Doņa Maria Gertrudis Barcelõ was a very significant and fascinating woman who lived during the Nuevomexicano and Euro-American transition in Santa Fe, New Mexico in the early to mid 1800s. Little is recorded about the origins of Doņa Maria Gertrudis Barcelõ, more affectionately known as "La Tules," a nick-name probably referring to her thin frame, as tules means "reed." Some early accounts stated that she was born in Sonora, Mexico and others, in Taos, New Mexico, around the year 1800. The registers at Tomé, a small village about thirty miles south of Albuquerque, contain an entry that Doņa Gertrudis Barcelõ married one Don Manuel Antonio Sisneros on June 23, 1823. The reference of "Don" and "Doņa" indicated the high social standing of the couple at the time. This would suggest that myths of La Tules starting out as a lowly harlot in Taos and gaining the prestigious title of Doņa in Santa Fe by her "sinful" practices and acquired wealth are alluring, but doubtful. Further records show that La Tules and her husband relocated to Santa Fe, where her widowed and remarried mother lived. After this point in time Doņa Tules became known as an influential proprietress of a "Sala," or gambling house and saloon, in which she entertained her guests with dances, drink and cards, and she amassed a fortune as Santa Fe's most renowned monte dealer.
Monte, named from the mountain of cards left after a certain number had been dealt, is a simple gambling game played with a traditional old Spanish deck of 40 cards made up of four suits: coins cups, swords and clubs, each dedicated to the four parts of the world: America, Asia, Europe and Africa. In each suit there are three court cards (Jack, Horse and King) and seven pip cards. Any number of players may participate. Five cards are turned up in a particular order. If the fifth card matches the suit of any of the first four, those who staked a bet on that card win. It has been said that the mysteries of the game could be learned only by losing at it.
Many chronicles wrote of Doņa Tules. One mistook her as being French and deemed her responsible for the new fashion trend of the women of Santa Fe. He described their garments as "Eve-like and scanty, low cut chemises and short petticoats," the negligé style. Another said, "When I saw her, she was richly, but tastelessly dressed, her fingers being literally covered with rings, while her neck was adorned with three heavy chains of gold, to the longest of which was attached a massive crucifix of the same precious metal." Susan Magoffin described her (in 1846) as "a stately dame of a certain age, the possessor of a portion of that shrewd sense and fascinating manner necessary to allure the wayward, inexperienced youth to the hall of final ruin." Perhaps it should be noted that most negative comments such as these came from the new arrivals representing a Victorian point of view, intolerant of cultural standards dissimilar to theirs. It was also written by others that Doņa Tules Barcelõ was charming, beautiful, fashionable, shrewd, witty and brilliant.
La Tules, as did all mujeres, wore a rebozo, or shawl, and smoked cigarritas. They rolled powdered tobacco from a small bottle into hojas (corn husks cut into oblong pieces about three inches by one inch) with all materials carried in a pouch tucked in at the waist.
Politically she appeared quite influential and though her relationship with Armijo, the last Mexican governor of New Mexico, is not clearly defined, it seems that they were more than friends. Through this, she gained insight to the practices of the Politicos. They lived lavishly on graft and the toil of the porbrea, heavily taxing them, and the Anglo traders, only to line their own pockets. She conceded that U.S. occupancy meant survival for her people. As Mexico's power diminished and the United States took acquisition of New Mexico in 1846, Doņa Tules secured her position with a loan to United States General Kearny for the purpose of paying his troops, on the condition that she have military escort to the Victory Ball at La Fonda (still a working hotel in Santa Fe, New Mexico, today). It was a lavish event attended by the cream of Santa Fe Society. She was also credited with alerting U.S. authorities of the Mexican-Indian conspiracy of December 1846. It is said that she would have had much opportunity to hear it discussed in her gambling rooms, and that her intelligence possibly prevented a blood-bath in Santa Fe. Many modern historians give great credit to Doņa Tules for the cultural bridge her Sala provided accustoming Euro-Americans to the Nuevomexicano style of life.
La Doņa Maria Gertrudis Barcelõ died on January 17, 1852. She had written a will the year before with arrangements for an elaborate church funeral, most appropriately according to custom, for she was a rica (a rich woman) and gave liberally to her church and to the poor. A bill was made out for $1,600.00 by the Bishop of Santa Fe.
Though little is known about Doņa Tules, and many consider her no more than a courtesan, she has obviously played a significant role in New Mexican history, and surely spurs ones sense of curiosity.
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