Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Juana Briones de Miranda

Here is a topic for your child or grandchild taking California history to write about. Briones was born in 1802 in Santa Cruz. Her maternal grandparents and mother were part of the deAnza expedition in 1776, choosing to escape the rigid, complex racial caste system of Mexico for better opportunities in an unknown land. Her mother married one of the many soldiers who came to protect missions from Indians and incursions from other countries' explorers.

Juana and her siblings grew up in the San Francisco presidio, where in 1820 she married one of its soldiers, Apollinario de Miranda. There she bore eight children and adopted a Native American child as well. When her husband retired, they moved to what is now North Beach in Yerba Buena, where she kept a vegetable and herbal garden, as well as raised cattle for the hide-and-tallow trade. From her extended family she had learned the complex skills of natural medicine and was a renowned midwife and curandera who treated visiting sailors as well as local residents. She also learned from Native Americans, whose instructions helped her manage a small pox epidemic in Marin in 1834, and the setting of broken bones.

Briones challenged even the church authority by appealing to the bishop for a sancioned separation from her alcoholic and physically abusive husband in 1844. "Your Lordship, my husband is the greatest obstacle placed before my children, because from him they learn nothing but swearing, blasphemy, and ugly, lewd, and dissolute behavior. How will I excuse myself before God, if I do not seek, as much as I can, all possible means of ridding my family of such as bad example?" Nevertheless, the curate repeatedly ordered her to return her family home, which she refused. This was a most rebellious act for a woman of her belief and culture. Eventually she dropped her husband's name and referred to herself as a widow.

Juana had always been close to her sisters, using them at times for refuge, and purchasing with them lands beyond Yerba Buena. In 1844 she acquired the 4,400 acre Rancho La Purisima Concepcion covering parts of what is now Palo Alto and Los Altos. The adobe home she built remains and is part of a historic preservation effort. There continued her very successful ranching business and contributions to her community, with help from no men, including any of her sons, nor other male relations.

Briones is one of many Spanish-speaking women from this early period who broke beyond the restricted Mexican culture. Of mixed-race, she was able to achieve what would have been impossible in her mestizo grandparents' homeland, where emphasis on whiteness was obsessive and essential to advancement. She was able to take advantage of the Spanish culture's more liberal view towards women owning or inheriting property. Finally, in her standing up to the church, she would represent one of many whose challenge would spark a move toward secular government and society.