The Joaquín Band

Like a valiant explorer setting out through wild uncharted jungles to uncover a long-lost Mayan ruin whose actual existence is only half verifiable, Lori Lee Wilson embarks boldly through a dense thicket of myth and legend in search of the facts surrounding Mexican-American folk hero Joaquín Murrieta, who was either "a light-skinned romantic Robin Hood or Zorro type; a dangerous criminal who died violently; [or] an 'avenging angel' and guerilla rebel chief at war with the Americans and their capitalist tendency to tread on others for the sake of a quick profit." She emerges from her archaeological expedition with the clearest portrait of the man seen in perhaps his whole long and colorful posthumous career, a depiction that weighs all the evidence with care before venturing a composite.


The scene is Gold Rush California, just recently won from Mexico and incorporated into the USA. We first encounter Murrieta circa 1848, a young man enjoying life as a peaceable entertainer and card player, perhaps doing some mining on the side. After suffering various mortal insults and injuries to himself and his loved ones, he goes outlaw with some buddies.


Four or five years of various bloody and/or heroic exploits follow, before Murrieta meets his end at the hands of Captain Harry Love, ex-Texas Ranger dispatched by California's governor on his bandit-hunting mission. Love returns from his conquests with Murrieta's severed head--and the severed hand of sidekick "Three-Fingered Jack"--as proof of victory. The pickled head remains a sideshow exhibit in various locations around the West for some time afterward, before going missing. But perhaps, as in the disputed death of Billy the Kid, the head is not Murrieta's after all, as certain friends and relatives dispute its identity and an elderly man claiming to be Murrieta is still at large decades later.


Such, in very broad outline, is the saga of Joaquín Murrieta, as recounted in the many books, songs, plays, and films that followed immediately upon his death and for decades afterwards. But the magnitude of the attendant details, many of them contradictory, approaches Arthurian levels, and it is this bramble patch that Wilson plunges into eagerly and with confidence.


She first surveys the scholarly and popular accounts, sorting and parsing, comparing and sifting. Then she turns to diaries of the time, getting valuable eye-witness information. Next she makes a survey of the contemporary newspapers and journals, from both northern and southern California (disparate in tone and outlook) and from English- and Spanish-speaking publishers (likewise). The result is a lively back and forth between "individual perspectives and political points of view that have not been taken into account before now."


Through the whole judicious weighing of data, Wilson displays a time-traveler's affection and eye for detail. The scenes and people she conjures up are startlingly vivid and lifelike. Consider this portrait of Los Angeles:

Life in the sun-baked pueblo of Los Angeles was slow and a bit dull. The town was composed of adobe structures squatting back to back, with most local houses, stores, bars, and restaurants looking alike. Few buildings had windows, so doors were left open to let in light, with the result that horses and dogs wandered in, amid flies. Lumber was scarce, so floors were of hard packed, swept dirt. Although American farmers, ranchers, public-office seekers, and gamblers were sprinkled throughout the county, Los Angeles looked and sounded Mexican. Even the black men in town spoke Spanish: they were Californios [sic] or emigrants from Baja California and the descendants of freed slaves.

You can feel the heat and smell the scents and need to squint at the light of that passage. Suddenly, Murrieta's milieu grows vivid around us. Wilson's account seems to me eminently filmable. With Alfonso Cuarón directing and someone like Tenoch Huerta Mejía starring as Murrieta, the legend of the Joaquín Band might live on for another 150 years!

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo's column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.


July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

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