Teresa Celaya, La Doña de Arivaca

by Mary Kasulaitis

What does it take to move to a new land, settle down, and make a success of your life? Especially when you are a middle-aged, sometime single mother from Mexico, the new land is Arizona Territory, and the year is 1886? Teresa Celaya had what it took.

Doña Teresa Celaya (later Bustamante) was from Saric, Sonora, just sixty miles below the border on the Tres Bellotas Road. She came to live in Arivaca in the 1880s because it was an up-and-coming mining camp with ranches just getting started. Things looked promising and perhaps back in Saric they weren’t. As they said, “Teresa was a businesswoman.” It is rumored that she was a “dance hall lady” back in the old days and that she had part of her ear cut off to mark her as a lady of the night. She is always pictured wearing a rebozo, but then, that was common in those days.

By 1890 Teresa owned the building just west of what is now La Gitana Saloon. Now it is a ruin, but at that time it had four rooms that faced the Arivaca Plaza or Main Street and rooms running along the west side also, with a walled area in the middle. Who built this building is not known: it may have been Teresa, but it may have been old already. Teresa had a saloon in the easternmost room, lived in some of the rooms, and rented out other rooms. Over the years, a barbershop run by José Membrila, a shoe repair business owned by George Clark, and a store run by the Gallegos family were two of the businesses. Even into the 1950s that building was roofed and plastered. Then in the early 1900s she built a dance hall next door, which now houses the La Gitana saloon. By the time she died, she also owned the building across the street, which became Double L Feeds, and more recently owned by the late Laurence Smets.

Teresa was the mainstay of Arivaca for at least forty years, when the town was like a little Mexican village and everyone, Hispanic or not, spoke Spanish. Frank Krupp, Sr. of Nogales, remembered her as: “the Lady Bountiful and the friend in need of rich and poor alike throughout the area. She was the first visiting nurse service, helped to attend the sick and bury the dead, and acted as friend and midwife to many a woman far from real medical aid…She ran the cantina and in that capacity was her own bouncer, and an effective one.” Gipsy Harper Clarke remembered staying at Teresa’s place when she first arrived to teach at the Arivaca School. Armando Membrila remembered a strong personality, a funny lady, who kept stray children in line with a cane, while she smoked cigarettes. She would get the little girls to dance while she sang. Her little dog, Pipo, was very protective. Doña Teresa lived in Arivaca until her death in 1937 at the age of 102. In 2004, her descendants returned to Arivaca with good memories of their tenacious great-grandmother.

It is possible that the old Catholic chapel, El Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, was built at Teresa’s behest, when priests from Nogales came to promote the building of churches in the early 1900s. The best picture that exists, taken in 1916 by the cavalry photographer, was donated to the Arizona Historical Society by her family.

Teresa had several children, pictured here in about 1895. One daughter (top right), Carmen Zepeda, went on to become well known in her own right. Carmen Zepeda was a beautiful, accomplished and very independent woman. Born in Saric in 1874, Carmen came to Arivaca with her mother and helped her with the rentals. Fred Noon remembered her as one of the first women to drive a Model T Ford, all alone, a big accomplishment given the frequency of tire repairs. Carmen was briefly married to Charlie Wilbur (uncle of Eva). About the time of World War I, Carmen opened a one-room store near the Tumacacori Mission on the Nogales road. At that time “practically in the middle of nowhere,” the store sold everything from toothbrushes to salt licks, pinto beans and everything else. As time went on, she added more rooms, cabins and a filling station. Soon the area was being known as Carmen, as it is to this day. She retired at the age of 83, and passed away at the age of 93 in 1968. Both Carmen and Teresa are buried in Arivaca cemetery.

References: Fred Noon notes, remembrances of Armando Membrila, Nogales and Tucson newspaper articles, Pima County records, and information donated to the Arizona Historical Society by the family of Teresa’s daughter, Dolores Bustamante Landeros (the little girl in the photo). This is a reprinted article.

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