Maria Donna Lopez, a Miwok Indian who grew up and raised a family in Point Reyes, passed away last week at age 56 after a ten-year struggle with kidney failure. Maria will be remembered for her powerful spirit, loving personality and untiring optimism in the face of tribulation.
“She was such an inspiration, always so full of life and energy despite what was happening to her,” said Maria’s niece Elisa Avalos.
Maria was born to John and Marie Rita Carrillo on September 24, 1954. She grew up on Bull Tail Ranch—now Skywalker Ranch—in Lucas Valley, where her father milked cows and trained horses. Maria, a tomboy, liked to climb trees and shoot her slingshot. She and her siblings, Margaret, Linda, Christina, Patty and Butch, learned to ride horses before their fifth birthdays.
“We used to ride all over Point Reyes. We used them like cars. That’s all I can remember from that time: horses, horses, horses,” said Patty. Maria’s love for horses would last the rest of her life.
John was determined that his children exceed his sixth grade education. Maria and her siblings attended schools in Bolinas, Nicasio and Point Reyes, moving whenever their father pursued work on a different ranch. “It was hard going to school in the 50s and early 60s as Native Americans,” said Margaret. “There were no Mexican families here, no black families.”
The Carrillos and a few other Native American families were the only minorities in Point Reyes. White classmates referred to them as the “little Indians,” and teachers told the Carrillo children that they didn’t care whether the children learned anything, as long as the teachers themselves got paid.
But Maria refused to give up. “Between all us girls, she was the stubborn one. If she’s going to do it, she’s going to do it with a smile on her face,” Patty said.
School got better for Maria at Tomales High. “High school was much easier, with free love and all that stuff. Being Native American was considered cool to hippie kids,” Margaret said. But Maria was no hippie. She woke up hours before school to make sure her makeup was flawless and her nails painted. She slept with curlers in her hair, and her sisters avoided the bathroom after her because of the hairspray that hung in the air.
Then one day a teacher pulled Maria aside and told her that because she was over 18, she couldn’t continue school. “I just went home and never went back,” Maria later told her children.
Maria soon met a handsome Mexican ranch hand named Pablo Lopez, who worked with her father. Pablo would whistle at her as she walked by every day on her way to school, and told John that he would one day be his son-in-law. Even though Maria didn’t speak Spanish and Pablo didn’t speak English, they flirted and took long walks. Pablo once made an ill-fated attempt to serenade Maria with a live mariachi band, waking her up in the middle of the night—she asked what the racket was, and grumpily went back to sleep. But the two fell in love and married in 1974.
That year Maria gave birth to their first son, Juan Pablo. Maria and Pablo raised their children Victoria, Revecca, Juan Pablo and David on the Bianchini dairy ranch just north of Point Reyes Station.
Horses and the outdoors played an important role in Maria’s youth, and she wanted to give the same experience to her children. She became involved in 4-H, leading horse and dog events. She was an avid rider and liked to raise Australian Shepherds for agility competitions.
All of her children were soccer players. “She would always be cheering us on—like, yelling. And she never missed a game,” Revecca said. Maria would later go to her granddaughters’ soccer games in a wheelchair.
After her children had grown, Maria was unsatisfied without a high school degree, and went to Hield College. She graduated in 1997 with a degree in computer administration. She soon became a teacher’s aid at West Marin School, where she was beloved and respected by students.
Maria was a confidante to young people. Students, friends and family often sought her advice, which was balanced between permissive and conservative. “She was so understanding—you could talk to her about things you couldn’t discuss with anyone else,” said Elisa Avalos.
And Maria loved to talk. “I’d be driving, and she’d be on the cell phone,” Revecca said. “I’d put the phone down in my lap, pick it up a little later, and she’d still be talking!”
Family was of paramount importance to Maria. “She made sure everybody got together for the holidays. She made ham with pineapples and maraschino cherries, and mocha spice cake,” Revecca remembered.
But in 2000, Maria was diagnosed with renal disease. She was denied a kidney first from UC San Francisco, then from UC Davis. Dialysis weakened Maria’s health; after a bad injury, Maria required 27 hip surgeries. The last surgery left her with an infection, which led to the amputation of her leg.
Maria refused to give up on life or retreat from her family. “You would never hear her complain,” Revecca said. “She just knew that this was the hand she got dealt, even though it wasn’t a good one.” She still wore curlers in her hair each night, and maintained a meticulous appearance. After her amputation, Maria joked with family that the pedicurist should give her a discount.
Maria died May 5, after ten years of dialysis. “I know she’s in a better place,” Patty said. “I’m sure she’s riding again.”
Maria Donna Lopez is survived by her husband Pablo, sisters Margaret, Patty and brother Butch, sons Juan Pablo and David, her daughter Revecca and son-in-law Ignacio, and their children Monica and Cecilia.