The illegitimate child of a wealthy Mexican landowner and a Tehueco Indian servant, Teresita Urrea was born in Ocoroni, Sinaloa, Mexico, on Oct. 15, 1873.
She lived with her mother Cayetana Chávez who worked for her father, Don Tomás. Her full name was Niña Garcia Nona Maria Rebecca Chávez but her petite stature and lively spirit soon earned her the nickname Teresita.
She was born shortly before Mexico fell under the autocracy of General Porfirio Diaz who became president in 1876. The general ordered Tomás, who refused to support Diaz, to abandon his Ocoroni homestead.
Tomás settled most of his flock on his ranch in Cabora in Sonora, but relocated some of his servants, including young Teresita and her mother, on his property in nearby Aquihuuiquichi. Around 1888, Don Tomás sent for the 15-year-old to live with him at Cabora.
Spending much of her time with the curandera (healer) Huila, who had overseen the Tomás household for years, Teresita learned about the herbs and plants that the old woman used to cure ills and set the bones of those at the hacienda and surrounding villages.
Weeds, grass, tree roots, even cactus were all part of the Huila’s medicine bag. Before long, Teresita could distinguish the plants that would ease the pain of childbirth, cure a lingering illness, or calm a distressed patient.
About a year after she arrived at Cabora, Teresita was stricken with an unexplainable cataleptic state. For almost 2 weeks she lay without moving, taking no food or water, her breathing barely discernible. Don Tomás ordered the construction of her coffin.
Suddenly, Teresita sat up and proclaimed she had spoken with the Virgin Mary who told Teresita she now possessed extraordinary powers and should use them to cure and comfort those in need.
Seeing the coffin, Teresita proffered it would soon be needed for someone else. Huila died 3 days later and was placed in the coffin meant for Teresita.
Villagers flocked to the Urrea hacienda in search of a miracle cure from Teresita. Often, she would go into a trance only to wake and administer her healing powers. Sometimes she scooped up a handful of earth and mixed it with her saliva to elicit a cure while her compelling eyes held the patient in a trancelike state. Her ministrations bewitched the local Indians, particularly the Tomóchic who hailed her as their patron saint, calling her “La Santa de Cabora.”
As word spread of Teresita’s skills and talents, she attracted the attention of the Catholic church and Porfirio Diaz. She drew the wrath of the church by suggesting the prayers of priests were not necessary, that one could pray directly to God. In 1891, the church denounced her as a heretic.
President Diaz considered her an agitator who riled the Indians against his government. He destroyed the Tarahumara village of the Tomóchic and placed Teresita under surveillance. In 1892, he ordered her to leave Mexico. Don Tomás and Teresita crossed into the United States at Nogales that July.
Diaz soon realized his mistake in letting the girl go, as he had no control over her influence among the native people. His request to U.S. authorities to return her to Mexico went unheeded.
Don Tomás first took his daughter to Tucson and later to the community of San Jose near the New Mexico border. They eventually moved to El Paso, Texas, but wherever she lived, the sick and injured followed, begging for the touch of Teresita’s hand.
In 1897, they moved to Clifton, Arizona. Local citizens soon came knocking on Teresita’s door for respite from innumerable troubles. Stories circulated that she helped ease the suffering of a young Clifton boy stricken with polio.
Teresita foresaw her own marriage but also envisioned her husband would try to kill her.
In 1899, she fell in love with a local miner, Guadalupe Rodriguez. Defying her father, Teresita married Rodriguez on June 22, 1900.
The following day, Rodriguez ordered Teresita to prepare to return to Mexico. When she refused, he forced her out of the house, dragging her along the railroad tracks. He rushed ahead of her, pulled his gun, and shot at his new wife, barely missing her.
Eventually caught, Rodriguez was found insane and sent to an asylum. Whatever his motives, Teresita presumed her husband was an agent of President Diaz sent to return her to Mexico. The marriage lasted all of one day.
Knowing she had hurt her father by marrying against his wishes, Teresita moved to California, hoping distance would heal the wounds between father and daughter. She never saw Don Tomás again.
Newspapers in California exploited the story of the “miracle worker.” One report said she cured a young girl while another story claimed she alleviated the pain of a boy suffering from spinal meningitis even though five doctors had pronounced him incurable.
A medical company hired her to travel across the country to heal people free of charge. Needing a translator, she traveled with a young man she had known in Clifton, 19-year-old John Van Order. News soon spread that Van Order and Teresita had married, even though her divorce from Rodriquez would not be final for 3 years.
In 1902, while living in New York, Teresita gave birth to a daughter, Laura. That same year, Don Tomás died of typhoid fever without reconciling with Teresita. He is buried in the Clifton cemetery.
After moving to Los Angeles, Teresita found herself pregnant again. She returned to Clifton where her daughter, Magdalena, was born in 1904.
With her earnings from the medical company, Teresita built a house in Clifton and planned “to nurse the sick to health and to heal the wounds of the injured.” When she was diagnosed with tuberculosis, doctors forbid her to see patients.
As time began to run out for Teresita, she predicted that her mother, who she had not seen for many years, was on her way to see her. Cayetana Chávez arrived just before Teresita died on Jan. 11, 1906, at the age of 33.
More than 400 attended her funeral in Clifton. She is buried in the area in an unmarked grave.