Mexico, Pastrana's Origins (1834-1854)

Julia Pastrana, Ad

An early promotional image of Pastrana

Although many scholars have accepted the promotional materials' rendition of Pastrana's origins, this chronology works to establish a history of her life in Mexico by using accounts of oral histories and contemporary documents. At this point, it will feel more tenuous than the other parts of my chronology. My purpose here, though, is to distance her life story from a narrative generated to attract an audience for her performances by emphasizing her difference. I hope that future research will allow us to establish more definitively Pastrana's origins and the 20 years of her life spent in Mexico. 

Pastrana was likely born in 1834 in the state of Sinaloa. Although the promotional materials identify Copala, a small village near the mountains, as her birthplace, some believe that she may have been born in or near Ocoroni. Nothing is known about her parents or upbringing, although there are local legends that suggest she may have been ill treated by her family (Velez qtd. in Stelloh). 

Even though Pastrana was identified as a "Root Digger Indian" in pamphlets, such a tribe does not exist. This label was one used by European settlers to denigrate and dehumanize indigenous people. Similarly, the "Opate" Indians are not a recognized tribe. Thus, Pastrana's actual tribal affiliation is unknown. In an interview with Tim Stelloh, an ethnologist, Barraza, suggests that Pastrana could have been from one of the tribes in Sinaloa, the Acaxee (Stelloh). However, there are several other indigenous tribes common in the state of Sinaloa, as well. 

It is widely believed that Pastrana lived some of her early years in the home of Pedro Sanchez, one time governor of Sinaloa, most likely as a servant or slave (Mimiaga). In July 1854, she was exhibited in Guadalajara, according to a brief blurb in the Athens Post (6.305 [July 28, 1854], 1), a newspaper in Tennessee. It is intriguing that Pastrana began her career in Mexico. But how did she end up performing in Mexico and the U.S.?

In Algunas Compañas, Ireneo Paz (1836-1924), a writer and journalist, records a story about Francisco Sepúlveda, a corrupt administrator at the port of Mazatlán. In Paz's account, Sepúlveda buys "una oso mujer" (a bear woman) to exhibit in the United States. He loses his investment when the woman elopes with an American (Paz 239). Although Paz's account gets some details wrong, it is known that Sepúlveda traveled in the United States as Julia's "guardian, having been as he alleges appointed so by her foster-parents in Mexico" ("Local Matters"). Sepúlveda's friend, Miguel Retes (a Mexican man misidentified in other narratives as M. Rates, an American showman) also traveled with Pastrana for a time. In at least one account, it is Retes' idea to exhibit Pastrana in the U.S. (Plain Dealer 9.93 [July 18, 1855], 3).  

Using the names Francisco Sepúlveda and Miguel Retes, we can identify that Pastrana likely journeyed to New Orleans on the S. S. Orizaba, leaving Veracruz on Oct. 25, 1854 and arriving on Oct. 28 ("Noticias Maritimas, Puerto de Veracruz"). 

Although some stories persist about a mother who died when Pastrana was a baby, a Mrs. Espinosa who took care of Julia for her first two years while a captive of Indians, and Pastrana learning to read and write in the home of Sanchez, as of yet these stories have not been substantiated. 

Mexico, Pastrana's Origins (1834-1854)