for a living. But Teresa Urrea had attracted a great deal of attention from both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border since she arrived in El Paso in June of 1896, not only because of her miraculous faith healing, but also because of her connection to the recent border rebellions involving Yaqui Indians.

And though Teresa was no stranger to being photographed (she often sat for formal portraits), Charles Rose’s photograph would be different. A Mexican gentleman told Rose to print some text in Spanish and English on the back of the photographs that read: “Señorita Teresa Urrea, Juana de Arco Mexicana” (Miss Teresa Urrea, Mexican Joan of Arc). Although Rose claimed he could not read the text because it was written in Spanish, the photographer still had reason to believe that it might contain language, as he put it, “objectionable” to the Mexican government.

Charles Rose knew the man that gave him the manuscript. Lauro Aguirre, the author of Señorita Teresa Urrea, Juana de Arco Mexicana, was a newspaperman and a friend of Teresa Urrea and her father. He also was also connected to the recent border uprisings in Nogales and other places on the border. Rose knew that Teresa, her father, and Aguirre had the reputation of revoltosos – Mexican exiles and political insurgents who spoke out against the Mexican government from the U.S. side of the border.

He knew that Aguirre, with Teresa Urrea, published an opposition newspaper, El Independiente, which exposed the injustices of the Díaz regime. Rather than do what Aguirre asked regarding the text for the back of the photos, Rose visited Teresa’s father, Don Tomás, and through an interpreter expressed his concern about printing those words. Don Tomás suggested that Rose simply omit his name from the photographs if he was worried about the text. 

Charles Rose did not take Don Tomás’s advice. Instead, under the pretext of needing a “careful and correct” translation, Rose presented the manuscript to Francisco Mallén, the Mexican consul in El Paso. Mallén had the manuscript translated and confirmed Rose’s suspicions: Señorita Teresa Urrea, Juana de Arco Mexicana was indeed “objectionable” to the Mexican government. In fact, it was a revolutionary manifesto that proposed that Teresa Urrea would overthrow the Mexican government: 

“… her undoubted superiority has caused popular sentiment and public opinion to see in her the only person capable of changing the destiny of Mexico, shaking off the tyranny of a Government that assassinates without trial its enemies, who puts towns in flames, and exterminates, like a negro-slaver, the Yaqui and Mayo races… she is the only person who… may lead to duty and redeem a people terrorized by the cruelties of tyranny and benumbed by the fanaticism of the Roman clergy…As it is believed that she will overthrow the present Government causing a change in the political situation of the Mexicans, she is looked upon as the Mexican JEANNE d’ ARC.”

Rose must have known that the text was incendiary. Reaching out to the Mexican consul in El Paso was his way to get the manuscript to the Mexican government and to warn them of another potential border insurrection, or at least to make it clear that he had no part in it if one occurred. Rose recommended himself to the Mexican consul by saying, “I have the greatest respect for your government, and from the fact of recent disturbances with which the leading papers and dispatches appear to implicate these people, I deem it best to act upon your advice.”

As Charles Rose suspected, Teresa, her father Don Tomás, and her friend Lauro Aguirre were not only in El Paso to heal. They were also engaged in a political project that critiqued the Mexican government of Porfirio Díaz — even sought to overthrow it and replace it with a reformed, more enlightened one. In fact, authorities on both sides of the border were coming to believe that the teresista attack on the Nogales Customs House on August 12, 1896 was not a singular event, but may have been only the first in a series of coordinated attacks meant to start a revolution.

“Borderlands Curanderos”


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On August 17, rebels, some of whom were believed to be the same as those teresistas who attacked Nogales, attacked the Mexican Customs House in Ojinaga, Chihuahua (across the border from Presidio, Texas). In early September, across the border from Columbus, New Mexico, fifty armed men believed to be teresistas attacked the Mexican Customs House in Palomas, Chihuahua.

The U.S. consul in Juarez (then Paso del Norte), Mexico wrote a letter to the Assistant U.S. Secretary of State on September 9, 1896, warning him of what he felt sure was the distinct possibility of an attack in the coming days on Juarez by “Mexican malcontents” Teresa Urrea and Lauro Aguirre, who lived on U.S. soil at that moment.

The combination of these three attacks launched from the U.S. side of the border into Mexico within three months in 1896, all in the name of “La Santa de Cabora,” made Teresa Urrea dangerous to both the Mexican and the U.S. governments. The widely-read manifesto, Señorita Teresa Urrea, Juana De Arco Mexicana, addressed the tumultuous situation on the border, harnessed the revolutionary energy around Teresa Urrea, and made agents of the state (and those who supported them) very nervous.

The vision of Mexico presented in Juana de Arco Mexicana was a unique blend of liberalism and radical ideas of equality that appealed to Yaquis, Mayos, and other mexicanos who were disillusioned with the government of Porfirio Díaz. Díaz’s national project encompassed his idea of orden y progresso, a mantra as well as an official program whose ultimate aim was to unify and modernize Mexico by courting foreign investment in enterprises such as railroad production and mining.

This development especially affected the north of the country and created an increasingly larger and discontented agrarian class, including the Yaquis, Mayos, and other norteños.  Teresa Urrea, as the Mexican Joan of Arc, threatened Díaz’s orden y progresso. She specifically addressed — and healed — those excluded from the economic benefits of modernization or targeted by his government, like the Yaquis, who the government deported from Sonora to work on henequen plantations in the Yucatan, or killed for not submitting to the government’s wishes. 

The manifesto proposed that Teresa Urrea was the only one who could save Mexico from this corruption and purify it because of her moral superiority and spiritual purity. The idea of a woman as a superior moral and spiritual being reflects nineteenth century gender ideals prominent in Mexico (and the United States) that positioned women as the protectors of moral and spiritual virtues in the domestic and private sphere, rejuvenating and protecting their families from the corrupting influences of consumerism, urbanization, and technology in the modern world.

Although, in many ways Teresa Urrea did not conform to these 19th century gender ideals, as she traversed the private and public spheres with her healing – and now with her radical publications. However, young, virginal, unmarried women, such as Teresa Urrea, especially as a divinely sanctioned healer, represented the pinnacle of idealized female virtues of spiritual purity and selfless caring for others. Thusly, the Señorita Teresa Urrea, Juana De Arco Mexicana manifesto juxtaposed the idealized feminine virtues of Teresa Urrea against a corrupt and violent government led by Porfirio Díaz. 

Written in Spanish and translated into English, the manifesto intended to inspire support on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border for a rebellion against Porfirio Díaz and to return Mexico to the liberal ideas of the 1857 Constitution that had been betrayed by the Porfirian government: anti-clericalism, civil liberties, individual rights, representative institutions, and constitutional guarantees against despotism.

Teresa Urrea’s cohort and the opposition to Díaz believed these liberal ideals were more important than the collective needs of the nation to modernize. Urrea and her cohort articulated this in another document, the “Plan Restaurador de la Constitución Reformista” (Plan To Return the Reformed Constitution).

Drafted in February 5, 1896 in the Urrea home, just months before the teresista border uprisings, this radical declaration called for a restoration of the Liberal Constitution of 1857. It listed the evils of the Porfirian government including their treatment of the Yaquis and put forth a plan that would severely limit the powers of the government and priests so that all people in the Mexican nation would share the same rights and be treated equally: women and men, Indian and Mexican, rich and poor.

Finally, it called for an armed revolution to overthrow the government of Porfirio Díaz. Even though Teresa, Lauro Aguirre, and Don Tomás Urrea did not sign this revolutionary manifesto, there is ample evidence to suggest they were involved. One scholar suggests that the signature of Mariana Avendano means that Teresa Urrea was involved.

Teresa healed Avendano in Mexico, and the two became close friends when Avendano followed Teresa into the United States and assisted her in her healing practice. The signature of Tomás Esceverría may actually have been a cover for Tomás Urrea, Teresa’s father. Loreto Esceverría was Tomás’s legitimate wife, and it is likely he used her name to protect himself.

Teresa Urrea and her cohort had a distinct and radical vision of what they believed Mexico should be — a spiritual vision that eradicated race, class, and gender inequality. Lauro Aguirre and Teresa Urrea presented these views in yet another publication, a book called ¡Tomochic!, which was published serially in El Independiente, the newspaper found on the bodies of the murdered Yaqui rebels. In describing the Tomochic rebellion, it offered a spiritual vision that proposed Teresa Urrea, curandera and a santa who advocated fair treatment of all races and classes of men and women, should be the savior of the nation.

Although Teresa Urrea never made an appearance in Tomochic (in fact she was in exile in the United States when the Tomochic Rebellion took place), ¡Tomochic! used the Tomochic rebellion to argue the case against the corrupt government of Díaz and promote a nation led by Santa Teresa: “…it is the beginning of a period of true spirituality; it is the beginning of an era in which women will be emancipated, for its heroine – without intention on her part — was a young woman; it is the awakening of the poor, the illiterate, the lepers and the socially segregate.’”

Jennifer Koshatka Seman received her PhD from Southern Methodist University and is currently a lecturer in history at Metropolitan State University of Denver, where she teaches courses in U.S. and Latin American history.