Sunday, December 09, 2007

Women of the West, Part 3

A brief mention of Maria Gertrudis Barceló (aka "La Tules") in Andy Lovato's Santa Fe Hispanic Culture, one of the texts for the class in the American Southwest that I took this fall, inspired me to find out a bit more about her.

According to Lovato, "Tules" is an affectionate diminutive of Gertudis. La Tules was born in Sonora, Mexico in 1800, and moved into the New Mexican territory as a child with her younger sister and widowed mother. She married Manuel Antonio Sisneros of Tomé in 1823, and in 1825 moved with him to a mining camp near Santa Fe. She started a gambling house and saloon at the camp, which she later relocated to West Palace Avenue, at the corner of Burro Alley, in Santa Fe. According to contemporaneous sources, the "Sala" was an opulent and popular facility, and Doña Tules (the Spanish equivalent of "Miss Trudy") was a renowned Monte dealer. She amassed a fortune from her business dealings during the 1830s and 1840s, which included trade deals and investments in addition to her income from gambling.

She was described as charming, beautiful, fashionable, shrewd, witty, and brilliant. She was also politically influential--during the 1840s she was a close friend (and probably mistress) of Manuel Armijo--the last Mexican governor of New Mexico.

Doña Tules, like a number of other New Mexicans, sided with the Americans when the US declared war on Mexico in 1846. She loaned money to Gen. Kearny to help him meet his payroll, supposedly in return for receiving a military escort to the Victoria Ball at the La Fonda Hotel. She also apparently alerted US authorities to a Mexican/Indian conspiracy in late 1846/early 1847. Her "Sala" undoubtedly provided a cultural bridge between the Americanos and the Nuevomexicanos, and she certainly was repaid her loan to the Army by the gambling losses of American troops!

La Tules died in 1852, leaving three houses, livestock, and cash to various family members, as well as money to the Church and city officials to be used for charitable purposes.

A highly fictionalized and romanticized account of her life is the subject of Ruth Laughlin's 1948 novel, The Wind Leaves No Shadow. The true history is harder to find! In an 1950 article in El Palacio, the historian Fray Angélico Chávez set out to find out the truth about her, which he reported as "new but not sensational." According to Chávez, her fellow Santa Feans (including church and community leaders) were tolerant and accepted her for her good deeds and status in the community. According to Chávez, "to the Latin there was nothing in the law of nature or in the scriptures that labeled tobacco, liquor, or gambling as sins in themselves. . . These activities were pleasant forms of recreation and relaxation and of social well-being."

Note on 12/13/07: A recent biography by Mary J. Straw Cook, Doña Tules: Santa Fe's Courtesan and Gambler, a book I discovered after my original post on this topic, may shed some more light on this fascinating figure.

Illustration Credits

The black and white engraving above of La Tules smoking a cigarrito (powdered tobacco rolled in pieces of corn husk--with all the materials carried in a pouch at the waist) was made in 1854, two years after her death, for Harper's Weekly.

The illustration of La Tules dealing cards at her gambling house was done by Bill Hughes for New Mexico Magazine in 1971. Here he depicts his subject as she was described by Susan Shelby Magoffin in 1846, "a stately dame of a certain age, the possessor of . . . that shrewd sense and fascinating manner necessary to allure the wayward, inexperienced youth to the hall of final ruin."

The illustration at the top of this post is a more recent one by Diana Bryer, commissioned by La Herencia, a magazine of New Mexican heritage and history. Bryer says of her subject: "She was the wealthiest woman in the Territory, a successful business owner, . . . an emancipated woman and a role model for others, although the easterners who came to Santa Fe judged her by their own puritanical standards. I decided to portray her with a cigarette in her mouth because at that time smoking was a symbol of liberation for women. I tried to be as accurate and historically correct as possible in depicting the furnishings and clothing from the era, since Doña Tules set a fashion trend that was admired by many local women, and may well have contributed to the 'Santa Fe Style' still popular today. . . . Her shawl is from Spain circa 1822; at her side is her reputed lover and confidant, Governor Manuel Armijo. Also standing next to her is Padre Felipe Ortiz, the Vicar of Santa Fe. . . . Sitting on either side of the table are an eastern trader and a Native American trapper."

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