Thursday, October 11, 2012

How the Land was Lost: El Potrero

At the end of June 2012, I traveled back to my homeland in the Carmel area of California.  My goal was to discover more about Rancho El Potrero, the piece of land that was awarded to my 5x great-grandfather, Fructuoso de Jesus Cholom Real by Governor Alvarado of Mexico soon after secularization (when Mexico, then occupier of California, closed down the missions).

You can read a little about my previous knowledge of El Potrero here.  That was all written before I had set food on the land, when I realized (as several other folks already knew) that El Potrero had been pretty much left intact, along with several other Ranchos in that area, and ultimately became part of what is now the Santa Lucia Preserve.

Prior to the trip, I had been in touch with people at the Preserve to arrange a day for a visit.  The Preserve is private land, about 22 acres, which was purchased with the explicit goal of putting up about 300 homes, a golf course and a few other recreational buildings, but leaving the bulk of the land virtually untouched or, in many cases, rehabilitated back to native California plants and animals.  The Preserve is also made up of several Ranchos from the Mexican era, and has changed hands only a few times since then.  That fact alone has prevented development, a real blessing beneath the curse of stolen Native lands.  So yes, my 5x great-grandparent's land was still in much the same condition it was when they owned it; but, in order to get near the land at all, I needed permission.

It seemed easy at first, with folks at the Preserve sending me very welcoming emails in response to my queries, but when it came right down to organizing a day and time, no one seemed inclined to be very specific.

Ultimately, I flew out of Virginia without a firm date, but plenty of faith in the Ancestors.  I knew I would get to El Potrero one way or another.  In a secret place in my heart, I hoped to find Fructuoso's cattle brand, which (despite many books and papers on California rancho cattle brands) seemed to have been lost to the ages.  Why was this brand so important to me?  I don't have a clue.  I just really wanted that sign, that mark - something that was as essential to my ancestor as a signature, a graphic statement of existence, of saying "I am here, this is my mark."  I am pretty sure that neither Fructuoso nor his wife Yginia were literate, so anything actually handwritten by them doesn't exist.  The brand might be as close as I could get to a mark that they themselves had invented.  But I didn't say anything to anyone.  It was a wish inside a wish.  Privately, I worried that it was a silly thing to desire.  Or maybe just plain old nerdy.

My first stop was at The Monterey County Historical Society, a small parcel of land in the Salinas Valley that looks deceptively unimpressive but is a powerhouse of information.

The folks at MCHS, with whom I had emailed earlier, had taken my "wish list" of names, places and topics to research and already done some of the digging.   James Perry, Mona Gudgel and Barbara Brown, are enthusiastic guardians of their priceless collection, and every time I made a discovery, we all celebrated.  For three days, I became very much a part of the big table surrounded by bookshelves in their office: white gloves, pencils only, and oh joy, digital photos allowed!

It's funny how research works.  Part sweat, part luck, part Ancestral grace.  On that first day, I made a huge discovery - or perhaps I should say, I was blessed to be discovered by a miracle: the actual hand-written record of Fructuoso's registration of his cattle brand.

I had requested this particular big red "Spanish/Mexican Record" book for something else, but I noticed as I leafed through it (looking for the indexed page number) that this volume had a substantial number of cattle brand registrations, complete with each rancho's brand itself on the page.  I knew Fructuoso had run cattle (no big surprise; it's what he knew from spending his entire life in a mission that became rich from cattle hides, known as "Mission Dollars"); I thought, well, maybe there's a chance...

You see, there is very little information about Fructuoso's ownership of Rancho El Potrero.  As radical and wonderful as it was - a Carmel Mission Indian ending up with the "potrero" or "pasture" of the mission - most history books tended to gloss over this quickly.  The Mission brands are all recorded, of course.  Here is the Carmel Mission's brand during the Mission Era:

and most historical records rush right past that, on to the American ownership of the land by the Sargents, a famous family name in California both before and after statehood.

No one seems to recognize what a gigantic accomplishment it was for a former "neofito" (new convert), an Indian neofito at that, to own, manage, and prosper on the land of his ancestors after that land had been so deeply and devastatingly colonized!  Perhaps because Fructuoso was such an anomaly, maybe even an embarrassing reminder of the way California's missions stripped almost a million Indians of their homes (and 90% of their lives), he and his family have largely been forgotten.

This is what I love about mining archives.  Indians appear in the archives not as ghosts, but as living, breathing human beings.  In the Bancroft Library several years ago, I found a map (or "diseno," design) of El Potrero that even the Santa Lucia Preserve's historian had overlooked, making the land even more real in my mind (Fructuoso had passed on by then, but the "Joaquin Gutierrez" name on the diseno is his son-in-law, and all land records also add Fructuoso's daughter's name, Maria Estefana Real - although the land record below mistakenly identifies her as Maria Esteban!).

So I knew about El Potrero.  I knew that Fructuoso de Jesus (his baptismal name, meaning "Fruit of Jesus") Cholom (his native name as recorded in the baptismal records) de Real (a name gleaned from his daughters' later association with Padre Real of Mission Carmel) had owned this land, and that his wife Yginia Yunisyunis, and later his daughter Estefana Real, and some of her children, had lived on this land for over ten years.  Then, the land was lost.  Lost, stolen, sold under false pretenses - that part, I wasn't sure about.  That part, the historians gloss over.

One of the reasons I was skeptical, at best, about finding Fructuoso's cattle brand was a couple of xeroxed pages in my mom's papers.  The pages are a from a hand-lettered little booklet she found somewhere which give brief pictorial histories of the California ranchos, along with owners, cattle brand, small map, and a photo if available (I can't tell you the name of the booklet, because she did not record it, but I saw an actual copy of it at MCHS myself - kicking myself for not jotting down the citation).  Here is what the booklet had for El Potrero:

As you can see, in the upper left corner of the page is Sargent's cattle brand, and midway down the right side of the page is Joaquin Gutierrez's cattle brand.  Gutierrez was briefly, as I have said, Fructuoso's son-in-law, and took over the rancho after Fructuoso's death.  Although Fructuoso's name figures prominently in the center of the page, that's the only mention.  His cattle brand, as in all collections of rancho brands, is absent.

All this is proof of absence - something common in Euro-American stories about Native claim to land in the United States.  But the Mexican Records that I was privileged to view at the MCHS are amazing: a collection of thousands and thousands of hand-written documents, receipts, letters, reports, and scraps of paper all bound into about 15 volumes, complete with a hand-written index for each and every piece of paper.  Can you imagine the work this was to compile?!  James told me that it was a huge project done just prior to California Statehood by Americans who, in part, anticipated the coming court battles over land grants.

A sample of how the Mexican Record books are constructed from many different kinds of paperwork.

Plus, of course, these records are almost all in old Colonial Spanish (with a some important exceptions, as you'll see).  Between the calligraphy and old Spanish, Mexican Spanish, faded ink and torn or missing sections of pages, these records take deep concentration to read, and a lot of "scanning" happens, when researchers just run their eyes over the page hoping that some key phrase, name or word pops out.

But I didn't need to be that systematic this time.  Right there at the top of a page, in big black script, was a name that my whole body is attuned to recognize:  FRUCTOSO DE JESUS.

Do you see it?  In the left margin, the cattle brand Fructoso (as spelled here) registered for El Potrero.  This is his official record of registration!  It looks, in fact, like a stylized capital 'F' with a small 'o' attached to the foot, almost an abbreviation of his name.  There is some mention of a Senora Gertrudis Lugo, who may be a witness.  The date is October 1835 (I can't read the exact date yet), and the person signing the registration is Jose Maldonado, complete with his rubric, the fancy flourish every decent gentleman practiced as part of his signature.

I was stunned.  I put my hand, white cotton glove and all, on the page, and thought to myself, "Fructuoso was here.  177 years ago, he stood in a room not too far from where I sit, just inches from this piece of paper.  He may have even touched this paper himself, to check the brand, or to see his name written out...he was here.  And now I'm here.  Reading his name.  Seeing his cattle brand.  Witnessing, after all these years, what must have been a moment of incredible pride and joy for my ancestor: legal registration of his right to the land which had, at his birth, been home to the village of Echilat, where his maternal family originated.  Here was a Mexican official, signing off on it."

I wondered if Fructuoso could feel me there.  Was he just on the other side, looking back at me?  The document was like a mirror;  me on one side, Fructuoso on the other.  Was he thinking of his descendents?  Was he hoping they would one day see this?  Or was he simply in a hurry to get back to the business of running a ranch?

I took many pictures of this document, but I am also going to formally request a hi-res scan.  It is beautiful.  In so many ways.

Later, James brought me a huge stack of probate records for Fructuoso's estate.  Probate records?!  I had no idea that any record of any kind chronicled what I had always guessed was a land-grab by Americans.  Over and over, Isabel Meadows tells Harrington about Americans who would simply "esquate" (squat) on Indian lands, for which Indians had deeds and paperwork, and announce that it was theirs.  I had not realized how many Indians took these Americans to court, hoping that the justice system would work (I also found paperwork for another ancestor, Paula Garibay, who did just that; but many other examples exist throughout this archive, and this semi-organized resistance to loss of land is something almost unknown that needs to be studied).  Isabel herself says that Sargent kicked the Indians off El Potrero, with some details about a Chilean who was hired by Sargent to pretend he was buying the land from Indians so he could actually pass it on to Sargent (since Joaquin Gutierrez was a Chilean, this is a chilling thought, one that does not bode well for Fructuoso's daughter Estefana).

As it turns out, the mystery of what happened to El Potrero after his death was complicated and heart-breaking, and even with all of these records, I may never know the details for certain.  The probate records (all in English!) go on for years after Fructuoso's death, five years in which his two daughters Josefa and Teodosia argue that their mother, Yginia, basically cut them out of their inheritance by selling the land to Gutierrez without their permission.  There is no mention of Estefana, the third daughter, the one who was married to Gutierrez.  Did she profit from the sale of the land to her husband?  Did she cheat her sisters?  Or was she, too, taken advantage of by Gutierrez and Sargent?  Did Yginia really agree to sell the land of her own free will, or was she somehow tricked?  Why would she favor Estefana over her other two daughters?  It's true that Estefana and her children came to live on El Potrero, but some sources say that Josefa and Teodosia also lived on the land.  In fact, in order to run such a large rancho (an itemization of Fructuoso's assets lists hundreds of head of cattle!), many Indians must have lived and worked there, and it makes sense that my ancestor would hire and house his own.  So what happened between Yginia and two of her daughters?

It sounds messy.  The distribution of inheritance has never been easy, it seems; add to that all kinds of historical trauma and post-colonial stress disorder, and you've got serious damage going on by all parties.

Here's what I think happened, in the end:  by the time this court case was over, all of Fructuoso's impressive holdings - land, cattle, cash, tools - had to be sold in order to pay off the lawyers.  There was nothing left to fight about.  The patent to the land was awarded to Joaquin Gutierrez in 1862, but the whole case had taken so long that Gutierrez had already sold the land to Sargent, and Sargent was not going to give it back to either Gutierrez or the Real sisters Josefa and Teodosia; this court case went on through 1870.  I have not found Estefana in any record after this time period, although I have seen a date for her death that is many years down the road.  Likewise, Joaquin Gutierrez disappears from the records (he is not the same Don Joaquin Gutierrez who had a home in Monterey).  Josefa and Teodosia go on, raising children and grandchildren, living in Carmel and Monterey, for some years.

It tore me up to read all this, to see on the page how families destroyed each other over land, money, material things.

But during this same visit to MCHS, I also faced a huge pile of probate records for the James Meadows estate.

I mean, LOOK at the number of times this probate went through court!  that stack to the left of the three records is about 8 inches tall.

I have long wondered how the adult Meadows children (the offspring of their English father and Indian mother) ended up without much in the way of security after their wealthy father passed away; photographs of Isabel as a young girl and young woman show her dressed very expensively, her hair carefully styled, obviously the daughter of a wealthy rancho owner.  And why, in his old age, was Thomas Meadows dependent on his sister Isabel to pay for groceries and rent, and why was Isabel herself willing to move 3,000 miles across the United States to live and work with Harrington (the Smithsonian ethnologist) for five years in her old age?  Was she that dependent on her small income from Harrington?  Well, how else would an elderly Indian woman from Carmel make enough money to send home to her siblings and other family  members?

I really don't want to write this next part.  In fact, I am purposely going to be very brief, because it is so painful.  But the probate records say it all:  James Meadows left the bulk of his estate to Isabel, with other large chunks going to his other children and the grandchildren he was raising (his son Edward had died earlier).  However, James wrote in his will that he was purposely not leaving anything to his eldest son, Frank, because "I do not approve of his conduct or his mode of life."  And Frank Meadows took that will to court with a vengeance.

At one point (and please, remember I am going on quick readings of the material at this point), Isabel actually gave up the main portion of her inheritance to Frank simply to close the will (given that her father mentioned in his will that one of Frank's problems with bad "conduct" consisted of trying to strangle his sister Isabel, this may have been a move made out of fear for her physical well-being, also); at first, Frank agreed to this, but later, he changed his mind, and more legal wrangling ensued.  Years of this went by, and the same thing that happened to El Potrero happened to the James Meadows Tract, as his land was called.  Eventually, the money ran out.  Isabel had used all of her inheritance to fight her own brother.  In the end, no one won except the lawyers, and both land and money were gone.

Isabel, who had grown up rather privileged and without needing to worry about where her next meal came from, no longer had a home, and her status in the community must have suffered drastically.  In effect, she lost all of the white privilege granted to her by her father, and became just another poor Carmel Indian.  Like Estefana, like Josefa, like Teodosia, and all of their children.

It is all too familiar.  Then - and now.  In-fighting.  Back-stabbing.  How deep do the wounds of missionization go?  How much of the misbehavior in these two cases was the direct result of having to scrabble for daily survival in the missions, un-learning the collective village socialization and learning, for lack of a better phrase, how to look out for Number One?  How much was caused by the introduction of alcohol, violence, the decimations of diseases, and much-reduced resources for food and shelter?

Did we forget how to be human?  Can we remember?  (in time?)

A few days after my last visit to MCHS, my sister Louise and I finally traveled to El Potrero.  The Santa Lucia Preserve came through - although the person who really knew the history and the historical cites there was away on vacation, another employee named Chris became our guide, and he was wonderful.

More about that later.  I can't write about that visit and these legal wranglings in the same post - it would take away from the presence of the land.  For now, I'll close with the video I took of the heart of El Potrero, the place where we think Fructuoso and his family had their adobe, where they lived for many years, and built up a prosperous rancho together.  It's a much quieter place now, no doubt; and the land has mostly recovered from the damage done to it by cattle.  In fact, the land looks more like it did back when Fructuoso and Yunisyunis were born there, when it was their home village, and not part of the Carmel Mission at all.  I find some comfort in knowing that this land is protected, and is not even on the Santa Lucia list of available house sites; it's a historic cite, and marked as such.

And there is comfort, too, in knowing that this land endures despite all of the human grief and mistakes that have happened there. 

Listen to the wind.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Waking Up in California

Because I have lived most of my life away from California, when I return for a visit I see it with different eyes than those who have never left.  Everything is new to me, and at the same time, I remember and know every detail.  There should be a word for that, a word for remembering what you didn't know you knew; the way déjà vu means you feel like something has already happened even though you know it hasn’t.  But déjà vu is not it, not what I feel when I step out onto California land.  This is, perhaps, more of a bone and blood memory:  the air, minerals, water, scents, pollen, light, angle of the sun and stars, that my body remembers, that some deep part of my brain remembers.  Usually this is triggered simply by being in California: feeling the thunder of surf on a flat sweep of beach, stepping over the rampant roots of huge fig trees bursting through slabs of sidewalk, or smelling eucalyptus on the evening air, running my hand along the ancient spears of agave or sitting beneath the shameless purple blossoms of jacaranda. 

Once, taking a bus a few years ago in Westwood, I suddenly stepped back into my four year old body, going up those bus steps, my hand in my mother’s hand, sitting next to the window looking out at hot sidewalks and palm trees planted along the way.  I had never consciously remembered taking the bus with my mom in Los Angeles, and yet once I stepped on that bus, I felt as if I’d never been without that memory.  It was as much a part of me as the color of my hair.

So my experiences in California now – as a middle-aged woman - are constantly doubled with memories of being a child here; sensory memories, emotional memories, that shadow my every move.  In some ways, this is like walking simultaneously on two timelines; my two bodies, one three or four years old, one fifty-one, connected suddenly by the geographic location and my history with it.  This probably wouldn’t happen with someone who had grown up in a place and never left, because there is no rupture in that timeline – it’s all connected.  For me, there is that moment when my mother and I got on a bus and left California “forever.” 

We took a Greyhound, actually, all the way from Los Angeles to Washington State.  I remember only parts of this (no doubt I slept much of the time).  I remember that someone had bought me a lovely new dark blue sweater that buttoned up the front, just for the journey, and that I left it on the bus when we got off.  How I mourned that sweater.  It had been a special gift for the journey, and I lost it to the journey.  I also felt bad that I hadn’t kept hold of my possessions, a little guilty that someone spent money on me and I’d wasted it. Mostly, I remember the heat: the bus must have had AC, but the sun beat in from the window anyway, and I stuck to the seat.

We must have gone up the middle of the state, up through the deserty valley, because my body is filled with those rolling golden hills and flat brown fields when I think of this bus ride.  We stopped at my grandparent’s home near Bakersfield for a visit, I recall; but then we got back on a different Greyhound and continued on to Washington, where my mother’s new husband and my new stepfather, Tommy, waited for us.  We would stay at his sister Tina’s house while looking for a place of our own to live.  I would enter another world, a lush, green, gray, wet, close, dark world.  And my Southern California body would withdraw deep into the core of my being, wrapped in fog and clouds and months, years of fir trees, rain, puddles, wet shoes and hair.  My California body would stay there, curled up, dormant.  Even when I returned for a visit at age nine, or when I visited Santa Barbara with my mother when I was nineteen, my California self didn’t emerge – completely enveloped in who I had become, a Pacific Northwestern girl, someone who had gone into that grey land and submerged herself, become a creature of water, mud, pine needles, decaying red cedar, salmonberries, creeks, stinging nettles that left raised tattoos on my skin, skin no longer the color of deep cinnamon brown but an olive-beige – reminiscent, I often thought as I grew older, of the underside of a mushroom.

Like most people who live in the Pacific Northwest for a long time, like any child relocated at this age, I quickly became fiercely territorial of my new home.  No other place was as clean, as beautiful, as friendly.  And California?  California became the Devil, signifying all that was wrong with the world:  impassable freeways, earthquakes, heat, violent upheaval.  People in the PNW who came from California did not advertise that fact; it was a slur to call someone a “California Driver!” or imply that some outsider was “from the land of shake n’ bake.”  Now I realize that part of this attitude must have come from my mother’s sense of having fled a past she wanted to forget, a place and time when she made unforgiveable mistakes and was subject to abuse that could not be forgiven.  She had fled California and who she had been there as if it were Hell on earth; as if the fires of Hell had caught her, burned her, left her with raging scars that could only be healed in the land of endless rain.  My mother was in hiding.  My mother had gone underground.  And she took me with her, because she had lost all her other children to the maw of a monstrous state that would never, never give them back to her.

And I loved my mother.  Oh, how I loved her.  My loyalty knew no bounds, and would suffer no correction of my mother’s behavior, even when that behavior wounded me past all healing.

So my California body slept.  Waited.  Dreamed.  Did it struggle to get out?  Or was it lulled into dormancy by the long wet winters that went on for ten months out of twelve?  I was always such a good sleeper, my mother told people.  I slept through car rides, bus rides, parties, even disappearing into my bedroom for self-dictated naps when life got too busy.  I became practiced at retreat.  I adapted.  I transformed.

At least on the outside.  On the inside, my body remembered everything.  I sit in this California coffee shop this morning and my skin tingles with what I know.  What I remember.  What I will remember.

Friday, October 5, 2012

My First Bad Indian

San Marcos, California. 7:20 a.m. 

I'm about to go hold Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir in my hands for the very first time as a published book.  I'm thinking about my first Bad Indian.

My dad once repeated the old saying, “The only good Indian is a bad Indian.”  Then he made that disgusted sound that meant he’d reached his limit.  “Ahhhh, hell.  Even when we’re dead, we’re not good enough.”  We looked across his small kitchen table at each other.  Left unsaid were the words, “So why not just be bad and enjoy it while it lasts?” but that’s what I was thinking, and suspect it was what he was thinking, as a way to explain his long and frequently bad life. 

I can still see him sitting there, old at last, the old age he never thought he would reach or deserve, still living with his third wife before they split and he ended up in Hospice; his hair now gone completely silver and thinning at last, his face lined, dark, his eyes watering with glaucoma, his tattooed arms having lost their bulk but still tight with muscles, his huge hands, the hands I will never forget, wrapped around a cup of coffee, fingers gnarled with arthritis.  His fingernails with those fine straight grooves on them, like mine.  My dad.  The man I know so little about, really, and about whom I know far too much.  Like my mother, I could never deny that I loved him – a love that sprang from someplace honest and naïve and tender deep inside me, from a place uncomplicated by lies and violence, by histories of betrayal and cruelty.  This kind of love that exists from me, for my father, is the kind of love I wish I felt all the time, and not just in these moments when I rise above all the grief like a drowning woman quickly grabbing a breath at the surface before sinking down again into the struggle.

I see him sitting there; he was so surprised by his old age, wondering how he got to such a weakened state – diabetic, arthritic, bad eyes, bad teeth, trouble swallowing – wasn’t it just a few years ago he was still out carousing in his beloved red truck, tearing up the road between our little trailer and the Red Rooster near the Muckleshoot Rez, king of his world, survivor of the worst the world could throw at him?  Oh, the stories inside that man.  He could tell them all day, when he was in the mood.  I imagine him talking to my younger brother all those years they lived alone together, telling Al stories I’ll never hear, and it gives me such a pause:  the light years apart that were their boyhoods!  My father, born in 1927, raised in Indian/Mexican family, the peculiar poverty of Southern California in the Depression, World War II.  My brother, born in 1971, raised for three years in Southern California, then snatched up and moved to Washington State: predominately white world filled with TV, computers, cell phones, ATMS.  Was there ever, really, any way the two of them could relate to each other?  It was as if they were from alternate realities.

But the same love exists between them, even stronger than what I feel in my moments of clarity and forgiveness.  It is a love forged out of alcohol, out of late nights, abandonment, rage, tears, hurt, fishing trips along rocky banks of cold rivers, eggs and tortillas and beans and potatoes, hot black coffee, Mariner’s baseball games on TV or at the King Dome before they blew it up, and oh, the tenderness that comes after violence when the two of you are the only family you have.

We miss him.  I never thought I would say that.  I miss him.  I wish I could talk with him again, sit down over coffee and a piece of his favorite apple pie, listen to him talk about his mother, how she "wrote everything down, like you," his grandfather, washing the old man’s feet, running bootlegged booze in his little red wagon, learning to swim in the Santa Ynez River, eating cactus apples and acorn mush because his father had left and they were poor, and his mother who isn’t Indian enough for the BIA went out and gathered what her ancestors had eaten for thousands of years, and fed her boys.  Stories about the day the four young Miranda boys were walking along the road, and a truck struck Richard, killing him; “I carried him all the way home in my arms,” was the most my father would ever say, in a voice strangled with a grief never resolved.  I wish I could listen again, Dad.

For every story my father told me, there are a hundred more he never shared, that I was never there to hear.  The history between us was a terrible storm on a sea that I couldn’t bring myself to cross often enough.  But maybe he told me enough, just enough, to maintain the thread across generations that is our family story, the story in Bad Indians that stretches back and back through all the bits of oral history, newspapers, mission records, ethnographic notes, census materials, back to where even stories can’t go, into a time immemorial where the Ancestors dwell, and whose presence sustains us.  Maybe the stories that I did hear are enough to keep us connected despite all the distances, the alternate realities we each lived in, enough for us to say that despite everything, despite history, we are still here, the thread between us still unbroken.  

The thread back to those Ancestors still wiry and tough, shot through with love.