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.
Descendants of Joaquín Murrieta Rebuke Rumors of his death at hands of California Rangers
Excerpts from Joaquín Murrieta Hero of the Chicano.
Murrieta honoring countrymen. (Courtesy of almay.com).
PREFACE From page 3
Joaquín Murrieta was a typical young man who had ridden up from Sonora, Mexico, in 1850 to join friends and family already in the Sierra foothills searching for gold in their streams and rivers. When the clamor arose because Americanos had found nuggets up near Sacramento, his life and those of other Mexicanos changed radically, in fact, the history of the west took a hard turn toward violence and greed because of the yellow metal.
Mexicano men and women, who were already experienced placer miners from their home state of Sonora, were attacked, forced off their claims, and either run off or killed. Murrieta’s wife, Carmelita, was violated and murdered by White marauders; his brother also killed. Joaquín, a peaceful man swore to avenge these deaths; further, he vowed to return control of California to Mexico -the state had also been stolen in the U.S. war against Mexico between 1846 and 1848.
Murrieta did not succeed, but he neither surrendered nor fell victim to White posses assembled by the state government to hunt him and his followers to ground. This book tells the story as his descendants have known it and passed it down through several generations. This is the story of the Murrieta as much as of Joaquín, their standard bearer.
Herein, they set out their oral history backed up by evidence from a few records that have survived and physical places that remain despite the ravages of time, which are known to Murrieta’s descendants. Together, they show that, rather than the self-serving legend promoted by newspapers and story-tellers in behalf of the people who had feared and hated him, Joaquín Murrieta died peacefully and in one piece in Cucurpe near his ancestral home in Sonora.
¡Que viva Joaquín Murrieta! Armando Rendón, Author of Chicano Manifesto
FOREWORD From page 4
Joaquín Murrieta is a man whose story has deeply influenced the conscience of those who are fighting for social justice. It was first told in the 1850s by a Cherokee Indian writing as John Rollins Ridge. He wrote about a Mexican immigrant miner who came to California during the gold rush only to encounter a racist violence that killed his brother and his wife.
In revenge he along with a small band of compatriots set out to punish the aggressors and in the process he became a symbol of the resistance of Mexicanos against the Anglo American takeover of their lands and the attacks on their culture. The first Chicano film in 1969 was entitled "I Am Joaquín" drawn from a poem inspired by Joaquín 's resistance movement. The Chicano movement drew from the iconic story of Joaquín to inspire young people to value their history and draw from it a spirit of resistance. Outside the U.S. revolutionary thinkers took Joaquín Murrieta as a symbol of their struggle against American imperialism. The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote an epic poem about Joaquín portraying him as a countryman.
Alfredo Acosta Figueroa has written an entirely new history of Joaquín , one that draws on the memories and documents of his family and Joaquín 's descendants. This history is deeply personal. We learn details that have never before been published. Joaquín 's birthplace, family, home in Trincheras Sonora, his returns to Mexico and death from old age in his homeland are all well documented. We have proof that he passed through San Juan Capistrano in 1865 and lived in Tecate in the 1870's. Murrieta was not killed by the California Rangers as claimed in the histories. His story continued to inspire. Don Alfredo documents how Mexicanos and Chicanos have been jailed just for daring to sing the Corrido of Joaquín Murrieta. The legacy and truth of Joaquín continues through the International Association of Descendants of Joaquín Murrieta. Annually they commemorate Joaquín at events in Mexico and the U.S.
This book tells the truth about Joaquín Murrieta as recalled by his family and descendants. As such it is an important contribution to the struggles of Chicanos to be liberated from a colonial past that has been manufactured by films, novels, and textbooks. We all owe Don Alfredo a debt for having the energy and spirit to continue La Lucha.
Ricardo Griswold del Castillo , Professor Emeritus, Chicana and Chicano Studies, San Diego State University, Author of Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo A Legacy of Conflict
CALIFORNIA RANGERS IN PURSUIT OF JOAQUÍN MURRIETA From pages 19-21
The California Rangers’ main purpose was to capture Joaquín Murrieta dead or alive and offered a reward of $1,000 to anyone who would bring them his head. Joaquín Murrieta was never identified by the authorities, arrested or jailed, but he was tried in absentia, however, and sentenced to death.
Recruited to lead the California Rangers was the notorious Captain Harry Love, a veteran of the U.S.-Mexican war. His hostility toward Mexicans was well known. The respected newspaper, Alta Californian, commented that a license for mayhem had just been issued to Love’s Rangers, an opportunity to plunder into Mexico. Many people who knew Love, considered him to be nothing more than a treacherous, cruel murderer. Love’s motto was, “A good Mexican is a dead Mexican.” No Mexican was safe at the placer mine or on the lonely roads. It was open season on Mexicans. Most atrocities committed against Mexicans were done so by mobs of angry and hostile Anglo miners, escalated by the Rangers. Most of the California Rangers who were recruited were veterans of the Mexico-United States War and were regarded as adventurers and anti-Mexican. Ranger Bill Byrnes admitted that he allegedly joined a company that went hunting for Apache scalps in Chihuahua for a $50 bounty. Most Mexicans were indigenous and there was very little, if any distinction made by the Rangers.
The California Rangers ended up committing a crime spree of their own, illegally confiscating property from Mexicans and Californios, shooting them or hanging them in their pursuit. “The California Rangers were killers, and professional bounty hunters who had a history of violence.” (The Real Joaquín Murrieta Robin Hood Hero or Gold Rush Gangster? by Remi Nadeau, 1992).
After three months of pursuing Joaquín Murrieta, Harry Love and his Rangers came upon a group of Mexican vaqueros at Arroyo Cantua. By then, Love’s Rangers were getting restless and discouraged with their $150 monthly pay. They were tired, hot and frustrated because they could not find Joaquín Murrieta. Harry Love, feared that because their three- month contract was nearly up, his Rangers would quit on him, so he decided to make his move on the Mexican vaqueros at Arroyo Cantua.
Eventually, each Ranger would give his own interpretation of what really took place during the ambush at Arroyo Cantua. Harry Love and his Rangers came upon Arroyo Cantua, a wash at the base of what is called Joaquín Rocks on Joaquín Ridge, which had three boulders overlooking the vast Western San Joaquín Valley. One version is that when Love and his men came upon the Mexicans, they presumed the men belonged to Murrieta’s band, led by Jesús Feliz, Joaquín’s brother-in-law.
Love’s version is that he and his men found 70-80 Mexicans tending a herd of 700-800 horses and when they approached the group, the Mexicans made no objections. Love, seeing that he was outnumbered, did not attempt to risk their lives in pursuing his investigation. Love and his men left.
Re-enactment of Arroyo Cantua Ambush
In the San Joaquín Valley, in Northern Calfornia, the Joaquín Murrieta Cavalcade is held annually at Three Rocks and Arroyo Cantua, to remember the atrocities committed by the California Rangers led by Harry Love's ambush on the four horsemen at Arroyo Cantua on July 25, 1853; presumably one of them being Joaquín Murrieta.
According to the Stockton newspaper, the Mexicans and horses left camp overnight and when the Rangers arrived the following day, the camp had been deserted. At the crack of dawn, approximately three miles east of Arroyo Cantua, they saw a plume of smoke. There were 6-8 Mexicans that had just arrived at the camps. Love saw he had the upper hand. Love and his men ambushed the Mexican camp. Most of the Mexicans were sleeping. A Mexican reached for his gun on his horse but was stopped by a ranger’s shotgun. They gathered the Mexicans and Bill Byrnes who was the only Ranger to have presumably known Murrieta rode up and shouted, “This is Joaquín Murrieta, boys! We got him at last.” The Mexicans threw back their sarapes and fired their revolvers, shooting as they ran. Two Mexicans fell dead and a three-fingered man was shot 9 times.
Finally, Bill Byrnes rode up and gave him the coup de grâce with a shot to his head. During the melee, the leader of the band leaped bareback onto his horse and galloped onto the banks of Cantua Creek’s dry bed, a drop of approximately 14 or more feet. The rider was knocked down, but he leaped again onto his horse and kept going down the creek bed. According to William T. Henderson, he also jumped the bank of the creek and pursued the horseman, shooting the leg of the horse.
Another Ranger was following along the bank and was able to shoot the Mexican that was running down the creek. When the Rangers got close to the Mexican, the Mexican began to plead with them, in Spanish, “Don’t shoot me anymore.” When the other Rangers arrived at the scene, they immediately riddled his body with bullets.
It is said that after the ambush by the Rangers at Arroyo Cantua, they cut the head of whom they presumed to be Joaquín Murrieta. The Rangers also cut the hand off of the three-fingered man, called El Yaqui Tres Dedos. Again, the head was falsely identified as that of Joaquín Murrieta. Antonio Lopez and Jose Maria Ochoa were apprehended and taken prisoners to Fort Miller, northeast of Fresno. According to the newspapers who speculated about the information on Joaquín Murrieta, Antonio Lopez drowned when they were crossing a slough. The olla with El Yaqui Tres Dedos, the three-fingered hand, was thrown away because it was quickly deteriorating. The head was put in an olla of whiskey. Jose Maria Ochoa betrayed his countrymen when he identified the head as being that of Joaquín Murrieta.
After the State paid Love a $1,000 reward, he was given an additional $5,000 for his patriotic duty. After the rangers presented their trophies to the authorities, the question arose: Was it the head of Joaquín Murrieta or was it the head of a Mexican who happened to be at Arroyo Cantua? The Alta California reported a group of Mexicans in Los Angeles who claimed they were attacked by a group of “gringos,” but they had escaped.
Four were killed, one of them being Joaquín Valenzuela. His head had been cut off for a trophy. Joaquín Valenzuela was one of the five Joaquín 's active at the time. It was not the head of Joaquín Murrieta. Bill Byrnes, the Ranger that presumably knew Joaquín Murrieta, said: “One pickled head is as good as any other, if there was a scar on the face and no one knew the difference.”
The head supposedly of 'Joaquín Murrieta' was placed in a jar in alcohol, as well as the hand of “Three Fingered Jack.” This particular head of 'Joaquín' and the hand of Three-Fingered Jack were exhibited as great trophies and caused great excitement among all the gringos due to the hatred they had against all Mexicans, and especially hatred for those of Joaquín’s gavilla (band of followers). The horrendous act of decapitating a man and mutilating another because they were Mexican was used as an example to cause fear in other Mexicans. Our research based on Manuel Rojas’ El Patrio Truthful Focuses for Chicano Movement shows that Jose Maria Ochoa was the traitor that led the rangers to Arroyo Cantua, but he never reached the State Capitol in Benicia to testify. His unfortunate fate was met with a lynching by a group of Mexicans at Martinez, near Benicia, California.
Alfredo Acosta Figueroa was born in Blythe, California, in 1934 and still lives there He represents five generations of Indigenous-Xicano heritage from the Colorado River Reservation, which encompasses the Palo Verde/Parker Valleys. At one time, his family was the only one around with origins in mining during the La Paz, Arizona-Colorado River Gold Rush in 1862. Growing up, he heard stories of his great, great grandmother, Teodosia Martinez, a cousin of Joaquín Murrieta. At family gatherings, they would play “El Corrido de Joaquín Murrieta;” Alfredo learned the song and when he took up the guitar at 12 years of age, learned to play it. In 1986, Murrieta’s descendants met in Blythe to found the International Association of Descendants of Joaquín Murrieta. On October 23, 1988, Alfredo organized the first Caravana del Recuerdo in Murrieta’s honor in Trincheras, Sonora, Joaquín’s birthplace.