Welcome to the third episode of On the Hidalgo Treaty Road: the twisted path leading into and out of the Mexican-American War in the Nineteenth Century.
The Mexican half of my father’s family didn’t immigrate to California until sometime in the 1850s, or a little later, in the case of Great-Grandpa Emigdio Medina. By then, California had already “traded” the golden eagle of Mexico for Uncle Sam’s bald one. A war of US conquest, actually.
Great-Great Grandma Francesca, a Tejada by birth and an Orendain by marriage, made the journey as a widow with her two young daughters. All that happened long before the now-famous Orendain tequila existed, at least as a commercial product. Who knows what the Orendains served in Mexico way-back-when as the guys got together to boast, debate or commiserate? Several varieties of my family’s tequila are now available for sale on my side of the border. At my age, I rarely consume hard liquor. Still… When I die, do I really want any of the Orendains to give me a bad time?
“You mean, YOU devoured hundreds of bran muffins baked by the Swedish-English side of your family, but you never even tried one single sip of our unbelievably incredible tequila?”
Those of you familiar with my novels and short stories already know I recommend staying on the good side of spirit entities, particularly members of one’s family. I think I’ll take the proactive route now and avoid potential embarrassment in the future.
Which brings me to today’s actual subject: Mentioning two of the many books I read while researching to write my new YA/historical fantasy/magical realism novel about sixteen-year-old Catalina Delgado. If you’re wondering why I haven’t yet revealed my manuscript’s title, Sand Hill Review Press only recently accepted the book for publication. Now we’ve figured out the title: Plague of Flies: Revolt of the Spirits, 1846.
Hint for those of you drifting toward a semi-conscious state as you read: A revolt of spirits spells trouble.
Reference Book #1 in my bibliography: The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890 was first published by the Regents of the University of California in 1966. The copyright was renewed in 1994 by author Leonard Pitt. Please don’t confuse this Leonard Pitt with Leonard Garvey Pitts Jr.—the American commentator, journalist, novelist, and winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary. Leonard Garvey Pitts Jr. was born in 1957. I don’t know the birth date of Dr. Leonard Pitt, but he was definitely older. The Decline of the Californios was not the first book I read about Alta California, nor was it the most informative, but it’s a good place to start the discussion.
As an aside, I love reading newspaper columns written by Leonard Garvey Pitts, Jr. He is amazing. On the other hand, I’ve heard Dr. Leonard Pitt (no “s”) has been criticized for his sometimes “romantic” portrayal of California’s Nineteenth-Century days. Yet Pitt (no “s”) describes the world he writes about according to his viewpoint and overall message to convey. True, his style of writing is almost too entertaining in places. Melodrama creeps with ease into the pages. Regardless, Pitt (no “s”) left me with a lot to ponder as I planned and wrote my novel. Thank you, sir!
Which leads me to Reference Book #2 in my bibliography: Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe, published in 2016. This is an excellent and compelling (if sometimes stomach-twisting) work of nonfiction for those ready to face the more horrific details of Nineteenth-Century California’s history. On a number of pages, I had to stop and go get a breath of fresh air or a drink of water before I could continue. Once I needed to put the book down for several days. And the most unsettling part? I truly believe Madley did NOT exaggerate the word-pictures he painted.
Turn to page 60 of An American Genocide. Dare to read how John Augustus Sutter (upon whose land the California Gold Rush began) fed the Native Americans effectively enslaved under his command. He fed his forced laborers a disgusting mess of offal and bran in long troughs, as if they were pigs. Read it! Go read it! Then enlist others to read the same. And Sutter did this when slavery was illegal in Mexico.
Of course, the needle on Sutter’s moral compass had lost some of its magnetism years earlier. He must have enjoyed spending money more than earning it. Threatened by creditors and imprisonment, Sutter had deserted his wife and children in Switzerland before heading for the New World, picking up a couple Hawaiian gals for his entertainment on his circuitous route to Alta California.
One might even claim that Yankees (Yanqui may be a Twentieth-Century spelling) only continued the dehumanization and abuse of Native Americans in Alta California begun by the Spaniards and Mexicans (and to a lesser extent, the Russians). As we all know from history and the daily news, two-tiered legal systems can and do light the grim pathway to the beating, sexual assault, torture and death of those in the lower tier. For your next instructive throw-up moment, turn to page 34 of An American Genocide. Carefully read the indented paragraph, the one explaining the fate of some Native American runaways recaptured by the Spaniards in Alta California. Let’s just say it involves the hide from a newly slaughtered and skinned calf.
One of Madley’s points, however, is that the USA took a giant step over the dividing line between murder and genocide. Their goal became extermination of Alta California’s Native American population. Between 1846-1873, that population dropped from 150,000 to 30,000. Less than 17,000 remained by 1880.
Madley’s book was the last one I read during my ongoing research which I’d begun around 2005. Only 7-9% of my DNA is indigenous. An American Genocide made that 7-9% scream within 100% my brain. But even the 91-93% non-indigenous part of my DNA duplicated orders and posted them in my gray matter. Finish your novel, Laurel. Your country—supposedly somewhat civilized—slaughtered thousands upon thousands of real people. Innocent people. Men. Women. Children. Babies on cradleboards. WRITE.
And so I have written. Did my ancestors dictate my choice? Frankly, I’m not sure. My desire for personal sanity certainly contributed.