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In Southern California, shortly after the Mexican-American War, a Scots-Native American orphan girl, Ramona, is raised by Señora Gonzaga Moreno, the sister of Ramona's deceased foster mother. Señora Moreno has raised Ramona as part of the family, giving her every luxury, but only because Ramona's foster mother had requested it as her dying wish. Because of Ramona's Native American heritage, Moreno does not love her. That love is reserved for her only child, Felipe Moreno, whom she adores. Señora Moreno still considers herself a Mexican, although California has been taken over by the United States. She hates the Americans, who have cut up her huge rancho after disputing her claim to it.

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Señora Moreno delays the sheep shearing, a major event on the rancho, awaiting the arrival of a group of Indians from Temecula whom she always hires for that work; she is also awaiting a priest, Father Salvierderra, from Santa Barbara. She arranges for the priest so that the Indian workers can have an opportunity to make their confessions and receive mass in her chapel. Ramona falls in love with a young Indian sheepherder, Alessandro, the son of the head of the tribe, Pablo Assis. Señora Moreno is outraged, because although Ramona is half-Indian, the Señora does not want her ward to marry an Indian. Ramona realizes that Señora Moreno has never loved her and, to the old woman's chagrin, she and Alessandro elope.

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