Hidden Chapters in U.S. History: The Violence against Mexican Americans
Somos en escrito Magazine has begun to unfold a series of works by Mexican American writers and other voices that bear witness to the history of violence perpetrated against Mexican Americans over the past 170 years. We plan to feature writings in varied formats: essays, memoirs, poems and book excerpts.
In doing so, we declare common cause in the national outrage toward the abuse of police authority and inhumane actions under the color of law and share in the determination among Americans of all backgrounds to bring about change.
Mexican Americans have common cause with other peoples of color in the U.S.A. on many levels. The relentless assault for generations in order for white supremacy to prevail despite a society which is rapidly diversifying, people of color continue to be the brunt of mindless and premeditated oppression and violence.
In 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed, ending the U.S. war against Mexico, the Mexican American was born. Under the Treaty, former Mexican citizens who chose to remain in the U.S. beyond a year automatically became U.S. citizens. Gradually, Mexican Americans, also known today as Chicanos, have evolved into a prominent economic and political force, especially in the Southwest.
However, school textbooks, scholarly histories, and the entertainment media have casually glossed over certain chapters of Mexican Americans’ history, if not ignored or distorted it altogether. Much remains to be written to tell the whole truth about their experience, but this Special Edition of Somos en escrito Magazine will share new writings and existing escritos to reveal the story.
With the advent of phone and body cameras, more and more incidents have been caught of police officers in the act of fatal assaults on Black people. Once in a while as an aside, politicians or cable news pundits mention Latino or Brown peoples as victims as well of police brutality. Rarely does anyone add any depth to the comment. Our guess is that a reference is just an after-thought, just to make sure no color or minority is left out.
The fact is that in a society where social, economic and political presence depends heavily on access to mass media and internet driven “apps,” Chicanos have far less access to such exposure and attention. Thus, they are unable to express a narrative which is their own and which reflects the contributions that Mexican Americans have made to the U.S.A. This Special Edition is intended to help give voice to that narrative.
The features will cover more than 170 years: first the latter half of the 1800s—starting in the mid-1800s in the gold fields of California where the “forty niners” laid claim to mines by killing or driving Mexicans off their claims; then in the early 1900s the concerted destruction of Mexican Americans’ lives along the U.S.-Mexico border through brutal lynchings and shootings of Mexican Americans innocent of any crime by the Texas Rangers; and White U.S. servicemen’s attacks against barrio youth during the WWII years. Shift to today’s digital videos of Chicanos struck down by police gunfire, to the subtlety of systemic racism carried out in segregated educational systems, denial of access to adequate health care, proper nutrition and decent housing, and finally to the even more insidious attacks against culture, language, and history as a means of destroying self-esteem, group cohesion, and social relevance.
Armando Rendón Executive Editor
CALL FOR WITNESSES Besides the obras of established authors, we also invite memoirs from Mexican Americans who wish to add to the testigos, to bear witness in their own words, to the violence and oppression against Mexican Americans. We hope to publish recollections of family stories, letters, or writings, which may date back decades, even generations, which could help open new chapters in America’s history.
I told the deceased that was no place to call me bad names, come in and call me so, and as he was coming in I stabbed him.
—Josefa, in her own defense, Downieville, July 5, 1851
These words spoken by a Mexican woman on trial for murder at the height of the California Gold Rush jumped out at me when I first read them in a newspaper dated 1851. Who was this woman who spoke in public so calmly yet forcefully, and for whom the only name we have is Josefa? The tragic circumstances of her death obsessed me for weeks, till finally, one summer day I drove out from San Francisco to visit the Mother Lode country, La Veta Madre, as the mexicanos called it, the site of this story. I crossed over the San Mateo Bridge and over the Altamont pass, then through Tracy, headed for Stockton. But way before driving out of San Francisco, I too, in my own way, had become obsessed with gold. What role does it play in my memory? All the history books praise the forty-niners, but I don’t like them or their history (I don’t even like the football team named after them). I am a victim of their arrival: the forty-niners displaced and murdered those who were already here—the Native Americans and the Californios. My Gold Rush heritage is that Chicanos are now foreigners in their own land. Yet at the start of the Gold Rush we claimed the land with our names: Hornitos, Sonora, Mariposa—names that still survive, especially in the heart of gold country.
As I drive east, I think of the events of that day in 1851, in a now insignificant town at the end of Highway 49. Of all the stories of the Gold Rush, of incredible fortunes made and lost overnight, of violent deaths that occurred in the goldfields with boring repetition, Josefa’s is the one that matters most to me, the one I choose to recover from the dustbins of history. It is a story of drunken vigilantes and ignoble patriots, and of men who stood by while a woman was lynched, and those stories are never pretty. I often ask myself what I might have done that day in Downieville. I sometimes imagine myself the hero, rushing to Josefa’s rescue wielding a shotgun, and then taking her away on my horse. But I don’t know for sure; I might have just closed my eyes, not wanting to see. Her violent death is an open wound in my memory, and yet I cannot right the wrong done to her. Perhaps the only thing I can do is recover her story, restore to her a sense of human dignity. And by telling the story, vindicate all good women and men, including myself, because if good people allow evil to go unchallenged, even if it’s an incident a hundred and fifty years old, our perceptions and attitudes of race and gender, of right and wrong, become entrenched, sometimes forever.
A casual conversation with a friend in a Mission District café, one of those conversations fueled by coffee and cigarettes, started me on this road. Had I ever heard of the Mexican woman who was lynched during the Gold Rush? I had always thought lynching occurred only in the South, to black people. I didn’t know that Mexicans were lynched in California, much less that it was a common occurrence during the Gold Rush. Our conversation drifted to other topics, and I forgot about the story. But in the coming days, at the oddest moments, I’d find myself thinking about this woman. Something about the incident infuriated me. Why was she just a mere footnote, even in Chicano history, especially when her courage is an example for all of us? Were the forty-niners really so immoral and ruthless as to have lynched a woman? Or was this just a myth, another made-up story, like the one about James Marshall’s first nugget, that had now passed into the realm of “history”? But the more I followed her trail, in microfilm newspaper accounts and journals written by eyewitnesses, the more her story seemed authentic, and not just authentic, it seemed to encapsulate the story of all Chicanos in the Gold Rush. How we were pushed aside, driven out, murdered, and lynched, and how then even our names and graves were erased from the face of the earth, so as to leave not a trace that we had been here. As I drive out to the Sierras, with the back seat of my car stacked with books, pamphlets, and photocopied newspapers from 1851, I already know that killing a Mexican during the Gold Rush years was common enough, but what the forty-niners did to Josefa is the bone in the throat of California history.
• • •
The Sierra Nevada, the matrix of the gold country, is an impressive range of burned-out volcanoes whose ice-fed streams carve the gorges and canyons of the foothills and, like a benevolent regent, nurture the San Joaquin Valley and all the main rivers in the state. It is in the Sierra Nevada that gold was created millions of years ago. The creation of gold is a metamorphic process: gold rises from deep in the earth in liquid form, usually mingled with quartz; as the gold cools it crystallizes, producing exotic filigrees embedded in the rock. The quartz, with the gold still in it, is grouted into the cracks of mountains, forming what are called veins. Some veins run for miles under the earth, others are mere pencil lines. If you know this about gold, you know where to find it. Find the quartz veins and the gold will be in it. The other place gold is found is in riverbeds. As erosion wears away the mountains, the gold, sometimes still in its quartz matrix, is washed into the gorges, where the quartz is pummeled and scraped off by the rushing rivers coming down from the mountains. Eventually, the river wears away the quartz, and what’s left is the gold, a heavy, dense metal that settles at the bottom of the creek or river. The metal has different forms: flake, nugget, sponge, wire—the latter being the rarest. Gold will not tarnish, fade, or wear out; it will lie in the heart of the mountain or in a creek bottom until a human hand picks it up.
Native Americans didn’t care for gold. It had no value to them. None. They valued gypsum and amethyst for jewelry, serpentine for charm stones. They adored abalone shell, polishing it to a bright mother of pearl, and feathers of different types of birds: condors, eagles, hawks, and hummingbirds. Once the forty-niners invaded the region, Native Americans did work in the goldfields, sometimes for wages; other times they bartered the gold for needed supplies. The Californios blew hot and cold about gold. It’s an old story in Chicano history that in 1842, in a canyon behind Mission San Fernando, Francisco López sat down to eat his lunch, pulled out a wild onion growing alongside the creek, and discovered clinging to the roots--¡Oro! Gold, compadre! His lucky find inspired some miners to trek north from Sonora, Mexico. They worked for a while around the area where López had found gold, now named Placerita Canyon, and then lost interest in the project and moved on, south to Los Angeles or north to Monterey. Another Mexicano, Pablo Gutiérrez, found gold in the Bear River of Northern California in March 1844, but he was unable to procure a batea for panning, so nothing came of it. The Californios who came to the goldfields in 1848 were casual miners; many were established rancheros, like Antonio Franco Coronel, who left as the troubles escalated, disgusted with the violence and the murders.
The forty-niners, on the other hand, hungered for gold with a sickness. They even described it as “gold fever.” They would do anything for it. They left families, homes, everything behind; they sailed for eight months aboard leaky, smelly ships to reach California; others, captains and sailors, jumped ship at San Francisco, leaving a fleet of abandoned brigs, barks, and schooners to rot by the piers. They slaughtered all the game they could find and so muddied the rivers and creeks with silt that the once plentiful salmon couldn’t survive. The herds of elk and deer, the food source for Native Americans, were practically wiped out in one summer. The miners cheated and killed each other in the goldfields. The newspaper accounts of the day are filled with their bloody deeds and grizzly frontier justice, or maybe it should be called injustice. And in 1851, after an all-day celebration for the Fourth of July, a mob of forty-niners unleashed all their venom and hatred on a Mexican woman.
Several things disturbed me about this incident when I first read about it: the misogynist and racial implications, as well as the absence of a last name for Josefa. I, who was obsessed with names, who could spend days in sterile archives searching for even a minute reference to a Lugo, Olivas, or Murguía, suddenly found myself faced with one specific person who had no full name. In general, when writing about violence toward Amerindians or Mexicans, Western historiographers tend to use incomplete names, usually just the first name or a generic one, like “José,” as if the individual didn’t matter. It made me realize that it is not names and bloodlines that hold clans together, but rather their shared experience.
The eyewitness account published in The Steamer Pacific Star dated July 15, 1851, lists the full names of the judge, the jury, the witnesses—all of them white males—and four names for the victim, also white, a first name, a middle name, and two last names. Yet with Josefa, not even the reporter who was present records her last name, nor does it appear in any of the forty-niner journals that describe the event. Sure, no one takes notes at a lynching, but there was a pretense of a trial, with a judge and jury sworn in. All the accounts state that she testified in her own defense, and, therefore, must have been sworn in too. So what happened that her last name was never recorded, an important detail in any judicial hearing, even at a kangaroo court? Didn’t anyone ask “What’s your full name?”
Without a doubt, the California Gold Rush is the most written about event in the West. Yet not a single historian has questioned why Josefa has no last name. It seems that a Mexican woman in the goldfields was insignificant, not even worthy of a last name, just another “greaser.” And then, over the course of many decades, historians like Hubert Howe Bancroft changed her name to fit the stereotypical Mexican image: she is now referred to as “Juanita of Downieville,” which just adds insult to injury. In some accounts she’s even called “Juanita, the Spanish woman.” So even her single name and her nationality have been distorted.
At other times, Josefa is portrayed in all sorts of romantic images, including the ridiculous, such as she “cheerfully passed away.” But no one has ever stood up for her. No one has ever asked why she was given such a harsh sentence, carried out so brutally, or where she learned the poise to defend herself before a kangaroo court and a frenzied mob. Where did she find the corazón to stand on the gallows and show more bravery than any man that day? These questions were what set me on the road to Downieville.
• • •
In the history of Mexico and Latin America, gold has always been a double-edged sword. The Europeans, the Spaniards, and the North Americans invaded our lands, driven by their desire to acquire the precious metal. Latin Americans, Mexicans, and Californios have always, by a quirk of fate, occupied land rich in gold deposits, but we have never looked upon this metal with the obsessive avarice of Europeans. Gold might be decorative and beautiful, but in pre-Columbian America it was never the coin of the realm, and never something worth killing for.
As a young boy, I’d heard the stories of gold-crazed Spaniards: Cortés melting to ingots the intricate gifts Moctezuma had offered him, completely disregarding their beauty; his only concern was their monetary value. Or the story of the Inca, Atahualpa, who offered to fill one room with gold and one with silver if Pizarro would release him; but when the ransom was paid, Atahualpa was hung. And somewhere I have seen an old engraving of Indians pouring molten gold down a Spaniard’s throat in the belief that only that remedy would cure them of their gold sickness.
So for me, gold has always been suspicious. And in spite of its allure, within my lifetime, I’ve seen gold lose much of its luster. As I write this, an ounce of gold on the London market is worth much less than an ounce of Humboldt green on any barrio street. So gold has an arbitrary value that is relative, depending on the importance you put on it, much like the value of a human life in the Gold Rush. But how can we compare a human life to a fistful of gold dust? I can’t. I suspect few of us can. For the ancient Mexicans and Peruvians, gold was precious, but with no monetary value. For others, it’s the engine that drives the wheel. And that wheel has always crushed us.
When I first started writing about Josefa, I too became obsessed with gold; it seemed that to understand what precipitated the events of that day in 1851, I had to know gold. I had to feel gold fever in my veins to understand what drove men to such frenzy over it. Is it that beautiful?
In terms of appearance, in its natural state gold is totally unimpressive. The nuggets on exhibit at the Oakland Museum as part of the California Gold Rush Sesquicentennial Project left me feeling a bit like the Native Americans. So what’s the big deal here? I was looking at the very same nugget that James Marshall supposedly found in Coloma and brought to John Sutter. The nondescript nugget was on loan from the Smithsonian and sat in a glass case. It was this nugget that had started the Gold Rush, but I was completely unfazed. First of all, I couldn’t see any beauty in the metal itself. It looked to me a bit like calcified dog turd that I might hose from my sidewalk on any given morning. Secondly, I was suspicious as to how this nugget on display could possibly be the same one that Marshall found that January morning in 1848. This business of the nugget sounded to me a bit like wishful thinking, much like the early Christians believing in slivers of the True Cross. Regardless of what the Smithsonian Institute claims, the chances of this glass-encased nugget being the first one that Marshall found are in the realm of a billion to one, in other words, nil. But 190,000 people went through the exhibit, and they all believed it was the true nugget. Gold, in the California imagination, can make people believe the implausible. It is the stuff that dreams are made of.
At the beginning of the Gold Rush, in 1848, the gold was literally lying about in the creeks and streams. A person didn’t even have to pan for it. You could walk along a stream and maybe pick up several nuggets wedged between the rocks. The biggest nugget found was the size of a cantaloupe, cubic in form, and nearly pure—a twenty-three-pound gold nugget just sitting in the riverbed waiting to be picked up.
At first, it was mostly locals who were in the goldfields, but by 1849 the word had spread and thousands started arriving from all over the world, from Chile and Peru, China, even Malaysia and points east. Soon, approximately one hundred thousand miners were roaming the Sierra foothills, and 7 million dollars’ worth of gold was coming out every month. The totals are staggering: in 1851, the year of this story, 75 million dollars’ worth of gold flowed out of California. By the end of the decade, 594 million dollars’ worth of gold had enriched the treasury of the United States. And the gold kept coming, year after year. During the Civil War, California gold poured into the financial center of New York at the rate of 5 to 6 million dollars’ worth a month, and thereby prevented a total collapse of Lincoln’s government. Without that gold to feed, clothe, and maintain the Northern armies, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation might not have been worth the paper it was written on. Heinrich Schliemann, a young German adventurer, made his fortune in the California goldfields and thus financed his childhood dream—to discover the site of ancient Troy. The list is endless. With California gold, dreams were possible. Without California gold, I wouldn’t be writing this, and life would be much different for all of us.
• • •
Nowadays, if you travel Highway 49, you will find the towns freshly painted, the main streets lined with boutiques and cafés, and tourists in khaki shorts drinking at hotel bars and paying with credit cards. But once upon a time, these same towns were ruthless, drinks were paid with gold dust, and life was worth less than an ounce of gold. Behind the present-day tourist-trap façade lies a history that is both ugly and violent.
East of Modesto, I take Highway 26 into the Sierra foothills, over Mokelumne Hill, into the town of Mokelumne, a thumb print of history, with its narrow winding streets and abandoned ruins. Here I hook up with Highway 49. The story goes that during the Gold Rush the trail from Mokelumne to Jackson was marked with empty bottles; perhaps it’s just a story, but the original name of Jackson is Botellas, Spanish for “bottles.”
When I reach Jackson, I stop to get a feel for the gold country towns. Jackson is typical of restored Gold Rush towns: bed and breakfast inns, antique stores—the tourist business is booming. It’s the past they are selling here, not the present. And like everything else that is sold to tourists, it must be squeaky clean. The foot-high sidewalks are spotless, hundred-year-old buildings are juxtaposed with modern storefronts, and history is kept behind a glass case. Garibaldi’s Camera Shop in the center of town features old photographs of Jackson in the 1880s. One photo shows Jackson in the 1930s, all lit up with Saturday night traffic. It’s like looking at photos of your grandmother when she was twenty—you know it’s her, but the resemblance is hard to see.
At the end of Main Street stands the National Hotel, built in 1863. The hotel bar is damp and smoky, with red globe Victorian lamps on the ceiling and the odor of spilled beer thick as a curtain. I imagine it looks much like it did in its heyday. An ornate mirror hangs behind the bar, the wooden floor is warped, and, though it is barely two in the afternoon, customers are sitting around drinking beers and shots of whisky. I’m still several hours from my destination, so I don’t stay long, but I take notice of a plaque behind the bar—fifty yards east of the hotel, Botilla’s (a misspelling of Botellas [Bottles]) Bordello flourished well into this century. Before leaving the National Hotel, the tattooed bartender tells me that Jackson had legalized prostitution, with several bordellos operating around Main Street until 1956, when Governor Pat Brown decided that enough was enough and outlawed the oldest game in town. This reminds me that Oscar Zeta Acosta, in his Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo, recounts stories of himself as a teenager, driving into Jamestown, just down the road from Jackson, to hang out with the women at Ruby’s Banana Ranch. So with the last sip of my mineral water I toast the memory of the old Brown Buffalo. Here in the Sierra foothills the Old West died hard—and not too long ago.
After leaving Jackson, I head north. The landscape of the gold country is beautiful: rolling hills, majestic oaks, wildflowers bursting forth in bright colors from the red earth. The present Highway 49 follows the original stagecoach route carved out of the Sierra Nevada, and it runs for a hundred miles along the foothills in a north-south trajectory. It is known as the Gold Country Highway, and the string of small towns spaced along the route form the background of many stories. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Wells Fargo stagecoaches linked the towns of the Mother Lode, bringing newcomers to the rough-and-tumble world of the goldfields and collecting gold dust for shipment to the port of San Francisco. During the Gold Rush, each of these towns was a miniature booming city. Some of them, like Nevada City, were, in their heyday, the biggest and richest cities in California. But they were cities without substance, built to slake the thirst of miners, and when the rivers of gold dried up, or it became too expensive to operate the mines, the reason for their existence ceased, and these towns were abandoned almost overnight.
I’d have to look at a map to check where Highway 49 begins—somewhere near Yosemite Valley, I suppose—but I know quite well where it ends: in the little town of Downieville.
• • •
"Mining Scene on the American River, c. 1852" by George Johnson, one of the historic photos included in the exhibit "Gold Fever! Untold Stories of the California Gold Rush" at the Temecula Valley Museum. By 1852, gold mining was a corporate enterprise, using hydraulic systems to sluice the gold from the hills, wreaking havoc on the environment but making fortunes for greedy entrepreneurs. CREDIT: COURTESY OF MATTHEW R. ISENBURG
When exactly Josefa arrives in the goldfields is unknown. Most likely she is from Sonora, one of 10,000 other Sonoran miners who worked and lived in the gold country. The Sonorans from northern Mexico, and other Latin Americans, had a long history of gold mining, and they brought with them the tools and techniques to extract the gold once the easy pickings were over. The Sonorans brought the wooden sluices called bateas for panning gold. And the Chileans introduced the arrastra, a heavy stone boulder that a mule drags over quartz to crush it and release the gold. They brought with them not just the culture of gold mining but the language as well; and as I’m driving down Highway 49, the Spanish names crop up like ghosts from the past—El Dorado, Placer, Campo Seco.
But the experience and success of the Sonoran miners were used against them. In 1849, the newcomers arriving from New England did not know the technique for panning or mining gold, and they felt envious of the Sonorans, who knew where to find the quartz veins. The United States had just taken California from Mexico, and the forty-niners believed they were the only ones who had a right to the gold—everyone else, especially nonwhites or those who spoke Spanish, was an interloper, a trespasser, an enemy. As it was, the camps were tense, tough, dirty places. Men survived the best they could, and the weak, those who couldn’t protect their claims, didn’t last long in the goldfields. Moreover, the laws were heavily stacked against foreigners, men and women. For instance, nonwhites could not testify in a court of law against whites. Then, adding further tension to the situation, California passed the Foreign Miners Tax of 1850, a monthly fee of twenty dollars levied on all nonwhite miners, with the explicit purpose of running the Sonorans, the Latinos, and the Chinese out of the goldfields.
The Sonorans were caught in an ironic situation. Many had been in California before the newly arrived forty-niners, and yet they were being taxed as foreigners. They were the founders of the town of Sonora, one of the richest in the gold country, and now they were being chased out. It wasn’t lost on them that other foreigners, the Irish or the English, for example, were not taxed. And if the Sonorans refused to pay the taxes, the forty-niners encouraged each other to jump their claims. The Chinese turned to vegetable growing to survive, while many of the Sonorans left the goldfields disillusioned, or were run out by mobs of forty-niners. Towns they had founded, like Sonora, were abandoned; others, like Columbia, were left with but a handful of miners. But other Sonorans stayed, out of pride perhaps or out of stubbornness. Some were killed; some became outlaws. Out of such conditions arose Joaquín Murieta, the legendary Robin Hood of the Gold Rush era, the hero of a tale so twisted it will take a determined scholar to unravel it.
With a typical mix of the multiple nationalities in the goldfields, Downieville, originally a camp, was founded in 1850 by a Major Downie, with his crew of ten black sailors, one Irishman, one Indian, and one Kanaka, a native Hawaiian. Although the Foreign Miners Tax was repealed in March of 1851, mostly because of complaints by merchants that they were losing business, the damage had been done. By mid-1851, the once plentiful Sonorans were rare in the Sierra foothills. So for Josefa, or any Mexican woman, to have reached the gold country, she had to be resilient, brave, and determined. The last fifty miles of the road to Downieville deteriorated into a winding mule trail cut out of steep ravines along the Yuba River. The journey was not only hard; it was dangerous, whether on foot or on horseback. It was not uncommon for travelers to lose their footing and plunge into the ravine, mules and all. The living conditions along the fork of the river where the camp had sprouted were primitive at best: tents, lean-tos, shanties, and ankle-deep mud everywhere. But Downieville also had two-story wooden buildings, fifteen hotels and gambling houses, butcher shops and bakeries, a theater, and plenty of saloons.
An Argentine miner named Ramón Gil Navarro came to the Gold Rush in 1849 and spent the following three years living and working in the Sierras, alternating with travels to Stockton and San Francisco. He kept a detailed diary that offers some interesting observations about the milieu in which Josefa lived. I quote Navarro because, as a Latin American, he gives a different perspective than the white-authored first-person narratives of that period, which tend to be prejudiced toward everyone of color. Navarro shows himself to be an astute observer, willing to change his own prejudices—about Indian women, for instance—if proven wrong. He also looks at the various races in the goldfields through a humanist lens; his description of black slaves in the goldfields is an example. The scarcity of women in the goldfields is mentioned by every writer in the field, and Navarro is no exception. He recounts in his diary the burial of a white woman, Miss Sheldon, whose horse-drawn casket is followed by well-dressed men because, as Navarro puts it: “The female sex around here sure has a lot of value.” Their value is not just emotional (for comfort, physical and otherwise) but also monetary, as he mentions later in his diary when he’s at Sonora: “In each one of them [the hotels] there is a beautiful girl at the bar and another one at the gambling table, attempting to attract people and crowds to the hotel. Without a girl there can be no hotel, without a beautiful one there can be no business, without a woman there can be no business or anything else.”
Navarro also recounts the rumors that abounded of how Yankee bandits, called “The Forty,” were planning to rally other miners to exterminate all Chileans, Mexicans, or Peruvians on July Fourth, 1849. He goes on to state that threats against foreigners are common on this day, causing many Mexicans to leave the towns and mines of the region. Considering the Foreign Miners Tax of 1850 and the open violence toward Mexicans and Latin Americans between 1849 and 1851, also detailed by Navarro, I’d suspect that the mood of the forty-niners two years later, on July 4, 1851, had become even more patriotically belligerent.
For Josefa to have lived in Downieville during this unsettled period was an accomplishment in itself. But her courage in the face of an angry mob of forty-niners is the stuff of legend, in the same league with Joan of Arc or whatever woman warrior you want to compare her to. A hundred years from now, all the names involved in this story, including that of the writer, will be forgotten, but Josefa’s name will live on. In my eyes, Josefa is an amazing woman who, through great sacrifice and courage, claims her rights as a human being on the very edge of the goldfields, in a primitive camp twenty miles from the summit of the Sierra Nevada, a place where only the toughest arrived.
• • •
After 1851, when the easy pickings were over, when the work of sluicing and panning, standing all day in frigid water, stopped being profitable, the gold business changed. More gold had to be produced to quench the thirst for wealth and profit. So hydraulic mining developed, and powerful hoses carved the mountains as if they were cakes. You can still see the sad shells of those washed-away mountains, the bleached boulders piled like dinosaur eggs along the rivers and streams near Highway 49. The debris from the hydraulic mining—mud, sand, and gravel—caused the tributaries flowing into the Sacramento River to turn into sludge channels that ruined the farmlands of the Sacramento Valley. In particular, just south of Grass Valley, the Malakoff Diggings make a lunar landscape look fertile. These operations so fouled the rivers that laws were enacted in 1884 to halt hydraulic mining, but other means of getting at the gold continued to flourish. The biggest and grandest operation was the Empire Mine, outside Nevada City, right on Highway 49.
About three in the afternoon I stop at the Empire Mine, an impressive network of mine tunnels that stretches for 367 miles under the earth. It’s now a park run by the state of California. You pay three bucks and get a tour of the mine. During the eighty years the mine was in operation, 5.8 million ounces of gold, worth over two billion dollars, were produced. The owners had a fancy house built by Willis Polk two hundred yards from the mouth of the mine; they also owned several residences in San Francisco and often traveled to Europe. The eighteen stamps, huge hydraulic pistons that crushed the ore, worked 24/7 and could be heard fifteen miles away. The crushed ore was then slaked with cyanide to release the gold. Four thousand Cornish miners from Wales, known as “Cousin Jacks,” worked the Empire Mine and its subsidiary, the North Star Mine. They were required to change clothes before entering the mines to prevent highgrading, the pilfering of a bit of gold dust, on their way out of the mines. One nugget was worth two weeks’ wages, so everyone highgraded a little.
The literature at the Empire Mine State Park claims that these miners loved their work, their six days a week at the mine, their three dollars a day, and their little pasty lunches of meat and vegetable pies. Romantic perhaps, but I don’t believe a word of it. Their lives were little better than those of the mules that were sedated, then lowered into the mine, where they spent the rest of their lives hauling ore carts in the darkness, without ever seeing the sun again. But even the mules refused to be abused; if they were hitched to more than seven ore carts, they would not budge. The miners, because they had families, had no choice. They descended into the bowels of the mine in train cars that carried sixty men at a time. They blasted and drilled through rock and hauled out the ore under clouds of black dust that filtered into their lungs. No one wore a mask. This is what they’d been raised to do in the coal mines of Wales, and that’s why they’d been brought to work at the Empire Mine. And they worked and kept on working. Throughout the nineteenth century half of these miners were struck with fatal lung diseases. When they mixed the mercury, then the cyanide, no one wore gloves or protective clothing. In those days no one thought of safety issues. During the life of the Empire Mine, before it was closed in 1954, twenty-six men were killed and countless others died of silicosis, their lungs scarred by the quartz dust. The average life span of a miner was forty years. When looked at from a distance, the head frame of the mine, towering hundreds of feet in the air, looks like a giant gallows suitable for men of mythic proportions.
What the Welsh miners have in common with Josefa is that no one recorded their names either. You can see their photographs on display at the Empire Mine, their eyes peering out of the dust that covered their roughhewn faces, but their names do not appear. The only names mentioned are those of the owners and the superintendent. The same is true throughout the gold country: you hear about the Chinese, about the blacks, the Swedes, the Indians, the Kanakas, but you seldom find their names. I ponder the absence of names, what happens when they are left out of history, when they are erased or ignored, or worse, distorted and stereotyped. History needs names, the names of working people, the plebe as it were, those who are truly the backbone of history. Without names, history is as worthless as pyrite.
By the time I reach Nevada City, the queen of the Mother Lode, the sun is setting in the west, so I hurry on without stopping. This gaudy city, the pearl of the restored towns along Highway 49, epitomizes what the wealth of the Gold Rush bought: saloons, hotels, grand Victorian houses. But there are no colleges built with Gold Rush money, no hospitals, no significant public parks; the truth is that the incredible wealth produced by the Gold Rush didn’t benefit the average person. Wealth never trickles down that far. And once the gold stopped flowing, Nevada City and all the other Gold Rush towns were discarded like worn-out shoes, no longer useful to cover the feet of their owner.
Going through Nevada City, I (re)construct Josefa’s story. I am driving next to the Yuba River, and the road curves and seems to double back, twisting, drawing me into the past.
There’s one point about which no one argues—in the gold country, perceived crimes were dealt with swiftly and seldom with mercy. The punishment was often a public flogging or whipping, or a branding on the face, or sometimes the clipping off of an ear, any of which was then followed by expulsion from the goldfields. Nearly all the crimes had to do with claim jumping, a very serious offense (unless it was a forty-niner jumping a Mexican’s claim, then it was acceptable), or sluice stealing or mule stealing. Occasionally the vigilante spirit demanded a hanging, in which case the accused were lynched and their bodies were left dangling from a tree or unceremoniously dumped in ravines. Lynching, especially of Mexicans, was quite common in Gold Rush days. At the crossing of Highway 49 and 50, in present-day Placerville—once known as Hangtown—a lifelike dummy swings from a noose outside a local saloon. This might be funny, until I discover that the first multiple lynching in California occurred right in that spot: three men, at least one or two of whom were Mexicanos or Latinos, were lynched here after being flogged to unconsciousness, based on an accusation by a total stranger that they had committed a robbery in another part of the Sierra.
• • •
In the early morning darkness of July 5, 1851, while the streets of Downieville were littered with red-white-and-blue trash and the fervor of patriotic speeches still hung thick as Sierra fog, a white man was stabbed to death for abusing a Mexican woman. The day before, Downieville had celebrated the Fourth of July with a massive patriotic orgy. Hundreds of miners, would-be miners, merchants, travelers, gamblers, politicians, and even a few lawyers and other denizens of the Sierras had come together in a raucous party in honor of California joining the Union. There’d been patriotic speeches, shooting of guns, heavy drinking, several fights, even a stabbing and a flogging. Except for the speeches, it had been a typical day.
Shortly after the murder, a Mexican couple fled to Craycroft’s Saloon, next to the Jersey Bridge. It is possible that the man worked there as a monte dealer, which may have been why they sought this as a place to hide. But the word had already spread like venom among the miners, many of whom now gathered in front of the saloon talking excitedly, many of them urging a quick hanging. When the accused Mexicans were brought out under guard, one of them was a quiet, timid man, the other, a woman named Josefa, whom many of the miners knew. She was small, about twenty-five years old, dark and attractive, with small white teeth and thick black hair that reached her shoulders.
The general attitude of the miners (and popular historians) toward women in the goldfields, unless they were married or merchants, was that they were morally suspect. But Mexican women were even more so. Antonia Castañeda, who has written extensively on gender in frontier California, points out that popular historians stereotyped Mexican women, casting them as “fandango dancing, monte dealing prostitutes, the consorts of Mexican bandits” and as “morally, sexually, and racially impure.” It would be logical that the forty-niners, who were less educated than popular historians, held the same biases.
Now let’s see how the broad generalities of race and gender, class and sexuality were brought to bear on a Mexican woman, alone, in the middle of nowhere.
Picture yourself as Josefa. You’re trying to make a living in this town, scraping by as best you can and staying out of people’s way. You live your life clean; you live with a man, therefore you’re not naïve sexually, but you’re not a prostitute. (It is important to note here that men who personally knew Josefa all state that she was not a prostitute, that her life—in the language of the time—was without the stain of moral turpitude.) Now picture your door being busted down in the middle of the night by a large intruder, a beefy man over six feet tall and weighing some 230 pounds. You yell at him, and he goes away. A few hours later there’s a knock on your door. Perhaps you shouldn’t answer, but you do. It’s the same Americano and his friends. It’s still dark outside, and the man who lives with you tells them to go away. The Americano insults you, calls you a whore. You tell him to repeat his insult inside your house. You believe he won’t do it, but he does. The Americano steps inside; he is belligerent and aggressive, and shouts a demeaning slur in your face. The word whore, puta, is a highly charged epithet.
Now stop for a moment and think—what does the word puta imply at this juncture? It is both racially (because she’s Mexican) and sexually (supposedly she’s a whore) charged, but also infused with class prejudice (a whore works for a living by selling her body) and gender prejudice (Mexican women are whores). Furthermore, the white man says the word in Spanish (puta) to make the insult intimate and clearly understood, therefore metaphorically if not physically (the threat of which was obvious) violating Josefa, verbally and emotionally.
I don’t believe Josefa thought in this way, nor did language exist then to describe violence of this sort, but I’m sure neither the implicit nor the explicit connotations of the word escaped her.
Josefa knew there was no man or law that would defend her if she was raped or even killed. It was just herself. Perhaps now you can explain why Josefa did what she did.
• • •
Downieville in 1851. Illustrator Unknown From James Sinnott's Classic, "Downieville: Gold Town on the Yuba" (1972)
Before you judge Josefa, remember that in 1851, up and down California but especially in the gold country, a virtual war was being waged against Mexicans and Latin Americans. Josefa most certainly knew of the lynchings in Hangtown, most certainly had heard of the violence against Mexicanos, and perhaps even knew some of the Sonorans who’d been run out of the gold country with only a few hours’ warning, forced to leave everything behind. She’d maybe even seen a lynching or two, or known someone who’d been lynched. And the general ambience of the camp, with thousands of single men living in a lawless state, spewing lewd comments everywhere she went, surely generated the sense of injustice and fear that kept her door locked and a knife by her bed. Everything must have been building inside her, like a trip wire just waiting to set off an explosion.
Josefa’s trial unfolded like a bloody finale to the Fourth of July. When Josefa and her male friend emerged from Craycroft’s Saloon, a mob of some six hundred miners, fueled on patriotism and whisky, were ready to lynch them both right then and there. But others in the mob wanted more formality, so they named a judge and a prosecutor and selected a jury, all of them white males. When a lawyer who was present—one of the few times in history a lawyer appears in a favorable light—tried to talk the miners out of their rage, he was shouted down and pummeled by the mob. After these preliminaries, the trial commenced on the same platform where the day before the speakers had praised the United States for taking California from Mexico. The judge was seated, witnesses interrogated, and declarations duly noted. At least one reporter, from the Pacific Star, was present, and his is one of several eyewitness accounts of what happened at the so-called trial.
After several miners claimed the deceased was of good character and was just trying to make amends for earlier breaking down the couple’s door, Josefa’s companion testified. His version is somewhat different; he said the Americano was abusive, and that their door was knocked down with such force as to rip it from its hinges. He also stated that the Americano threatened him with violence, but since he was small, Josefa stepped in and told the Americano to strike her instead. Then the Americano heaped abuse on Josefa, first calling her a whore in English, then in Spanish. She told him to say that in her own house and left him in the street. When the Americano followed her and was about to enter, Josefa stabbed him.
Josefa, who’d laughed at some of the white men’s testimony, appears as the final witness. What happened in private and in the dark, she now declaims in public and in daylight.
Here’s her version of the incident: At about 4:00 a.m. on the morning of July 5, the Americano had arrived at the cabin that she shared with her man. The Americano was drunk and had no reason for disturbing them. He’d knocked down the door and, after an angry exchange of words, had gone away—only to return a few hours later. This time the Americano insulted her, calling her bad names.
Her own words have come down to us, describing that fateful moment: “I took the knife to defend myself. I had been told that some of the boys wanted to get into my room and sleep with me. A Mexican boy told me so and it frightened me so that I used to fasten the door and take a knife with me to bed. I told deceased that was no place to call me bad names, come in and call me so, and as he was coming in I stabbed him.” It was that simple. Josefa hadn’t gone out looking for trouble; trouble had come to her house. She felt threatened, sexually and otherwise, verbally abused, and her male companion wouldn’t help her, so she defended herself as best she could.
Josefa told the truth, and it didn’t go down well. After her testimony, the judge adjourned the trial till 1:30 p.m., and Josefa was taken away under guard to a log cabin behind the speaker’s platform. During the break, the mob grew to well over two thousand angry miners, whose sense of justice, as it was later explained by apologists, demanded a hanging as some sort of revenge.
But more likely the miners were incensed to see a Mexican woman speak forcefully and openly, especially after having just taken the life of one of their own. In this sense, she speaks sin pelos en la lengua, holding nothing back, an attitude not unusual of Mexican women in pre- and post-1846 California, who, contrary to stereotypes, did act upon history, controlling their fate as much as possible within the confines of those times.
After the recess, a doctor came forth who stated that Josefa was enciente, pregnant, in other words, approximately three months along. By all moral standards, this should have prevented her hanging. Instead, what happens next is a symbolic rape of her by the miners via three white male doctors from Marysville who, in conjunction with the previous doctor, take Josefa into a makeshift shack and reexamine her for signs of pregnancy. Since it was pretty clear to everyone that the miners wanted revenge, from my point of view, this action was meant to humiliate her. How else to interpret this? Perhaps Josefa felt that if she submitted to this degrading body exam, her life might be saved. While the so-called doctors toyed with Josefa, the forty-niners grew more enraged and were about to storm the platform when the three doctors emerged and declared that, in their opinion, Josefa wasn’t pregnant. The jury retired and within minutes announced its verdict: Josefa was guilty of murder, and she should suffer death in two hours. Her male companion was acquitted but advised to leave town within twenty-four hours. It was about two in the afternoon when Josefa was led off under guard to the cabin. During the next two hours, Josefa received visitors and perhaps prayed or made her peace with God.
But why, if women were so rare, cherished, and valuable, would a mob of womanless men condemn Josefa to the gallows? Only by looking at the context of those times can we perhaps understand the reasons. Antonia Castañeda provides the framework: “The woman who is defined out of social legitimacy because of the abrogation of her primary value to patriarchal society, that of producing heirs, is therefore without value, without honor.” Josefa, as a Mexican woman living with a man, was outside the scope of patriarchal society, and as Castañeda goes on to say, “A woman (women) thus devalued may not lay claim to the rights and protection the society affords to the woman who does have socio-political and sexual value” (emphasis mine).
It goes without saying that the men who clamored for Josefa’s lynching were not thinking this way (if a mob can be said to think), but this is exactly how they behaved. A woman, Josefa (read valuable), who is Mexican (of no value) can be lynched, because without value (i.e., suitability for reproducing heirs), society (read men) would not grant her the rights and protection usually accorded women, thus they would not save her from the gallows.
Josefa is lynched because she is a Mexican and a woman considered “without value” to the white male patriarchal society. If all the doctors in the world had said she was pregnant, it would not have increased her value to white society, since she wasn’t pregnant with a white man’s child. The miners were not even obligated to follow a civilized code of moral conduct, since Josefa was considered outside “moral” society and therefore without any rights.
Around four o’clock, Josefa was escorted to the scaffold that had been slapped together over the river, an awkward affair of timbers strapped to the bridge with heavy rope. She was tastefully dressed, and her hair flowed freely over her neck and shoulders. She appeared calm and unrepentant. By then, two thousand miners had gathered around the Jersey Bridge and along the Yuba River, waiting impatiently for the finale, as if it was some patriotic celebration.
It’s hard to imagine this tiny woman walking toward the scaffold through the mob of jeering miners. What was she thinking about as she took her last walk—her home in Sonora, or the dogwoods along the river, or, if she was pregnant, that her child would also die? Perhaps she recalled the day she arrived in the gold country, her head filled with wild dreams of fortune. She might also have considered the weird fate that had brought her to this town by the river. Perhaps she cursed all the Americanos, or forgave them. But somewhere along that final walk she made peace with herself, and she strode through the mob showing no fear. Like other California women of the time (I’m thinking of María de las Angustias de la Guerra at Monterey, California, during the war of 1846), when confronted by white male violence, Josefa showed cool-headed grace under life-or-death pressure.
Once on the platform, she turned to the few Mexicans who’d gathered by her side and told them that she’d killed the man and expected to pay for it. She shook hands with each of them and offered them a few words of goodbye and asked her friends to take her body so that she might be decently buried.
It was perhaps here that she decided on the act of bravery and defiance that has immortalized her. Unassisted, without fear or hesitation, she walked up the little ladder to the scaffold, where two vigilantes stood beside the noose, hoping to intimidate her. To the astonishment of the mob, she took the thick rope knotted into an awkward noose and slipped it around her neck, then arranged her hair so it would flow over her shoulders. It was more than an unmistakable gesture of courage, something every man that day would remember as long as they lived. It was Josefa’s last defiant statement. The two vigilantes pinioned her arms behind her back, which she protested. They ignored her. In their eyes, she had stopped being human the moment she stepped onto the scaffold—if indeed she’d ever been human in their eyes. They tied her dress down and slipped a hood over her head, then jumped free of the scaffold. At that point, two men axed the rope propping up the scaffold.
• • •
I reach Downieville at dusk and check into the Sierra Shangri-La Motel along the river’s edge. The river cuts a deep ravine through the mountains that seem to rise up angrily out of the earth. There’s nothing unique about the town; it consists merely of a few cheap motels and bars and the usual shops along the main drag. There’s a bridge, and next to it a white brick building, which is the modern-day Craycroft’s Saloon. Here, a small bronze plaque marks the occasion of Josefa’s lynching with typical inaccuracy: “In memory of Juanita, the Spanish woman, lynched by mob from original bridge on this site, July 5, 1851.” Thank god there are no souvenir stands offering little scaffolds with dolls in Mexican dresses hanging from them.
I’ve driven for nearly eight hours, but I’m not tired, so I wander around town. I know where I’m going, but I pretend it’s an aimless walk. On Highway 49, the traffic is almost dead. There’s a tense quiet in Downieville, as if I am disturbing something. I know Josefa was originally buried behind the theater, and that later her body was reinterred, but I don’t know where. Tomorrow I will make inquiries, but I don’t have much hope of finding her final resting place. The story goes that when she was reinterred, her skull was removed and used by a local secret society in an initiation ritual of some sort. Though hard to believe, it’s not totally implausible, especially if one considers the fate of Joaquín Murieta’s own head. But I don’t believe in ghosts, so I’m not sure what I expect to find here in this mean little town. By now I despise not just the forty-niners, but the Fourth of July, patriotic speeches, the American flag, and that cursed gold. I will never wear gold jewelry; I will never own so much as a grain of it.
I’ve read so many accounts of lynchings in which the victims were nameless Mexicans, or blacks, or Chinese, even Anglos, that perhaps I merely want to pay homage to all the nameless dead of the Gold Rush, to all those who perished here in the majestic foothills of the Sierra Nevada, yes, even to the Cornish miners who died in the bowels of this red earth so that others could become rich. Perhaps I just don’t want Josefa to go into eternity so nameless, so insignificant, that not even her last name is recorded, because I despise the anonymity that is handed out to us like nooses with which to hang ourselves. Perhaps I just want to give one of these nameless dead a sense of closure. After all, every human being is worthy of at least that much. Every human life is more valuable than a mountain of gold.
In the quiet of the Sierra night, the Yuba River is rushing through the gorge. I come to the bridge, which looks dark, ominous. I know the original bridge where Josefa was lynched was washed away by the flood of 1852. I also know that this Craycroft’s Saloon is not the original, since the whole town was destroyed by a conflagration less than a year after Josefa’s lynching, as if the gods had brought down the divine hand of retribution on this place. It doesn’t matter. I stand on the bridge and look over the railing, and I can almost see her face in the water, surrounded by her long hair. I want to do the natural thing and give her a last name, my last name, make her part of my clan, so her spirit will always have a home. But she deserves the honor of her single name, because she represents all the nameless ones who lived and died here and never made it rich, all the nameless faces in the photographs. In some way, perhaps, she is the Saint of the Mother Lode, martyr and inspiration to all Mexicas, symbol of our courage. No matter how hard they have tried to erase our names from history, our stories have endured.
There’s no place on the bridge for a cross of flowers with her name on it, but the river is eternal. I toss a sprig of wildflowers that I’ve picked along the road into the frothy currents. It floats for a moment before it disappears beneath the roiling water. I am finished. I have told her story. I have returned her name to the dark mountains, buried it in La Veta Madre, like ancient gold returned to its matrix, undisturbed. I say her name one last time—Josefa. And I walk away from the bridge.
Alejandro Murguía is the author of Southern Front and This War Called Love (both winners of the American Book Award). His non-fiction book, The Medicine of Memory, highlights the Mission District in the 1970s during the Nicaraguan Solidarity movement. He is a founding member and the first director of the Mission Cultural Center. He was a founder of The Roque Dalton Cultural Brigade, and co-editor of Volcán: Poetry from Central America. Currently, he is a professor in Latina Latino Studies at San Francisco State University. He is the author of the short story “The Other Barrio” which first appeared in the anthology San Francisco Noir and recently filmed in the streets of the Mission District. In poetry he has published Spare Poems and Native Tongue. He was the Sixth San Francisco Poet Laureate and the first Latino poet to hold the position.
Mapping Violence: The Numbers Reveal More of the Truth
We share this link below as a public service to introduce our readers to a detailed mapping project that tracks death at the hands of police and provides graphic depictions of the date collected as well as breakdowns of the data by various factors. https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/
The section below, titled Police Violence Report, further breaks down the data, providing details of the victims by race or ethnicity (“Hispanic”). https://policeviolencereport.org/
CALL FOR MORE TESTIMONIES We open the Somos en escrito pages to receive other writings on the history of violence experienced by Mexican Americans. We are interested in particular to hear testimony from individuals about incidents going back in their family history. If you have written declarations such as memoirs, even better. Send your information to email@example.com so we can respond.