The dusty yard they call the plaza is silent, except for the roar of one voice. ''You' re afraid, aren't you? You won't face me down. First you fire me in front of all the Indians and then you won't face me down! Well, this time, ColoneI Couts, you're going to, like it not!"
A couple of doors clunk quietly closed. The wind sifts through the newly planted trees and around the tall flagpole that once flew the Spanish flag, then the Mexican green-white-and-red tricolor, and now the 36 stars of Old Glory. The two men stand in the ditch beside the Estudillo house. The only other live things are a couple of chickens scraping the dust outside the little brick courthouse.
Juan Mendoza, the ex-major-domo of Colonel Cave Johnson Couts’s Rancho Guajome, is carrying a six-shooter and a knife. For weeks he has been making loud challenges in the bars for Couts to have enough cajones to come into town and show his face. Now, finally, he’s appeared, with a riding coat on and a shawl over one arm. Mendoza starts ranting again. “You fired me in front of the Indians, and you’re too yellow-bellied to...”
He suddenly stops. Couts has pulled away his shawl. Opened his coat. Mendoza’s face drains. He sees the black shine of a double-barreled shotgun. He turns to run.
The man falls into a bed of green reeds. Blood pumps red among them. He groans. Doors open. People from all around the plaza of the pueblo of San Diego see blue smoke drifting up from the twin barrels of Couts’s shotgun.
For a moment he looks down at the man. Then he looks up at the house of his late father-in-law, Don Juan Bandini, at the very spot where 20 years before, in 1846, Don Juan’s youngest, most coquettish daughter, Ysidora, fell into his arms. Legend has it that it happened as he rode into town. Lieutenant Couts then, part of a procession of Black Dragoons of the U.S. Army come to reinforce the American occupation of San Diego. Ysidora was so excited, the story goes, she leaned out the window too far and fell. Lieutenant Couts caught her perfectly, saved her life. Scholars point out that Bandini’s house had only one story at the time. Still, Couts returned to court Ysidora, and even though he didn’t speak a word of Spanish, he and Ysidora were married, and he was accepted as an extension of a Silver Don family.
Now, 20 years later, a man is dead at Couts’s feet — and not the first one. The Silver Don’s fortunes are sliding, and he is about to face a murder charge.
He turns back to where his horse and wagon are tied, climbs aboard, and trundles out of the square, bound for his distant Rancho Guajome, near present-day Vista.
That’s where we’re standing now, exactly 130 years later. Guajome. From the Luisefio wakhavumi for frog pond.
There are five of us here, chatting in the morning sunlight in a green dish-shaped valley: Cave Couts’s two great-grandsons, Chris and Kirk Richardson, me, my wife Carlita, and her cousin Kathleen Brennan. In a way, this is one of those connecting moments. Carlita and Kathleen are also descendants of Cave Johnson Couts and the families he married into. They’re some sort of cousins to the Richardsons, but they had never met. Today is the first time Carlita has ever seen Rancho Guajome, one of the last and one of the most magnificent haciendas of the Silver Don era, and a symbol of past glories for the whole family.
Ever since I married Carlita, I’ve been hearing about the Californios, the glittering life that the Silver Dons led before the Americans came and “occupied” Alta California. The great families who created this town, the Estudillos, Argueilos, Bandinis, Alvarados, Carillos, Machados, Wrightingtons, Crosthwaites, Serranos, Osunas had ranchos often so huge they still fill entire pages of the Thomas Guide, on the big blank spaces of pasture-land outside town.
Both Carlita and Kathleen have talked, in the ten years I’ve been in San Diego, of their grandmother Arcadia and her insistence they recognize the glory of their Spanish grandee roots. They were members of one of the “great families” of New Spain, which had owned huge tracts of California before the Americans...
When Carlita is really mad at the government, or at some politician coming to the border with tough talk about tripling walls to keep the hordes out and “shipping them all back to where they came from,” she always yells, "They are the illegals! The Americans came in and took our land! Stole California! What Iraq tried to do to Kuwait!”
Then she gives me the basic history to back it up. The leather-jacket soldiers and Father Serra tramping up Baja, founding the San Diego mission in 1769. The rise and fall of the missions, the era of the great land grants. The Silver Dons’ great asset, the “California Banknotes” — the hides of their cattle that they shipped by the million to the Orient. Then the U.S. forces occupying California in 1846. The Mexican-American War. California joining the Union in 1850. The gradual swamping of the Dons’ lands by squatters and immigrants. The abandonment of romantic, collegial Old Town in favor of pragmatic, gridded, centerless New San Diego. The feeling, among the old Spanishspeaking families, of being strangers in their own land. “Can you believe,” says Carlita, “I had Spanish beaten out of me at grade school? They rapped my knuckles when I spoke my own language, California’s own language.”
Carlita points out that her brother Fred and son Frankie both look like a reincarnation of Don Santiago Arguello, the tall, haughty comandante of the San Diego presidio whose family “came over with Cortes himself’ and whose ranches covered present-day Tijuana and Mission Valley.
Yet I’d always wondered, Is this real, keeping all this tradition alive? What is it with all these great Californio families? Do they even still exist?
Just down from us, near the chapel, is the carriage courtyard, where Couts must have confronted Mendoza, told him he was drunk, told him he knew about certain crimes in Sonora, and fired him. We’re in the middle of a valley crusted with housing developments lipping over the surrounding hills but stopped there by a historic preservation order. This rancho is just completing a $1.2 million makeover. A restoration, which recently won an Orchid in the Orchids and Onions community design awards. “One of the last savable structures from the great 19th Century rancho era,” says Mary Ward, historian of the County of San Diego.
The two-courtyard adobe is unique but in some ways not genuine. Couts was an Anglo who married into one of the Californio families and built this tribute to the culture he had married into, wanted to be part of.
“I felt it,” says Chris. “Every day I told myself to look and remember. I knew this had to come to an end.”
The extraordinary thing about these two guys, the Richardson brothers, is that in a sense they are literally the last of the Silver Dons. They are direct descendants of Juan Bandini’s daughter Ysidora and Cave Couts, who built this adobe and turned it into the grandest social center of the area. Their family has lived on the ranch since 1853. These men spent their childhoods on horseback, working cattle, checking fences, living the vaquero life. Inheriting the Spanish traditions. The only difference was they had to ride to Vista High School and participate in the American life outside.
Carlita goes off on her own. She wants this first encounter with Guajome, this icon of her past, to be private. Cave was her ancestor too. She needs to think. But the rest of us wander through the carriage courtyard, with its outside fireplace to keep vaqueros warm in the early winter mornings, its sheds for carriages, its stables, jail, foreman’s room, harness room, chicken house. It’s plain this wasn’t a farmhouse; it was a self-contained settlement. “I went down to Antigua Guatemala just a little while ago,” says Chris. “The houses down there were built in the 1540s, 1580s. And guess what? They’re exactly the same as this! The courtyard, water fountain, long porches, breezeways, giant bird of paradise plants, the bougainvillea, the Cherokee climbing rose, adobe walls four foot thick. It was there. Boom/This is new compared, but the way of life built into it is exactly the same. Not like our square boxes these days.”
When Cave Couts was thinking about the design for his grand house, in 1851, Antonio Garra, a mission-educated Indian chief, was starting a general Indian revolt against what he aptly labeled “taxation without representation.” He made threats to wipe out the entire settler population. So Couts’s first thought was for a fortified home. The inner-courtyard concept suited this perfectly. He filled the glassless window gaps in the two-foot-thick walls with wooden bars spaced close enough to stop burning arrows penetrating. He put a guard platform on top.
But then, as tensions eased and Couts made more money selling his cattle for meat to the miners of the gold rush, his plan was to make Guajome the grandest of all the Spanish haciendas. In 1867, says county historian Mary Ward, “The ranch house became the elaborate headquarters for the owner’s huge operations. Couts built a complicated irrigation system for his vast orchards, vineyards, and produce. His vaqueros managed large herds of blooded stock. And the couple became a legend for their gracious hospitality. Guajome was a favorite overnight stopping place for travelers headed north to Los Angeles and San Francisco.”
We wander and chat throuh the patio and veranda and the 28 rooms, from the old schoolroom to the bakery and out to the private chapel near the basin where Cave Couts is said to have bathed every day, winter or summer.
“You must have had quite a life here,” I say. “How come you left?”
Chris gives a bitter laugh. “Someone said I ought to make T-shirts of the eviction notice,” he says. In the late 1970s, it turns out, authorities decided Guajome was too valuable a historic landmark to leave in the hands of private owners.
“It was a joint venture between the State of California and the County Parks,” says his brother Kirk. “They wanted my grandmother Ida, my father, Chris, and myself to basically take the clothes on our back, leave everything else here, and leave. They wanted to keep it all intact, with the furniture.
“This is the oldest standing adobe in the state of California in this pristine condition,” says Kirk. “And it’s the only one with two courtyards. And they wanted it because it’s such a wonderful asset to California history. My great-grandfather built it, and our family chose to live here for a long time, and as the time had passed, the county steps in and says, ‘It’s of great historical interest. We’re going to take it from you, or we want it. It’s no different than when there’s a freeway going through.’ ”
“Land of the free?” says Chris. “You don’t ever own the land; you just rent it for a long period of time.”
“I carry a U.S. passport because I have to. If I could carry a California passport, I would. I see myself as a Californio. That’s my identity.”
The passionate young man holding forth here in the plaza is Dimitri Callian, looking way less than his 30 years, a descendant of one of San Diego’s original settlers. Josef Manuel Machado was one of the Spanish leatherjackets, soldiers who sweated up through Baja California with the Rivera y Moncada expedition in 1781 in the name of the King of Spain.
For Dimitri, 215 years and 13 generations and two nationalities later, the identity of California and those leatherjackets and the separate Silver Don culture they helped create here in Alta California is still worth fighting for.
“I grew up — I have to say — with a great dislike of Americans. Anglos. There were many Californios who did not support the Americans or their occupation of California in 1846, and it was not so much out of identity of being Mexican as it was we knew that their coming was an invasion. An invasion! It was a threat to our way of life.”
He and I and his mom, Georgia Callian, who is chairperson of the descendants’ group here, are walking through the Machado de Silvas house, oldest of their family homes near the plaza. “It was dirt floors, of course,” Georgia, a petite woman with intense green eyes, says. “Wood was scarce. So was tile in the early days. We [her ancestors) used to wait for the matanza, the annual killing of the cattle [for their hides, mostly sold to American and British vessels bound for the Orient and the East Coast], and use their blood to form a glaze on the dirt.”
The houses are whitewashed inside, with simple furniture, shelves slung from the few crossbeams so adobe walls wouldn’t be weakened by holes, and porches out back that surround gardens with herbs, fennel, olive trees, and vegetables. The patriarch of Georgia’s family, Josef Manuel Machado, had had to marry before being allowed to join the soldados de cuera — leatherjackets — because Spain wanted to populate Alta California. So at 23 he married an 18-year-old girl named Maria Carmen de la Luz Balenzuela before leaving Sonora.
“It always strikes me as fateful," says Georgia, “that our family is here at all. When Josef Manuel and the expedition arrived at the Colorado River, their commander. Captain Rivera y Moncada, sent all but nine or so soldiers onwards toward Los Angeles. And the Yuma Indians murdered Moncada and his nine remaining soldiers. If Josef Manuel had stayed with him, we would not be here.”
As it was, Josef Manuel had 9 children, and his son, Joseph Manuel, who was based at San Diego’s presidio, had 10 more. Joseph Manuel was one of the first to bust out of the crowded presidio and, despite fears of Indian attacks, build a house down on the meadows near the San Diego River, right where Old Town plaza is now. His house, still there on the plaza, stayed full of Machados — sometimes with 11 kids at a time — from 1830 up to 1966, when the roof leaked and the adobe was crumbling badly.
But the family’s future, and Dimitri’s attitude, were probably decided on Wednesday, July 29,1846, when a U.S. Marine guard came ashore from the 22-gun American corvette USS Cyane in San Diego Bay and marched the four or five miles up to Old Town plaza — the pueblo plaza beneath the presidio — and around 4:30 p.m. raised the Stars and Stripes on the tall mast in its middle, ending 77 years of Spanish and Mexican possession.
That’s when Georgia’s great-great-aunt Maria Antonia Juliana Machado did something brave and stupid.
“In the plaza, everybody was apprehensive about what was going to happen that day,” says Georgia. “But Maria Antonia Juliana felt so strongly, she rushed out of this home — the Machado de Silvas house we’re in — and cut down the Mexican flag so the Americans would not desecrate it. She stuffed it under her skirt so they could not get it. Right after, a man named Albert B. Smith climbed the flagpole and nailed the American flag to it, because she had made off with the halyards. She was so frightened about retribution that she left the house and went down to the family’s El Rosario rancho in Rosarito and never came back for the rest of her life.”
People of the pueblo weren’t all behind Maria Antonia. The American flag Smith nailed up was probably the one Juan Bandini’s daughters had sewn for the occasion they all knew was coming. Maria Antonia’s own sister ended up marrying Smith.
As we walk across the plaza toward Juan Bandini’s lavish two-story casa, I imagine Maria Antonia, right here, 150 years ago last July 29, taking her knife and her courage in her hands and racing out to the mast, exactly where it is now. Did she climb up it with the knife in her mouth? Did she haul the flag down? Were others staring, clapping, running away as she did it? Whatever, singular gestures like Maria Antonia Juliana’s deserve to stay alive here. I don’t blame her for hying to the safety of the country whose citizen she had always been.
We join the crowds in Casa de Bandini restaurant patio. It was clear, even to Richard Henry Dana, writing in Two Years Before the Mast, that in this pueblo’s square in 1835, it was the Bandinis, the Estudillos, the Arguellos, and the Picos who were the social elite, the gente de razon around here. But among them, it was Don Juan Bandini, the man who had brought the waltz to California in 1820, who was Mr. Party. Even when he was in desperate financial straits, his wife, Doha Refugio Bandini, thought nothing of throwing a fiesta that would set him back $1000 — and that’s 1840s money. You can almost feel his ghost delighting in the hordes of tourists that throng his patio every night, singing “Cielito Lindo” and throwing back giant pink margaritas.
In fact, as Georgia and Dimitri and I come in and sit down, trays of the lily pad-size margaritas circle us, on their way to the latest wave of tourists, quite a few Mexican. This Old Town plaza has bypassed Sea World and the San Diego Zoo as the number-one destination for tourists in San Diego. Georgia says figures show that most families on vacation want to go where there is some history to explore. Dimitri says this is precisely what has turned his heritage into a commercialized attraction where he no longer has a place.
But why does Dimitri so completely identify with the Californios — especially now, 150 years after all this happened? It turns out there was a moment that changed his life. When who he was defined him in other’s eyes as...other.
“It upsets me to think about it, but I think the moment I discovered who I really was was when I was a youth. My father came to pick me up after school. He had mariachi music playing on the car radio. Just a normal, everyday occurrence. My father had Mexican music on. And the other kids heard the music. Up to that point, I was Just a kid, you know? I was ten, fifth grade. Just another white kid in school.
“And all of a sudden, the next day, I was the only ‘beaner’ in school. And the only person who would talk to me was a Vietnamese kid, who was the only Vietnamese kid in my school, and a black kid, who was the only black kid in my school. 1 became an outcast. A little beaner.”
In history class a few years later, Dimitri defended the Mexican position once too often. “I was thrown out of class because I told the teacher that he was a liar. He was talking about how the Americans ’triumphantly conquered Mexico and brought about this great civilization in the Southwest’ and how ’they brought all these wonderful freedoms and gave them to the Mexicans, who didn’t have anything.’ And when this man said that, I spoke up and I just said, ’Hold on. Just a second here. We were fine without you, your laws, your racism. It wasn’t the Mexicans who were dealing in Indian slaves. It was the whites that would enslave Indians and sell them.’ Right out in Warner Springs, there was a slave-trading operation in California Indians! Of course, you never hear about it because why would the Americans want to talk about something they did which was so negative?”
Dimitri was asked to leave the class. “When that happened, three Mexican students left with me. A show of solidarity. The white students were totally shocked. The teacher told me, ’Well, you have to understand. I’m keeping it sanitized. Simple. So the students get a little bit of an idea of what happened.’ I said, ‘Well, give them an accurate idea.'
“And that’s the problem with most people in California today in San Diego. You often hear this comment, ‘Send the Mexicans back! They don’t belong here.’ Since when do we not belong in our own land? They talk about the Alamo. I have absolutely no sympathy for any of the people that were killed at the Alamo. They were traitors. They had signed citizenship papers, many had become baptized in order to become a Mexican citizen, and then they turned their backs on the country that had welcomed them in. When they came there and took land, they became citizens of the nation of Mexico. They reneged on their oath of citizenship, of allegiance to Mexico.”
It also crystallized for him the year his class came to Old Town on a school visit, and “all they talked about were the Americans. ‘The Americans did this, the Americans brought this to San Diego....’ And I was thinking, ‘Hold it. This is not what I've learned from my grandmother, my mother. This isn’t true. You guys didn’t bring civilization here. It was already here! What are you talking about? The whole attitude was that the Americans brought society, civilization, here. And that there was nothing here. It was just all unsophisticated people living in huts. I guess at that point, that totally geared my changes from being an American anymore, because I found myself always on the outside ((Hiking in, to where I didn’t need to be an American.” “It is the same with our relatives on the other side of the border,” says Georgia. “I have a cousin — he has a rancho — still down in Rosarito, no telephone, no electricity, part of the Machado ranch from the old days. He’s a cousin, but born and raised in Raja, owns property. He’s Mexican. We are separated by 150 years’ different history, yet we finally met recently, and he said to me, ‘No somos Mexicanos como los otros Mexicanos (We are not Mexican like other Mexicans).’ In other words, he holds himself apart from the Mexicans. So when he said that, I was, ‘Wow! There’s someone else, separated for generations, and yet he feels the same as us. We are the same even though it’s a different branch of the family.’ Gee, that was really a moment for me. Because it is what I have felt too. We Californios are a different people.”
“And when I say, ‘Well, I’m a Californio,’ "says Dimitri, “in the silence you get then, you can see them thinking, ‘Well, what kind of an odd creature is that? I don’t know what you are.’ ”
Does Georgia regret allowing Dimitri to be a frontline troop for the Californio cause? “It was easier for me, because I grew up in a large, supportive family. Dimitri was Don Quixote. He was ready to tilt the windmills. I’d have to rein him in a little. But he’s right. We were too generous when this was our land. Our people tolerating the squatters is one of the reasons that the Americans got such a foothold. Because many, many of the Californios were too hospitable to turn away the poor people who didn’t own anything, who came with all they had in their little wagon and who were sitting over there on the edge of the pastureland in a tent. Those were poor people! You took pity on them. You might give them a cow to butcher. That hospitality was paid back by people squatting, taking the land, and pushing the Californios out. And those were the kinds of things that set Dimitri off when he discovered them. They made him absolutely livid.”
“Absolutely pissed off,” says Dimitri. “Mom would have to calm me down. Suddenly the American flag did not represent freedom; it represented occupation and destruction. The Statue of Liberty and the Constitution and all of that go right out the window as far as I’m concerned when it’s convenient for the Anglos to do something to their advantage. I’m very well versed in U.S. history, but as far as I’m concerned, it was a lot of hypocrisy. I was a very angry young man. Not that 1 reacted violently or anything like that. But I carried around my resentment, and I wore it on my sleeve. Now I wage a much subtler war. Last weekend I was out with two friends of mine. We were having dinner, celebrating his birthday, and some people sat down three chairs over from us. They started talking about Mexicans. The sushi chef said, 'Well, I have many customers who used to come from Mexico before the devaluation.’ And the guy started making comments like, ‘Oh, what did they order, taco sushi with tortillas?’ Then somebody brought up (Proposition] 187. They should pass it. Too bad Pat Buchanan’s not going to be president because maybe we could ship ’em all out.’ At first my friend said, 'They’re ignorant people.
Don’t say anything.’ But when he heard 'ship ’em out!’ he got pissed off. And he’s an Anglo. He saw I had reached my point. He got up and went over to them and said, ‘Look, you just insulted me and my friend. My friend there is Mexican.’ First thing out of the guy’s mouth was the classic ‘He doesn’t look Mexican.’ My friend said, 'You’re just an ignorant person.’ ”
“Californios, ” says Georgia, “depend on family. We’re family centered, and that means the large extended family. When we get together, say across the border, it’s not important for me to know exactly what relations these people are, nos and tias and primos—even though it might turn out their cousin-ship is two or three relationships removed. Second or third cousins. Whenever we’ve been united as a family, whether it was at a barbecue or a family baptism, or a funeral, that was your uncle or your aunt or your cousin. The relationship wasn’t what mattered. The blood tie was what mattered. To me that’s part of that old Californio tradition, that old character that’s come down to us from the California days. That feeling of family, of connectedness. Dimitri hit it off famously with Tio Gus. He was 94 when he passed away, and one didn’t speak very good English, and the other didn’t speak very good Spanish, but those two would get on famously. And it was wonderful to see them closeted off underneath the grape arbor, and Dimitri would be picking his brain about the ranch when they lived in Baja.” Uncle Gus was clearly the person Dimitri went to for support in his lone battles in the Anglo world. “For me too,” he says swallowing, “the family [is what is important).” You can see emotion choking him up. He’s talking now of the safe harbor, his emotional foundation, his recharging unit. “The connectedness that I had with my tio. I mean, he was an old man, 80-some-odd years old. Gustavo Serrano. But just a word of love and support from him...”
He wipes away tears. His nose is running. His cheeks are red. He pauses for a long moment. “I knew how he thought. I knew his pattern of thinking. There wasn’t 60 to 70 years and two cultures between us. There was no gulf there. I would show up with my mother and he would see me, and he would just.. .light up. And being the oldest member of the family, he was the patriarch. You paid respects to him first, and then everybody else. And the minute I would show up, he would have me sit right next to him. That’s where I stayed, all day.”
“(UncleGus) spent most of his life in Ensenada,” says Georgia. “And when I was a very small child I loved to go visit him because he was a lobster fisherman. And he had his little dory that he rowed out to check his lobster pots, and we had absolutely the most wondrous feasts when I went there. Lobster, frijoles, and my Tia Maria made the best tortillas. And we’d sit there and I can remember just being stuffed to the gills! And he used to come up every once in a while on a bus from Ensenada with a gunnysack full of lobsters. Ring the front doorbell and there would be Tio Gus.”
“I talked to him about being uneasy with being American,” says Dimitri. “He told me it was okay to be Californian. To be Mexican, and to feel proud. It only reinforced everything that my mom told me. For him to tell me that brought about more fire. It’s come to the point where sometimes I don’t even like to come to Old Town because they’ve turned it into Disneyland. They’re more interested in making a dollar. It really disturbs me that the Californios don’t have a voice in showcasing their heritage. The city and state do what they want with our heritage. And it’s like: ‘So glad you could make a fast buck off of us.’ They’ve been doing it since they’ve arrived. That’s really my feeling. They’ve been making money on as since they got here. And that’s why I'm more radical than any of my family members when it comes to being a Californio. ” How radical? Dimitri is a royalist. Seriously. “That has been handed down. Not in an open manner. My mother didn’t say, ‘Son, our family’s always been royalist and you will be a royalist.’ But my grandmother, as we were growing up made it a point of explaining that we were royalists and that we were proud of being royalists.” “One of the family traditions," says Georgia, “is that on the Serrano branch of the family, my great-grandfather — who had Rancho Santa Cruz in Baja — his family was from Avila in Spain. In that family, one of the ancestors was regent for the Spanish crown, when there was a child king. So that sense of pride was engendered because we had that tie to the Spanish crown. We had served to support the monarchy. It’s a family tradition.”
But — a monarchy for the U.S.? “I will be honest if anybody asks me,” says Dimitri. “I’d rather have a monarchy than a republic. The majority of people here cannot rule themselves. We Californios didn’t support the idea of the Mexican republic. This sentiment got passed down in subtle ways. We have never celebrated the Cinco de Mayo. That’s not a big holiday in our family. Nor do we celebrate September 16, Independence Day. I believe that a monarchy is a way of connecting the individual to the past. And that is what is lacking in most modern societies. The individual has no past. And when you have no past, you have no future.
In California, if I could change history, I’d have a monarchy, with Maximilian. Yes! Our family is very sympathetic to the cause of the emperor in Mexico. It was American money that was the cause of Maximilian’s overthrow. Most Mexicans think it was patriotic. Our cousins the Riveralls were supporters of Maximilian. My grandmother passed this tradition. Pro-empire, pro-Maximilian.”
Dimitri and his (Mexican) girlfriend even went to Mexico City and paid homage to the portraits of Maximilian and his wife in the palace they once occupied. “It was a very tearful moment,” says Dimitri.
But surely, living in Surf City, there’s some room for compromise?
“I’m not interested in giving up my culture to fit in,” Dimitri says. “To water it down is an affront to my family, to my history, to my culture. Every day I fortify my mind in the knowledge of who and what 1 am and where I come from. It has nothing to do with superiority over anybody else. But it’s my right to hold these feelings. There’s a lack of spiritual depth to this society. Give people their identity. Let people embrace their past. That’s the answer. Then they’re somebody."
“Actually, there were a lot of Californio people who backed the Americans, back in 1846,” says Georgia. “Some, like General Mariano Vallejo, who was very much in favor (of the Americans taking over California], tried to gain support for them and were in correspondence with the Americans. There were others who were sympathizers who didn’t get involved, and then there were a lot, the majority, who did not favor it at all. They wanted to get rid of the Americans. All of these people that were coming and squatting. That’s what it was. They were interlopers.”
“Illegal aliens, if you like,” says Dimitri. “And it’s a nice thing to note that the general, Vallejo, within a few years, lost a lot of his lands in Northern California to American interlopers. Kind of a nice turn of events that a traitor would he stabbed in the back by the very people that he supported.” Traitor? Isn’t that a strong word?
“To me, (it fits) anyone who supported the Americans."
And juan Bandini? “He wasn’t a Californio. He was Italian from Peru.... How much identity he had in being a Latin is debatable.”
It doesn’t matter greatly to Dimitri that the Bandini family had lived for centuries in Spain.
“I would not say he is regarded as a traitor,” says Georgia. “There were a lot of people made their peace with the new system pretty soon. And it’s also true that for the Californios, there was kind of a unique position even then, before the Americans. For instance, they resented having to collect taxes and send them to Mexican authorities. They didn’t feel they were getting much support from them. During the early presidio years, when we were part of Mexico after the Mexican Revolution, supplies never came up. Uniforms rarely came up. Men were never paid their wages. They were very much left to make their own uniforms and try to fend for themselves. Which is the reason that they began petitioning for land to run cattle on. It really was out of necessity. And then, when they established the tallow-and-hide trade with British sailing vessels, that gave them a real economy for the first time. But before that, the ranchos were just a way of maintaining a family because there was no support from Mexico.... And so there was a lot of resentment against the Mexican regime.
“There was a lot going on,” she continues. “And this was an area when the families, the soldiers, felt a great loyalty to Spain. My relative Juana Machado Wrightington was interviewed [late last century), and she talked about when she was a very small child — when the (Mexican independence) revolution happened she was about eight. She remembers her father coming home here to the plaza with his hair cut short. The Spanish custom had always been to wear a pigtail, a queue, as the Spanish toreadors still do. That was seen as a kind of loyalty to the Spanish crown. She recoiled when her father came home, his hair cut off. The new Mexican military demanded it! It happened in 1821, a year after the revolution. It took that long to come up to California. When we became aware of the revolution, that we were no longer part of Spain, there was a real sorrow recorded in the people. They didn’t want to be part of Mexico. They didn’t want to be an independent country. They didn’t want to be revolutionary. All of a sudden it was foisted on them. Juana Machado’s mother cried when her father came home with his hair cut."
“And it’s not just how we’re seen from here,” says Dimitri. “When I was down in Mexico City this last summer, I spoke in depth (at a dinner party) to a professor of history at the University of Mexico City. We were talking about north-south policies. He made a comment somewhat derogaory toward Mexicans north of the border. He felt that many Mexicans were betraying the fact that they were Mexicans, to blend into the American culture, to stop speaking Spanish, to stop being Mexican. Somebody disagreed and he said, 'Well, historically the Mexicans that were left on the other side of the border weren’t really Mexican.’ ”
Dimitri bristles all over again, as he mast have at the dinner party. “I said, 'I beg to differ with you: I’m a Californio.' And he goes, ‘Then you’re a royalist.’ And I said, 'What do you mean?’ And he says, 'Well, to us, to the academia of Mexico City, the viewpoint is that the Californios were royalists. They did not support the independence. That they were not sympathetic to Mexico’s political independence outside of Spain.’
“And I told him, ‘Well, you’re absolutely right.’ I said, 'We were Spaniards. We were Spanish subjects. But once Mexico became independent, within 20-some-odd years, when Mexico was attacked by the United States, we did more than perhaps regular Mexican military did [to defend California for Mexico). We have to say that the Californios were not a regular military operating army. They were ranch hands who formed a cavalry.’ I said, ‘You’re talking about how un-Mexican we are, when perhaps we’re more Mexican than even you are because we fought for our country! You guys ran away!’ He said absolutely nothing. What can you say when a historical fact is there — that you didn’t defend your own nation, and you halfheartedly defended it outside the city gates? — when we fought them all along California, from Monterey to San Diego. A theater of operations that, if you think about it, was huge.”
“So you see,” says Georgia, “in many ways, we Californios are, we are seen as, quite a separate people.”
The man with the paintbrush stays in the shadows. He waits until the straggling cars of late-night drinkers weave away into the night. Behind him the dark of the cemetery creates a gaping black hole in the side of San Diego Avenue. He juggles paint can and flashlight, dips in his brush, wipes it on the can’s lip, bends over in the road, and quickly, like a pigeon dabbing at food on the sidewalk, starts painting bright little white crosses in the street.
Make that repainting. There are 14 faded crosses already painted on San Diego Avenue. Beneath each is a dead body.
One of those bodies, the man doesn’t know which, is the “Geronimo” of Southern California, Antonio Garra, who led the Indian uprising of 1851 and was executed here by firing squad.
Abel Silvas, actor, standup comedian, agitator for Mexican and Indian rights, son of the Silver Don Silvas family, which married into the Juanerto Mission Indian tribe of San Juan Capistrano, paints quickly, all the time checking for oncoming cars.
The original crosses were painted by Lawrence Riverall, the man who single-handedly restored the Campo Santo, the old pueblo’s cemetery. Riverall realized that the bottom of the cemetery — where all the Indians, ne’er-do-wells, and criminals are buried — has now been chopped off and — unbelievably — is part of San Diego Avenue. These bodies are being run over thousands of times a day. Riverall called for that part of San Diego Avenue to be cut off. Silvas says he got death threats by way of reply. Only one body has been taken away from this indignity, an Anglo, naturally. Assemblyman Edward L. Greene’s earthly remains were exhumed and placed in the cemetery proper.
It was ground-penetrating radar that located the bodies in 1993. Kiverall painted the white crosses to mark 14 of the 22 bodies under the tarmac, but then he himself died. Silvas simply wants to keep the memory of these poor souls alive. After he finishes daubing, without getting caught, he goes to an all-night cafe and tells the waitress he’s just located 14 bodies. “She thought 1 was a crazy man,” he says.
When I first meet Silvas, it’s a breezy Saturday afternoon up on the sloping lawns of the presidio. Families are picnicking. I guess the only difference between 1996 and 1796 — when this hilly shoulder was surely buzzing with soldiers and their families and the friars and Indian workers — is that slick river-sound coming up from where the river used to flow, traffic from I-5 and I-8 sends a constant noise over everything.
We look down at an unmarked depression in the lawn. “This is the grave of my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Jose Miguel Silvas. Born about 1732. I’m still trying to find out where he was born. And I’m going to find out. I have been working on our family history for nine years now. I’ve left my other work so I can do this. That’s how important it is to me."
And how he came to start this trek back into his heritage is pretty marvelously unexpected too. “It was my teacher, who was Marcel Marceau. I studied mime with Marcel Marceau. I’m one of his first students in this country after he decided to (establish] a school here in the United States in '84.1 applied, auditioned, and was accepted.”
After two years, Marceau told Silvas he needed to go back home.
“He said, ‘You’re Native American, right?’ ‘Yeah.’ ‘Well, you should go back to your people because your people always communicated in mime.’ ”
Silvas hadn’t explored his Indian identity, but he came back, wrote a letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs. They wrote a letter back specifying what tribe he was — Juaneno, associated with San Juan Capistrano mission, but actually stretching through North County, L.A., and most of Orange County.
Marceau turned out to be right: tribes did communicate by mime. “And even more so in San Diego,” says Silvas. “In California there are six major Native American languages, and that’s broken into several dialects. If I were to travel up beyond Encinitas, it’s a total different language. So mime was the storyteller. We did not have books. The way we learned was through storytellers. And mime was the perfect medium (between dialect groups].”
It was nine years ago that he came back and began checking his roots, learning the stories of his people.
Two years ago he returned to Marcel Marceau in Ohio and told him the ancient story of the first deer hunt from the Kupa people up in Warner Springs. “I wanted to make a mime of it, and he broke it down to a simple universal story you can tell in mime, anywhere! And now it’s one I can tell, here, anywhere, even a hundred years from now, and people would understand the moral of it."
We start walking down toward Old Town. Abel says he has a three-way identity problem. His family divided on loyalties to Spain versus Mexico, Mexico versus the States, and colonist versus Indian. “People ask me, 'What do you think about Father Serra?’ Well, my family brought Father Serra here, and my family were Indians in Father Serra’s church. So — conflict! I don’t like the way history books have separated first the natives, then the Mexicans, then the Americans into separate boxes. I mean, wait a minute. I’m living proof that I am all these.”
But his focus is Garra, the man who spread terror from San Diego to LA. and beyond during the “Garra Uprising.” For a while in 1851, settlers were terrified they were all going to be pushed into the sea by a general Indian uprising up and down both Californias.
“Antonio Garra is a Kuperto,” says Abel. “He is my hero. He was the last Native American chief of Southern California who stood up against the U.S. government. He was our Gieronimo here. He was executed in the middle of the street down here. Yet he had been educated at San Luis Rey mission. He spoke five Indian dialects and Latin, and he studied the U.S. Constitution. General Kearny appointed him captain of the village of Kupa, on Warner Springs Ranch. What set it off was when Agoston Haraszthy, the first elected sheriff of San Diego, went up there and [told them], ‘Okay, you’ve got so much livestock, we’re going to tax you this much.’ He had them go up to Riverside to sell their cattle so they could pay their tax [Then] a year later [he came back). ‘You’ve got this many huts, this much livestock, you owe us this much money.’ But they figured they’d paid it last year. They didn’t see why they should pay it again. So Antonio Garra walked into the town hall and said these wonderful words: ‘No taxation without representation!’ That was California’s first tax revolt.
“So,” says Abel, “Garra got all the natives together and said, ‘Look, guys, first the Spaniards came, put us in missions, then the Mexicans came, and put us on their ranchos. And now we’ve got these Americanos coming here, and they’re coming from the east across the Colorado River. I’ve got a plan: we take their ferryboat. That means they can’t bring their horses, their guns.’
“Then a couple of people got killed. Possibly by Garra’s son. Garra was probably getting ideas from a white renegade named Bill Marshall. Marshall convinced Garra that if he raised the Indians in revolt against the Americans, the Californios and the Mexicans would join them. Garra sent runners [with his message].‘My will is for all, Indians and whites...this war is for a whole life. Then so advise the white people, that they may take care.’
“Word got around all right. Like wildfire. It was believed in L.A. and San Diego that an all-out attack was imminent, a combination of Cahuillas, Yuma, and other Colorado River Indians coming to join Diegenos and Luisenos. The uprising was from San Bernardino all the way down Baja. And my relatives could well have been involved. They and Garra grew up in the same mission. I had family that grew up in Oceanside who were the mayor domos (foremen] of the mission so they’d have to have had a relationship with him. Jos£ Francisco Silvas and Jose Maria Silvas. My grandparents were both Silvases.”
General panic spread.
“It was circle the wagons right around Old Town here," Abel says as we enter the plaza. “They formed a militia, which they called the Fitzgerald Volunteers. They snuck right out of the plaza, and they went to Ramona to get horses. They needed a posse to get this guy.
Then next, it’s kind of sad because an Indian turned Antonio Garra in. The man’s name was Juan Antonio. He has relatives still living around here. So does Garra.
“They tried him in the morning, right there on the plaza. They accused him of treason, murder, and one other offense.
“And he says, ‘Treason? I’m not even on your side!’ But they got him for murder. Three o’clock that afternoon they walk him out to an open grave, right in the Campo .Santo to execute him. And my cousin’s great-great-grandpa, Robert Israel, was in charge of the firing squad.”
We’re now in front of the Campo Santo, the Old Town cemetery. Just inside the neat little tree-shaded cemetery, modest, almost mythical wooden headstones dot the earth.
“Magdalena. Died March 7, 1867. An Indian Maiden.”
“Maria de los Angeles. Died September 19, 1867. An Indian Babe.”
“Excerpt from the Book of the Dead. ‘December 15,1879. I have given ecclesiastical burial to Jesus, Indian, 25 years, who died of a blow without receiving sacraments. They told me that he was completely drunk, and thus I command him to be buried near the gate of the cemetery.’ (Signed) Juan Pujol, Priest.”
Garra’s grave is at the far streetside end nearly against the wall of the next-door Cafe Pacifica. “Sacred to the Memory of Antonio Garra Sr. A leader among his people. Cupeno-Kavalim clan. Died January 10,1852. Rest in Peace.” “So the priest is walking Garra out,” Abel says. “And he’s saying, ‘Repent. Repent.’ And somebody said jokingly that Garra knew more Latin than the priest. And Garra says, ‘I will not.’ Finally, at the end, he says, ‘I only wish forgiveness if you ask forgiveness also. I'll say I’m sorry if you say you’re sorry.’ No, they certainly didn’t see what harm they were doing the Indians. So he actually died laughing. You know, ‘Fuck you guys ha ha ha...’ BANG!”
There is a small brass disk screwed into the headstone lower down. “See that?” says Abel. “That means he’s not buried here. That means he’s under one of those white crosses out on the road there.”
I look out over the wall. He probably died laughing right there, on that prosaic piece of sidewalk on San Diego Avenue. The last hero of Southern California’s native people was made to stand there in front of a big crowd, facing Robert Israel’s firing squad. The road beside it is scattered with a dozen four-inch white-painted crosses, some under the tires of parked cars, others in the road itself being run over by the constant traffic.
“Well, they’re only Indians,” says this Silver Don, with a wry smile.
Later I go back to the plaza, just to think about all this. How much life, and death, has gone on here. I walk through a bunch of guys coming out from Racine and Laramie’s tobacco shop, puffing away on the cigars they have bought. I go and put my hand against the flagpole. From all the old drawings, this is where the mast has always been. I can imagine Georgia’s great-great-aunt Maria Antonia Juliana Machado de Silvas running out here that Wednesday afternoon in 1846 to haul down the tricolor Mexican flag.
And I see U.S. Army doctor John Griffin looking sardonically on as 600 men from the small armada of American naval ships in the bay, Cyane, Congress, Savannah, and Portsmouth, get whipped into shape here in the plaza to defend the newly American San Diego from avenging Californios. “We had what I suppose was intended for a grand review," he wrote, “...20 dragoons on horses that would not have been used for anything else in the United States but wolf bait; some 80 or 100 Marines; some 40 volunteer riflemen; and some 40 jack-tars — all mounted on horses and mules. This presented certainly the most grotesque cavalry parade I have ever witnessed. All hands, however, got along remarkably well with their horses — except the Marines. They either had the luck of getting the worst animals or were the worst horsemen. A horse occasionally would become a little restless and give a slight kick, and off would roll the Marine, bayonet and musket, then another would give a shake and off would go another Marine.”
I look right to the little brick courthouse, where Antonio Garra walked out in January 1852, taking the last few hundred yards of his life, out of the square and into San Diego Avenue. Where unlucky Yankee Jim, a French Canadian, took the heat for a period of lawlessness and was sentenced to hang for stealing a rowboat in San Diego Bay. Up to the moment they whipped the horse and left him swinging, he thought they were joking.
That same courthouse is also where Roy Bean, brother of San Diego’s first American mayor, General Joshua Bean, was indicted for challenging a man to a duel — “assault with intent to murder” — and sent to the new jail on the edge of town. It proved new but not foolproof. Roy Bean dug himself out, hightailed it for Texas, made himself a judge, and became the "Law West of the Pecos.”
My eye follows some kids with a frisbee onto the grassy central area. That must have been where the bullfighting and bear-baiting and horseracing went on on fiesta days. Also where they loosely buried live chickens up to their necks, according to Dimitri Callian, and wagered on who could swoop past on horseback leaning over in the saddle and snatch a chicken up clean and in one piece, and alive.
Or those special nights. I can just hear the waltz music and the laughter pouring out of Don Juan Bandini’s house over there on the corner. The clunking of the boards, and around me, the kids or the older people, the Machados, the Marrons, the Lights and the Freemen and the Osunas, sitting in front of their houses watching and listening to the gaiety.
Sigh. I’m starting to empathize with Dimitri’s longings.
A few days later I’m sitting in a Starbucks with Monique Estudillo de Gutierrez. She’s a lawyer, mother, and descendant of the Estudillos who moved from Old Town after the American takeover to help found Tijuana. It was her brother Roberto who made the news in late August when the family’s Tijuana house was attacked and robbed by criminals posing as Federal Judicial Police. Monique looks so much like my stepdaughter Martita, I can’t believe it. But after a lifetime living on the other side of the border, in another country called Mexico, she knows nothing of her cousins here. Nor they her. She’s bilingual, has dwellings on both sides of the border, but leaves you no doubt that she’s Mexican by choice.
“We learned one thing from that experience,” Monique says, referring to the American takeover of San Diego and many of the lands in the county. “Never sell land. Since we moved to start again and build Tijuana, that has been the family motto. ‘Never sell!’ ”
The Estudillos still own two blocks of Avenida Revolucion. And Monique’s grandparents built a copy of Old Town’s Casa de Estudillo on a hill in Tijuana. “Except it’s a bit more luxurious.” Now she and her husband favor Tijuana “for nightclubs and restaurants” and come to San Diego “for clothes and movies, and sometimes visit Old Town — to show my son the old Casa de Estudillo.”
Back up in Rancho Guajome, the talk is over Cave Couts’s double-barreled defense against his major-domo. “That killing of Mendoza? Cave Couts got away with it, of course. He had a real bad temper but real good political connections,” says Chris Richardson. “I don’t think he was a very well liked guy at all. In fact, I think he was a mean son of a bitch. Or maybe he just didn’t have much respect for Indians and Mexicans. I don’t know.”
“There was a reason why he felt the way he did about them,” says Kirk. “Cave Couts was sent over here by the Army to do the territorial land survey. First people he ran into were the Indians. The first conflict he had was with the Indians, because he was the guy making the boundaries. So he had himself a problem with the Indians. All the information I have ever heard about Cave Couts is that — excuse my language — he was a rotten son of a bitch, but he was also a man of his word. I mean, you didn’t mess with him. He had a great deal of respect. A lot of people respected the man. You just had to deal with him.”
My wife, Carlita, is back from her lone wanderings. We’re in the family-quarters courtyard. The sun is catching the 100-year-old climbing rose’s new pink buds. “I always got the impression Cave Johnson Couts was a hard man,” she says. “My grandmother had a whip, which she used to keep in the kitchen. And she’d say, ‘See that whip? It was used to kill Indians.’" We all shudder. “I understood it was seven,” says Chris. “By the time he actually died, he was wanted for seven counts [of murder].”
Kathleen looks shocked. This is the family patriarch they’re talking about. Her relative as well as theirs. “Well, we certainly didn’t get any of this information about him in our family,” she says. “We had a much more genteel version of it. My grandmother maintained the notion of the old land-grant families and of their importance. We probably didn’t listen to her much. It was like, ‘God! We’d rather be out playing on the lawn.’ Generally, most of the history she tried to impress on us was that we were all of us important, prestigious people. We were special. We were descended from the Silver Dons.”
“Well, we don’t know much,” says Kirk, “because our grandmother Ida and my father just would never talk about the history of their family. If you’d ask questions, they’d say, ‘It’s none of your business’ or ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’ ”
Kirk, the man who was the last kid who ever lived here at Guajome, thinks a moment. “My favorite memories of this place are not the history. What I loved was the life. You wake up in the morning, you have to take care of your calf and your cows, feed your horses, come back, eat breakfast, go to school — ride to school — then you’d come home; you’d have to check your fences, do your homework. That’s what I enjoyed. Actually just living it. Just being here. Riding my horse to Vista High....”
Despite having the land taken from under them, the Richardsons recognize that the state’s million-dollar makeover probably saved the historic adobe.
“To tell the truth,” says Carlita at last, “this family-heritage thing has always been a tyranny for me. I was never going to be as grand as Granny. As great as Doha Dolores Estudillo de Bandini and her elegant life in the Casa de Estudillo. I think in a lot of ways I’m glad I came. It’s a kind of closure. I see this was a hacienda, just a ranch. They lived and worked here. It’s real. It’s not some fairy castle. This has been a curse in my consciousness. ‘You’re never going to live up to the Silver Dons.’ I mean, those were impossible acts to follow! Now, seeing this, feeling its ghosts, I think I can get on with my life. My life.”