Name: Maria Gertrudis Barceló
aliases: Doña Tules, the Queen of Sin
Born: 1800, Sonora, Mexico
died: 1852, Santa Fe
Role: Saloon and casino owner
Described As: “the supreme queen of refinement and fashion”
One of Santa Fe’s (and New Mexico’s) striking features is the proliferation of women-owned businesses, today and throughout its history. In the early U.S., most women back East were beholden to their fathers or husbands, having no right to own property, go to court, or sign a contract in their own name. Women in New Mexico in the same period—prior to statehood—were governed by Spanish and then Mexican law that allowed them “legal and social independence,” according to historian Janet Lecompte. Enter Maria Gertrudis Barceló, a brilliant saloon owner and professional gambler who owned three houses in Santa Fe by the end of her life.
Known as Doña Tules, Barceló was famous—and infamous—for her sala, a lavishly decorated hotel and casino occupying a whitewashed adobe that spanned the entire block of Burro Alley, between Palace and San Francisco. Where the Lensic Performing Arts Center sits today, she purchased the building outright in her own name. Thick carpets, etched mirrors, and chandeliers surrounded her customers. The game was Monte, and stakes went as high as fifty thousand dollars. Doña Tules herself was known as the “supreme queen of refinement and fashion.” Unlike many women in New Mexico in the nineteenth century, Doña Tules was literate and had an education. As a member of the gentry, people paid her “almost as much reverence as they pay to the governor and priests.”
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.
The Americans who arrived in Santa Fe portrayed her in a less flattering light. Gambling was illegal at the time, and until 1839, La Tules’s casino used a “secret rap on the door” to avoid being found out, paying fines to officials as a fee for gambling. Threatened by the fact that she was a woman in charge of a business viewed by Puritans as immoral, the newspapers called her a “woman of very loose habits” and described her not as refined but as old, ugly, and wrinkled. One visitor recalls, “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.” The American papers suggested that she “lured” innocent young men to financial ruin, including American troops, whom she welcomed as customers in 1841. All of these reports, of course, came directly from the men who made time to visit her sala while in Santa Fe.
Doña Tules was unconventional from the start. She married at twenty-three, which was considered old at the time, but kept her own name and conducted business independently of her husband. At her wedding, she was four or five months pregnant, which scandalized Americans, but which was common and not as stigmatized in New Mexico at the time. Marriage was actually not the norm, because the church charged such high fees, and women were already “legally and sexually free from male domination,” at least in certain respects. La Tules appeared in court twice to defend her name against slanderous accusations and won both cases. When she learned that her adopted daughter, Rafaela, was having an affair, La Tules met her “seducer” as he was climbing through Rafaela’s window with a gun in her hand and a priest holding a prayerbook, resulting in their immediate marriage.
Doña Tules continued to operate her sala through U.S. occupation and takeover, until at least 1849, when she became a U.S. citizen. Her tables bridged the Nuevo-Mexicano and Euro-American cultures in Santa Fe. She continued to occupy a position of significance in society, receiving a military escort from General Kearny to the Victory Ball at the La Fonda Hotel. She invested her earnings into real estate, purchasing a nineteen-room house on 160 acres of land in 1844, and leaving ten thousand dollars and three houses to family members in her will.