By Paul Gilmore
I was so tired of the heat the other day that I decided to duck into a bar to cool off. To my surprise, Billy Ashland, Medford (Med) Boorman and Frank Maddox were already there; they don’t usually come in until 3:30 p.m. I bellied up to the bar and tried to catch the drift of the conversation—would it be the Giants, the weather or the weather at the Giants game?
Billy turned to me, “Mark Duggan!”
“Who?” I asked, biting my tongue—always know the score before opening yourself up to a long story you don’t want to hear.
He waved at the TV, angrily. “They just showed a picture of that goddam thug Mark Duggan, man. The guy who got shot by the London cops. It sparked all that rioting in England. You know, London’s burning?—it’s more than a song, you know.”
“Yeah. I saw the pictures.”
“Did you know it appears he didn’t shoot at the cops?” Med said.
“No. So?” Billy said.
“So. The cops lied about it,” Med said. “They just killed him. And the press went along with it. The Daily Mail had a headline with that picture: ‘The “gangsta” gunman killed in a shoot-out with police.’ They just take the cops’ word for it, man. Nobody wants to get the real story.”
Billy, indignant, stared at Med. “Are you kidding me? The guy was a thug. So they were wrong about some details. Are you gonna side with a thug? And the riots, man! Are you gonna justify those hoodlums?”
“Justifying’s got nothing to do with it,” Med replied. “And you think they’re rioting over this particular guy? That’s like starting a war over killing an Archduke!”
Huh? I looked to Frank to ease the tension. “Hot enough for you?” I asked.
“It’s not the heat so much as it is the stupidity,” Frank said, with a big “get it?” smile.
“Uh huh,” Med and Billy replied, stone-faced, back to neutral position.
“I’d hate to be in the fields today,” said Frank. “Hell, any day. But today—it’s too much, man. My hats off to ’em.”
“Did you see that story on the news about the Joaquin Murrieta ride,” Med asked. “A goddam three-day horse ride from Madera to Three Rocks. It’s so bad under that sun, they’re giving the horses some Gatorade-type stuff just to make it.”
“Why do they do that ride anyway?” Frank asked.
“You know, tradition,” Med said. “Been doing it since the 70s. It started as a way to bring attention to the plight of farmworkers in the Valley.”
“So I hear.”
“Wasn’t Murrieta the leader of some gang of horse thieves or something in the 1850s?” Billy asked.
“That’s one story,” I said. I’ve heard several and I’m no authority.
“I’ve heard different,” Frank said. “Well. Sort of. I mean he was like a bandit. His wife was gang-raped, and a friend was hanged and he turned to vengeance. He was a criminal, yeah. But as revenge against the men who’d destroyed his life.”
“Well, you’re the history guy,” Billy looked at me. “Earn your paycheck.”
“Hey man. I studied the history of supermarkets.” This was true.
“Besides, sometimes, the story we tell about the past says more about who we are than the actual facts and is, therefore, the more important historical fact than the actual history. Sometimes the fact that we can’t find out the facts is more important.”
“Who are you? David Carradine in Kung Fu?” Billy sneered. “Speak English, man.”
“Yeah,” Frank said. “Tell us what really happened.”
“Well,” I began. “We know that there were some serious robberies happening in the southern mines. How serious, really? Who knows? There were different interests involved in creating hysteria perhaps…And we know the state legislature passed an act to raise a kind of posse. And then there’s Murrieta’s head—or somebody’s head at least—in a pickle jar, along with the hand of three-fingered Jack, supposedly. It’s all very complicated.”
“Are you kidding me?” Med chimed in. “You’re putting me to sleep, man. Can’t you tell a goddam story? First, to answer your question, Frank. No. We will never know what really happened. In 1853?! For chrissakes, you can’t tell me what you did today.”
“What’s the deal then? We’re just supposed to make up stories?” Billy asked.
Med took a swallow of his beer. “Look,” he said. “Joaquin Murrieta isn’t just a story about some bandit, or horse thief or whatever. It’s about this Valley. Where we are. Who we are. What state we’re in. And not just geographically or politically.”
“Are you trying to channel Master Po now?” Frank said. “Because, frankly, Paul was doing a better Kung Fu job.”
“Of course, we can know some basic facts,” Med continued. “But they kind of miss the point. The story about Joaquin Murrieta is more about how folks turned this valley from being part of Mexico into part of the US of A. And you can’t deny that that meant taking power away from the Mexican Californios and turning it over to the Anglos—racism is important. And that happened pretty quickly.”
“All the White man’s fault?” Billy asked, rolling his eyes.
“Fault? Who said fault. Just look at the face of it.” Med continued. “Of course, race or ethnicity is important. This is how power worked. This guy, Joaquin, and his family come up here from Sonora right after the end of the war. It used to be Mexico, like last week. They’re up in the gold country, panning, running card games, trying to make a living.
“And what happens? The place is turned over to Anglos. The state passed a foreign miners tax, as an attempt to force these Sonoran miners and others out. The Mexicans are harassed, even the U.S. citizens who had been Mexicans. There’s the so-called ‘greaser law’ too, to control them. There’re new rules about testifying in court. If Joaquin’s wife was raped—and I wouldn’t doubt it—there’s not much they can do. So he turns to banditry.”
“And then look at what the state of California does,” Med waved his hand in a flourish. “They don’t go out and arrest the guy—you know, a trial and all that. This is still the Mexican War to them. This Harry Love and a bunch of Texas folks are hired by the state—a special military unit—to go out and just plain kill Murrieta, and others. They cut off two heads! Two! And bring ’em back in jars. They’re trophies, those heads. They say: ‘We own this place, goddamit! It’s ours.’”
“And so yeah. Murrieta was a ‘criminal,’” Med said with a snort. “I hope he survived like some say he did. Did you see the news story on the ride? The news-lady on TV called Joaquin ‘a man idolized by many in the Hispanic community as a Robin Hood type character.’ In the Hispanic community. It’s like White folks aren’t even allowed to like him. Like that couldn’t even be imagined. That about says it all.”
“Hey man,” Frank put in. “Us Oakies have Pretty Boy Floyd. Maybe it’s like that. Segregated Robin Hood stories.”
“And you know what?” Med turned toward Billy. “We don’t know who Mark Duggan was. And we never will. And folks in London—in Tottenham—don’t know either, but they’ll remember, and everyone else will be surprised when they do.”
Paul Gilmore teaches history at Fresno City College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.