Thoughts on Joaquin Murrieta, his history and having carried him in life and fiction
My novel is finished and looking to make a landing in the world. I have thoughts on finishing, writing, the emotional cost of looking at the social waves that flushed up and made me, and the publishing world and how that world is for a cis hetro man of color, especially one of mixed Euro and Native descent.
But that’s for later.
Much of the research into the history of the southwest and how it is received, how it is meant to be viewed and how one is meant to view oneself in relations to it, I found to be tawdry and incredible, that is, hardly to be believed. Manifest Destiny, the Black Legend, the erasure, the White Man’s burden of Romanticism all meet greed and the tourist’s slack jawed pointing when it comes to history. So I mixed "recorded farce" of the conqueror, voice of the conquered, and ridiculousness and low pop culture to better view the material in proper terms. That is, I made up a lot.
But I did research and much of what I researched and the questions that had for what is real, how it relates to identity and morality made it into the novel.
I’m going to share the background on some characters pretty central to what I wrote. Ramona (of course) the fictional woman created by a white woman who studied native and "Spanish" California for two months before writing a story to advocate for us (robbing the breath from our mouths and creating a fantasy around us). This is a trend still active today, I had to turn down reading someone’s “Ramona 2: The White Girl in a Headdress." I place myself as a mixed breed, a coconut, I do not understand why others think it’s okay to continue the practice of robbing Native people’s stories and attempt to define them. Not to mention the recent book that shall not be mention, Americano Dirto.
Then there is Zorro, whom everyone claims to be based on one of seven dudes. He’s a gringo geek in my book, a kind of expression of my own gringo geeky fanboy self and distance from my subverted cultures. And an expression on how outsiders control the narrative, how from how they feel a dearth in their own society, they infantilize and make a collector’s hobby of others. I’ll go into how Zorro’s government name, his daylight name, secret identity, was perhaps based upon my ancestor.
And finally Joaquin, bless his zombie soul. I studied him quite a bit and traveled with him all these years. The metaphor for my Xicanoness, our zombified and embattled and tattered history and identity. Our trickster inheritance. In the book, I carry his head until..well read it. Joaquin has been one of the biggest folk heroes for Chicanos and perhaps not the best fitting one. It is fitting, however I start with him as one of the first bits I wrote were on Joaquin (Check out a chapter over at Label Me Latina/o HERE).
Joaquin is fiction.
Chu still here, vata/o/xs?
So a guy named Joaquin did exist during the Gold Rush (Genocide Rush really) and soon after became a bandit. In fact, a bunch of Mexicans named Joaquin were running around California robbing and killing. One thing you gotta know about Joaquin.
They don’t know shit about him.
Well, they do, but no one listens.
If you don’t know, Texas Rangers were war criminals against Native people and in the Mexican American War. LA was the murder capital of the US in the 1850s. Because of the many bandits robbing people of their gold, their food, their money, their blood and life, some judge decided to invite some Texas Rangers, namely a guy named Harry Love, to bring justice to the land, that is, to gringos. Because we must remember during this time you could kill a native person and get five whole dollars for their head. You could also enslave, I mean hire a native person (many en masse declared their Mexicanness so they could try to confuse the laws) since they were jailed for vagrancy after being forcibly removed from their villages and homes. As Americans killed, robbed Native people and Californios for their land, they killed and robbed all Mexican Americans and Latina/o/xs (a problematic word, but I'll leave it) for their gold mining operations and claims. Justice for the American Californian government meant going after those Latina/o/x and desperate, the desperados, who had nothing left to lose enough to join in the robbing and killing.
Joaquin Murrieta was one of these guys. There were wanted posters, but no one really differentiated him from the other guys. I’m pretty sure he was random Mexican Joaquin they said to get. Or just a Joaquin they caught.
They made a big reward for catching Joaquin. The very next thing you know, the Texas Ranger shows up with his head in a jar of whiskey and the hand of his buddy in another jar of whiskey. The infamous (for a short time, out of a lot of infamous dudes) dude was dead! Did I mention the judge was friends with the Texas Ranger?
Did I mention a white man could kill who he wanted? That no Black, Native, nor Mexican could testify against him in court? And though these Mexican American gangstas weren't revolutionary, the Americans were definitely an occupying force and they enforced their new power and law (calling it law misleads as it seems as if it were just; remember the law allowed you to hunt human beings who's only crime was living someplace someone white wanted).
The story of Joaquin has a lot to do with a self hating half breed. Not me. A reporter. A half white, half Cherokee named John Rollin Ridge or Yellow Bird who was meant to be the boy done good lawyer for the Cherokee Nation (you know the Cherokees, the one everyone thinks their grandmother was and thus makes them more native than I am). Instead, he was involved in vengeance murders in the Cherokee Civil War. He fled west like many people and landed in the biggest city in California in the Genocide Rush, a city teeming with gringos of every stripe and sellouts of many creeds: San Francisco.
And Yellow Bird swallowed the cold in the summer San Francisco Kool-aid. He thought all these people needed a unifying story, you know a story in this "new" city plastered over a town occupied since 1776 over a land occupied for thousands of years. He thought of Robin Hood. He thought of the story of Joaquin and his death. He created Joaquin Murrieta in a book called The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit .
But before that, Joaquin was a real dude and I’ll tell a bit what’s known.
He wasn’t Californio as people say, but a Sonoran. Sonorans were the first in the Gold Rush to show up, they didn't come far as Sonora is close and they knew how to mine. They became targets for angry gringos who did not know how to mine and didn’t like seeing a brown man doing well.
No one knows why Joaquin became a bandit.
His girlfriend had a look at his head in the jar as many people did (more on that later) and said it wasn’t him. Drawings of Joaquin’s wanted poster (really based off the book) make him seem native or mixed blood. Drawings of the head in the jar look like a mixed blooded Mexican, but this can be deceiving. The dude was dead.
His nephew became a bandit, Procopio. Fair skinned red haired dude who used his uncle's fame and rode with the better choice for a folk hero, Tiburcio Vasquez (who almost sneaked into my book).
(A Spanishy looking dude. Heck I don’t look like all my uncles though. I used to help my Uncle Billybob in Texas with his house inspecting and all the realtors would look at me and ask, does he speak English? My uncle would say that is my nephew, Scott. The look on their face was sure, right, boy toy or Mexican slave or both).
Many northern Mexicans are of more Spanish descent (not the frontier like CA, Tejas, or NM). It could be Joaquin was a light skinned vato, not a stereotypical mestizo or Native flavor. It might not be him in that jar, the Ranger probably just killed someone random for the money.
Some think Joaquin returned to Sonora and lived his life, but no one knows. They have festivals for him in CA and he is the town saint of his hometown in Sonora. They praise him as a Chilean (gringos fucked up Chileans good just like they did Sonorans). Chileans got a hold of the book and liked it enough to inspire Pablo Neruda to write a play on Joaquin called Fulgor y Muerte de Joaquín Murieta.
Back to SF.
The half breed Yellow Bird was a reporter and later the first editor in chief for the Sacramento paper. From reading The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta, it’s pretty clear the dude had PTSD from killing his papi’s killers. He was not writing for Chileans, Sonorans, Californios, Native Americans on the run from beheaders, or Mexicans. He was writing for gringos. And he was mad at his fellow Cherokee. Native people don’t come out too well in his book, the first Native American novel, and he even indulged in the names Anglos used for the "lesser" natives here out west “dirt grubbers.” He wrote a story about a man out for vengeance against gringos for the rape and murder of his wife and…I can hear y’all. “Whoah there bro, I know you are a super woke snowflake, but it sounds to me like he was advocating against all the bad things going on, I know best, I’m full blooded.” Nope, you don't person with brother-sister parents!
Know the story of King Arthur? The story of Jesus? Both stories of suppressed people rising against a populace who ultimately take the story for themselves. Arthur was Welsh, as English as a non English, English battling thing striding the land (gracias a la Víbora Negra). Jesus was from a Jewish community the Romans did wrong to and oppressed. Similarly with Mexican Americans and the story of Joaquin in his book. That is, no one gave a damn and came to the story like the stories before for the action and the blood. If the people are submitted and you have robbed everything, the land, the tacos, the places names, you can even rob their stories of resistance, an ultimate display of power. So it caught on.
And so there it was, the story of Joaquin, nothing but fiction but the name, the fact he was a bandit and he was of Mexican descent and in California. Quick, what did Joaquin real or fictional say in opposition of the US occupation? What did he say about the injustices of the Gold Rush? Yup, not really a real dude or real resistance minded man. Not woke, bruh.
Back to the head. The head went on tour. See the celebrated bandit, two bits! It went on display in a fair in San Francisco, becoming a trophy of the defeat of Mexican California, and some kind of proof that the book on Joaquin that started it all was real. "The Mexican Robin Hood!" Who knows what poor guy got pickled and displayed for decades for Anglos on dates to be grossed out before finding dark corners or for children to run up to and touch before running away.
There is a Joaquin PBS documentary by some New Yorker who investigated the white guy up in Northern California who claimed to have bought the head, which was saved from the rubble of the San Francisco earthquake. The documentary ain’t out yet (I met the documentarian, he did a good one called The Longoria Affair about a civil rights fight to allow vets to be buried in white cemeteries). It’s spurious, but not unheard of that someone took the head from the rubble, though many accounts said it was destroyed with everything else. Remember there were many people of Native descent beheaded at this time and this may be a case for a stand in for the stand in for Joaquin's head.
Years after the destroyed sideshow and the book, Joaquin shows up now and then to be a villain in a TV show or western novel. They say his story inspired Zorro, which would be fiction derived from fiction, but whatever, they say many dudes were the basis. Often fiction comes from slivers of this and that and bam presto.
Then we get to the Chicano Movement. Did you remember Joaquin was a real dude (and a not real dude)? The real dude had a family.
A family who was proud he had such a big story. Somehow this fictional story based on one buckwildin’ little known gangsta got confounded with history, especially since the story which started it was got written and published way back in the 1850s in the far off city of San Francisco. Some relatives of Joaquin told people in the movement of Joaquin. Remember, Mexican Americans don’t get much visibility in fiction, media, movies, government, school, CEOs, etc.
"Hey I know that vato! That’s that old book they based Zorro off!!"
And so we all became Joaquin with the poem “Yo Soy Joaquin.”
And I carry his zombie head in a jar as he whispers the mysteries of who I am and what I was born into.
Tune in next time for some discussion on my thoughts on Zorro and Ramona, both built off the Romantic tourist dream of Spanish California. Cabo before Cabo, a place of ease and magic you can drive to, remember to bring your sunscreen and leave the damn kids!