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Lillian Robles; Juaneno Indians Elder Battled Developers to Protect Sacred Sites

April 08, 2001|SEEMA MEHTA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Lillian Robles, a revered elder with the Juaneno Band of Mission Indians, has died. She was 84.

Robles, who battled developers for decades to protect sacred sites in Southern California, died of cancer Tuesday at her Long Beach home.

Every year, she led protesters to pray at housing developments in Newport Beach, Huntington Beach and Seal Beach that were built on ancient Indian burial sites.

When Cal State Long Beach wanted to turn a 22-acre site said to be the birthplace of a Juaneno god into a strip mall in 1993, Robles pitched a tent there for 15 days. At dawn and dusk, she walked the site carrying tobacco and sage in an abalone shell, performing an ancient ceremony to purify the land.

"This land speaks to me," said Robles, 76 at the time. "It calls to me. And I have to do whatever I can to protect it."

Robles' testimony at a California Coastal Commission hearing last year on the development of Hellman Ranch, a 70-home gated community in Seal Beach, led to stricter requirements for monitoring for Indian bones and artifacts.

Robles' family tree could be traced to the foundings of the city of Los Angeles and the San Juan Capistrano Mission, her relatives said. She was a direct descendant of Roque Cota and Jose Antonio Navarro, who accompanied the 11 families that settled the city in 1781. The Juaneno part of her family traces its roots to the mission's founding in 1771.

The Juaneno Indians originally inhabited coastal southern Orange County near what became the site of Mission San Juan Capistrano, for which the group was named. They were fishermen who traded with other coastal and Channel Island tribes. They helped build the original mission, completed about 1810.

Diagnosed with liver cancer more than a year ago, Robles kept busy until the very end, said her son, Lewis Robles Jr. of Redondo Beach. In the last few weeks of her life, Robles welcomed a delegation of Pima elders at Long Beach City College, spoke at a California Heritage Committee meeting about the proper treatment of ancient human remains found during construction, and rode in the Juaneno float in San Juan Capistrano's Swallows Day Parade.

Robles was also dedicated to helping troubled children, whatever their background. A foster mother for 22 years, she cared for more than 500 children, her son said. Los Angeles County named her foster mother of the year in 1969.

In 1980, she became the first school-community worker for the Long Beach Unified School District, serving as a liaison between teachers and parents. In that role, she spent considerable time working with Spanish-speaking families and troubled children.

Robles traveled extensively and exotically, including making tortillas for aboriginal elders in the Australian outback six years ago, taking a solo bus trip to Alaska at age 72 and climbing Mt. Roraima in Venezuela at age 69.

In addition to her son, Robles is survived by her husband of 59 years, Lewis Robles; three daughters, Rhonda Robles of Long Beach, Irma Famularo of San Luis Obispo and Rebecca Robles of San Clemente; and six grandchildren.

Robles will be buried at 12:30 p.m. Monday at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles.

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