The birth of Juana Birones as told to her by her midwife ( historical fiction)
Daughter of Maria Isadora Tapia and Marcos Barones
You ask me to tell you the story of your birth and of your mother. Come Juana, walk with me and I will tell you this story. I need to go to the mountains to dig roots for my medicine bag. They are hard to find now and I will need your help.
You were born in a time of many changes. It was a time to help one another. It was a time when more of my people were dying of the measles and smallpox than were being born. It was a time when our ways were dying and a new way was being born. This was the time you were born in.
Your mother, gone now from the sickness, was my friend. She was an Indio from Mexico. I remember the day she came to our land to build the mission and a new pueblo. I can still see your mother, walking with her husband, Marcos, over the fields with your older brothers and sisters. They had a mule pulling a cart with all the things they owned. Your brother was riding a horse. We did not use animals to help us with our work and we did not have the wheel so this was a strange site to us.
We were a peaceful people and did not know anything of war and colonial powers. We were curious and friendly. We had seen ships before but no one had ever come to stay amongst us or to build a pueblo. We had lived happily before the Spanish came.
Your mother was the daughter of a healer and had learned the way of plants from her mother who had learned it from her grandmother in the place they call Mexico. Her mother was Indio; a different tribe than mine but Indio. Her father was African and Spanish. He and your mother had not been treated well in that place. The Spanish promised them many things if they walked all this way to help build the missions and make settlements for the king of Spain.
Your father had hoped to start a fine villa here for retired soldiers. But ah, their homes were nothing but sticks and mud. Always they tried to turn the dirt into walls but when it rained,the walls washed away and the roof leaked.
Because your mother, Maria, was my friend and willing to learn the ways of our people I taught her how to weave her walls with tule so that her home would be warm and dry.
At the mission they made adobe bricks all day long. Always I saw the big hole with the mud and grasses and the little boys mixing it with their bare feet. On the day you were born, your mother had sent your brothers to return the cows the family had borrowed from the priests. The mission did this. They gave you a cow until she had babies and you could start a herd of your own. On the day you were born they had their own herd and Maria wanted to return the mission cow. She said it would bring good fortune to the baby and sent Felipe and Gregorio with the cow. When they got there they must have joined the other boys in mixing adobe. I know this because when they came to greet you, their feet and legs were covered with dry mud and grasses and your mother would not allow them to come in her house until they washed.
You were your mother’s sixth baby and her life was not so easy. The villa had not turned out as she had hoped. Instead of a model villa it became a place known for gambling and drinking and many bad things. Maria stayed mostly with us or went to the mission to help the Padre. I felt much loneliness in her but she hid it with her gentle songs and fine sewing.
Now the mission has fallen down but back then it was new with gardens and cattle and a school for the boys. My own sons went to work there and in that way did not learn the old ways as they would have before the Spanish came. It was a sad time for me but ah, your mother loved the mission.
She also loved the wild plants and was eager to know everything about them. I was lonely for such a friend and took her with me into the hills and canyons.
I told her of our life before the sickness came and how we would all go together to gather seeds in the meadow. How delicious they tasted roasted in a basket that night for dinner. How proud I had been as a young girl the first time I harvested the seeds of the meadow.
It was our way to burn the fields each year so we would have many seeds to harvest and so the elk and deer would come near our homes and be easy to hunt.
The Spanish did not want us to burn our fields anymore so it was hard to find seeds. Maria tried to argue with her husband to let us burn the fields but he said the Spanish wanted the field for the horses whose hooves have taken away all the life of that place.
On the day you were born, Maria, your mother begged me to go with her out beyond the pueblo. She wanted to look for seeds and roots for our medicine bags. She looked for quiet places as our pueblo was loud with soldiers, guns, animals and people shouting.
On the day you were born, the fog drifted away early, so we knew the seeds would be dry and fall easily into our baskets. We climbed high above our village and into the canyons. Although your mother was round like a great melon, we walked lightly and laughed like young girls. We rested to watch the whales returning with their babies from Mexico. Your mother laughed and said, “They too traveled far to have their babies.” We waved to them and watched them on their journey.
Later I teased her and said it was the sight of the mother whale with her young, that caused you to begin your birth journey. I watched my friends face. Her hands went to her round belly where she rested them and waited. I waited with her. When another did not come, she shrugged and we continued up the hillside to a place where we could see the Villa de Branciforte and the Mission Santa Cruz and the bay of Monterey.
We found a field my grandmother had shown me many years ago. It was not as good as the ones we burnt but it had, she said, the sweetest seeds of all.
We spoke of the world you would be born into. It was not a world either of us knew or understood but it was the one we were given. You moved a great deal. We laughed and said you must want to see this lovely field and the baby whales. It was good in those times to be strong and curious and to laugh with a good friend.
The strong feelings of birth, were coming to your mother but the sun was warm and there were more seeds to gather. We used the special baskets of my mother’s; their weave so tight they could hold water. The Spanish used pottery but it was never as strong as our baskets.
As we were talking and gathering seeds, a bear wondered over the hill and stared at us. We backed slowly down the hillside keeping our eyes on the place the bear had gone until we were sure we were safe.
At this time you became very impatient. You had not seen the whales or the bear or the special field where the seeds still grow. You wanted to see the world for yourself and though we spoke to you in cooing and calming ways all the way home, you were strong and impatient. Your mother was barely able to stand straight and often had to lean on me for strength.
When we came near the villa the people could see that you were ready to be born. I sent for someone to go to my house and get my bags and another person to get Marcos who had become a comisiando and was trying to enforce the laws of the villa.
Maria and I were still recovering from fright of the bear and were all of a sudden overcome with relief and laughter.
Your home was cozy and warm with the skins of many animals as well as the blankets from the mission. and a few kitchen items. Marcos rushed in after us and soon your grandmother joined us. I ordered everyone around like a solider in the Spanish army. “Make a fire. Heat the rocks for the water. Get out the best rabbit skin and find my obsidian rock for the cord.”
The women of the pueblo gathered outside, under the shade of the arbor. They wanted to come in as was our custom but your mother was not accustomed to so many people watching her give birth.
The excitement of a birth is the best kind of busy. We could tell by your mother’s breath that the time was very near. Her eyes were black and looked towards me for reassurance. Her hair was still wet from climbing the mountain and it fell gently over her face. Your mother was a beautiful woman.
Your grandmother held your mother gently in her arms so she could bring her body down near the earth. Her great feet that had walked all the ways from Mexico were flat upon the dirt floor. Her hands gripped her mother’s. I lifted her dress modestly above her knees and began my silent prayers.
Marcos lit candles and filled the small room with light. It was a gift from the Padre. So many candles I have never seen for a baby’s birth.
Your older sister, Guadalup, brought me warm water in a basket. I put the birth herbs in there. Their smell filled the room. Gently I covered her legs with this warm water and in time her own water filled the room, mixing with the smells of the plants and the warm wax of the candles.
I wet her mouth gently with sweet water from the spring.
It was silent save for Mariah’s breath and then with a low groan she moved ever so slightly, released her mothers hands and reached down to catch you in her own hands.
You did not cry but looked at us and your home with determination and curiosity I remember even today. You
were born with the spirit of the bear.
Your mother, tired then, laid down and began to let you nurse. The boys came in with their muddy feet. Everyone laughed and the silence was broken. Marcos said it was time for a fiesta.
It was a time of few births in our pueblo so everyone was very happy.
Your grandmother burned the placenta, as was our way. She threw the ashes in a sacred place for good luck.
I became bossy again and made everyone leave while I cut the cord with the obsidian rock and tied the cord with the sinew of the deer. Your grandmother brought your mother a warm broth. Your father, Marcos, came in and sat beside you as the tallow candles slowly burned down and you slept once again.
While I was busy cleaning your home and gathering my things I heard your father say this to your mother.
“I have never given you the Rancho I promised you when I married you but my children and you are all the riches I need. You are more precious than all the gold of California.”
Then he leaned down and kissed you, his new daughter.
Yes, Juana, I remember your Mama and the day you were born and the place where there are still seeds to gather. The place where we saw the whales and the bear on the day you were born. I will show you now so you will remember.
Juana was born in 1802. In her life time Mexico would gain its freedom from Spain. The place they called Altos California would, for a few brief days be its own republic, before becoming part of the United States. The mission system, which caused the death of her midwives people, ended when she was thirty. Gold would be discovered, bringing thousands of people to this land. Juana, born in the midst of so much change, was as strong as her mother and midwife predicted. Although she became a prosperous business woman and land owner, she never forgot the lessons of her mother and was known as a healer and midwife to all she knew. Although her father never owned the Ranch he dreamed of, Juana worked hard and came to own several ranches. One of them is in present day San Francisco; the city she is honored now for helping to establish.