San Diego If the bears had not ripped Fred Gilbert's arms off, he might never have made the connection with Maria Amparo 40 years later. The accident happened when he was a boy. He'd gone to see an "outlaw" circus - more a band of wild animal owners - in Tecate, Mexico. "They were bedding down the animals, and seven of us boys started to fool around, sneaking underneath the tent. There were two rows of cages, and there was this lion that was asleep, and we dared each other to kick the lion's butt. So big-mouth here kicked the lion. It got up. I'm eight years old. You've got to remember what size I am. This thing stood up; it was like King Kong. I ran backwards. I hit the bears' cage. The [first] bear reached out, took my right arm completely off. Completely. Just swiped it off, like he was catching a fish."
Gilbert winces even now. "I felt the pain. I took off. I'm running with the boys, and the boys are screaming that I have blood on my pants - I was wearing white jeans - and they were starting to get soaked with blood. I couldn't find my arm. I looked back, and I saw it on the ground, and it was still moving, auto-reflexively. And I went back to try to pick it up. And then I lose the other arm to the second bear. I'm being ripped apart now, okay? I'm being mauled. The first bear has my face. He has his teeth into my skull. He cracks a bone. Then my uncles and some servicemen had some tent poles. They screamed and slammed at the bears. They tried to beat and lever them away."
It's as fresh now, 45 years later, as the day it happened, September 18, 1952. The men managed to free him. But there were no ambulances.
"The police didn't want to put me in their car because my blood would mess it up. I'll always be thankful for that, because they put me in an ice-wagon instead. Doctors think that's what actually saved my life. Because of the coldness and the cleanliness. It helped stop the shock and the bleeding and the infection."
That day defined Fred Gilbert's life. The feisty kid got gangrene, almost died several times, yet he survived. Even now, at 53, he carries the scar on his upper lip and the dents in his head where the bear's teeth sank in. He wears two artificial arms with calipers for hands. But he's made something of his life. He became a recreation counselor for the handicapped. He worked 30 years in the field and helped organize handicapped Olympics in Bakersfield, St. Louis, and Tijuana. He set up events such as Camp Friendship, day- and week-long retreats held in Old Town and Mt. Laguna for the handicapped. Among Central American immigrants in San Diego, he became known as a man who could help them find medical and social services.
Fred Gilbert drives his own car. He even has 90 hours' flying time to his credit with the Civil Air Patrol. Yet he's tried to commit suicide seven times. Not, he says, because of his artificial limbs. "I just couldn't handle not doing what I wanted to do. I spent nine months in a psychiatric institution for depression. It was frustration."
It was also attention deficit disorder. Discovering that helped. But his real rescuer - aside from his wife Journalyn - is a woman who died 102 years ago: Maria Amparo Ruiz Burton. "She has put a passion back into my life," says Gilbert. "The more I looked at her life, the more I could see: in a sense she's like me. She had to struggle all the way too."
It began four years ago, when Gilbert agreed to help his daughter Lucila with her Chicano history project for SDSU. Lucy had to write an essay on a San Diego pioneer. She avoided the usual icons - Cabrillo, Serra, Bandini, Dana, Horton. Instead, father and daughter, both bilingual, started wondering how people of Californio descent - Spanish who settled San Diego before Mexican independence - lived through the transition from Mexican pueblo to late-19th-century American town. Especially women. So Lucy chose Maria Burton, the most obscure woman she could find.
Burton lived during that crucial period, from 1833 to 1895. She was beautiful, educated, articulate, and adored - until she demanded to be taken seriously by the male establishment. She brought cement to the streets of San Diego, castor oil to its factories, and plans for a permanent water supply. She glamorized life in San Diego with her parties and reflected it in her novels and plays.
And, as with Gilbert, it was an early crisis that defined Maria's life: the American army invaded her hometown of La Paz in 1848. Maria was only 14 but already beautiful. After La Paz surrendered, she tended to the American wounded and dying and became famous when someone wrote a ballad about her.
The guns had hushed their thunder
The guns in silence lay
Then came the senorita
The Maid of Monterey
Although she loved her country
And prayed that it might live
Yet for the foreign soldier
She had a tear to give
And when the dying soldier
In her bright gleam did pray
He blessed this senorita
The Maid of Monterey.
Maria and her family went to live in Northern California's Monterey, transported there by the American commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Stanton Burton. He had fallen for Maria, perhaps at one of the balls La Paz society threw for the conquering soldiers. Burton, already a national war hero at 28, was stricken with love. He arranged for her family's transportation north to the safety of Monterey, where he proposed. And from that moment on, Gilbert says, Maria's life reflected all the tensions of living between California's two cultures.
For a start, says Gilbert, Burton was Protestant and she Catholic. Despite his status as a national hero, they had to marry surreptitiously, due to a governor's order banning all marriages "when either of the parties is a Catholic."
In that honeymoon period, the colonel and the daughter of the prominent Spanish family became the center of a social whirlwind. In 1852 Burton was appointed army commander at Mision San Diego de Alcala. The couple became known for their lavish parties. Colonel Burton also started building the breakwater in San Diego Bay, proposed the site for Fort Rosecrans, and supported railroad dreamers seeking to connect San Diego with the rest of the country. They also homesteaded Rancho Jamul southeast of El Cajon.
When Burton was called back east, to Washington D.C., Maria went too. She became friends with President Lincoln's wife Mary. "Well," she wrote with eerie foresight to a California friend, "the inauguration of Mr. Lincoln has passed without problem, and he has given his first public reception without having been assassinated as was expected."
But it was Maria's life after her husband's death that caught Fred Gilbert's attention. In 1869, she returned alone to San Diego, and like many Spanish Californians, found American squatters had taken her land. She was a spirited fighter, writing many of her own legal briefs, but the claims kept coming. She was to spend the rest of her life fighting a losing battle to hold on to property.
"Yet through all this," says Gilbert, "she kept coming up with great ideas for San Diego." She found limestone on her Jamul property, an important element of cement. She and her son formed San Diego's first cement company. She installed concrete sidewalks in downtown San Diego (still buried under Fourth Street's present surface). She grew San Diego's first castor beans to sell their oil to a local paint company. She even proposed a plan to bring water to San Diego using channels from the Laguna Mountains. Professor George Davidson of Berkeley, the expert she hired, said her scheme would bring "over 11 million gallons daily to San Diego."
"But she was a woman," says Gilbert. "They didn't take women seriously. The worst was they thought they could take her land from her because she was a widow and vulnerable. So many Mexicans ended up having to sell their land to pay for the legal fees they'd spent trying to hold on to it. The laws were biased against them."
For 30 years, Maria Amparo Ruiz Burton never gave up fighting, Gilbert says, suing and countersuing the "American squatters" in Jamul and Ensenada. She was in court almost every year. Finally, in 1885, she did something no San Diego woman had ever done: she wrote a novel that told the land wars story from the Californios' point of view. The Squatter and the Don is a love story in the tradition of Helen Hunt Jackson's San Diego romance Ramona.
UCSD literature professor Rosara Sanchez, who is currently cowriting a biography of Burton, says Maria made no money from her novel, but The Squatter and the Don may have been her most important contribution to our understanding of early San Diego history.
"[The renowned California historian] Hubert Bancroft interviewed many Californios in the 1870s for his History of California," says Sanchez. "But their testimonials were never published! By 1885, Maria Burton knew that [the Californio side of San Diego's history] would not be made public. So she decided she would be the first person of Californio origin, of Mexican origin, to write and express how they felt about what had happened after 1846. It's a very important work. It's our first expression by a Mexican in the U.S. of not only dispossession, but exploitation, oppression - all kinds of problems that are still with us today. That novel is historically very important."
Maria wrote Squatter at 1421 Fourth Street, accepting free accommodations in a rented house from an army comrade of her late husband's, a far cry from the riches of rancho life.
At the time of her death from gastric fever ten years later, Maria was in Chicago, still fighting lawsuits. Her body was brought back to San Diego and buried in Calvary Catholic Cemetery, now a park in Mission Hills. "I found her grave in Pioneer Park," says Gilbert. "Her tombstone is gone. Just the inscription M. Burton.' Can you imagine such treatment for Alonzo Horton?" Fred Gilbert would like to see a play about Maria produced in Old Town's plaza. He feels it would be appropriate for the coming celebrations of the State of California's 150th birthday. But authorities such as the San Diego Arts Council have already allocated money to the celebration of more famous figures.
Gilbert himself is retreating to the Philippines, where the living is cheaper for a man on disability. But he's not giving up. On the island of Cebu, where he and wife Journalyn will pay $270 a month for a two-bedroom house by the waters of the Visayan Sea, he'll start dictating his play about "M. Burton." His fight for Maria, he says, is just beginning. "If she could fight to her last breath," he says, "so can I."