Toypurina has surfaced as a local legend in Southern California over the past few decades. She lived hundreds of years ago and many of her details are disputed or lost to time. Nevertheless, her story is popular in the region, and so much so that it is common to see her likeness on city streets.
Toypurina was a medicine woman of the Tongva, an Indigenous people native to the Los Angeles Basin and the California Channel Islands. They are a tribe that the governments of the United States and California have been slow to recognize because of a history of unratified treaties and stolen unclaimed land.
Fortunately, many institutions in the region have finally begun acknowledging the presence of the people who lived there for thousands of years. With that acknowledgment, Toypurina’s popularity has ticked up. For oppressed individuals in California, Toypurina has become a liberating feminist figure.
Setting the stage: California under Spain
When the British colonized the eastern coast of the United States, the Spanish did the same in the west with the mission system. Their impact was irreversible, and California’s most prominent cities and regions bear their Spanish names (Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, etc).
The 18th century was California’s mission period. A group of Franciscan friars, led by Junipero Serra, arrived with the intent to “evangelize” the region. They said they had divine intentions, saving people with their God. These were just the first steps of Spanish colonization.
Some indigenous people were lured to the missions out of curiosity. Some engaged with the friars and soldiers hoping for trade opportunities. However, once they were baptized into the Catholic faith, they became neophytes. The neophytes lost their freedom. They were forced to labor and prevented from practicing their traditions and leaving the mission grounds.
From San Diego to Sonoma, 21 missions dotted the coast, enforcing Spain’s claim to the land. Many of these missions still stand today as cultural heritage sights or as functioning Catholic parishes. In 2015, Junipero Serra was granted sainthood by Pope Francis, and is often called the “Apostle of California.”
Spain’s influence in California ended after Mexico gained independence and took control of the region. Eventually, the United States would win the territory in the 1840s after the Mexican-American War. The Americans would continue to disregard indigenous rights and culture.
The Legend of Toypurina
In October 1785, one neophyte known as Nicolas Jose approached Toypurina. He was angry. The friars had slowly taken away the ability to practice their culture. This time, they had banned their traditional dances and ceremonies. Angered by this action, he and his allies started planning a revolt.
Toypurina, as a medicine woman, was to use her spiritual powers to aid in the attack. However, she assisted even further by recruiting other villages to join the cause.
On October 25, 1785, the revolt began at night. Toypurina stood by and encouraged people to fight. Unfortunately, the attack was expected and quelled quickly. The Spanish soldiers had overheard rumors of the revolt and knew it was coming.
Toypurina was detained and sent to trial. When asked why she did it, she was one of the few who was open about her involvement in the revolt. She attacked the Spanish with angry words.
She is attributed to saying: “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!”
Toypurina was banished from Mission San Gabriel and forced to assimilate with the Spanish. The Spanish baptized her and sent her to the missions in northern California. She married a Spanish soldier and had three children.
Around the age of 40, Toypurina died in 1799 at Mission San Juan Bautista near Salinas, California.
The most famous account of Toypurina’s story is a 1958 article by Thomas Workman Temple II. It is the most popular work on Toypurina’s life, yet much of it is exaggerated. Temple took many liberties in interpreting testimonies and trial records. Although the Spanish recorded that Toypurina was angry about the friars’ presence in tribal lands, her words in Temple’s account are not considered completely accurate.
Most notably, the legend suggests the Spanish labeled her as a witch and seductress. The Spanish saw her power and influence as nothing more than a woman using the occult and her body to entice men.
Some scholars suggest that her role was exaggerated and twisted. While she made have played a large role in the rebellion at San Gabriel, it is possible that the narrative has fallen squarely on her rather than the other major participants. Even if her role was twisted, it means she took the fall just because she was a woman.
No matter what the truth of the San Gabriel revolt is, her legend persists. Her story is told in local academic settings throughout Southern California. In Los Angeles, those who claim Tongva/Gabrieleno ancestry and experience racial and social oppression see her as a hero. Indigenous scholars have likened her to an Indigenous Joan of Arc, a leader who fought for freedom for her people only to meet a tragic fate.
Regardless of the truth, Toypurina is a symbolic figure who represents feminine strength and the resolve to fight against oppressors and wrongs. In certain neighborhoods of Los Angeles, you may come across murals of her. They remind Los Angelenos of the city’s roots and the continuing presence of the people she once fought for centuries ago.