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Review of:

Title: Searching for Joaquin; Myth Murieta and History in California

Author: Bruce Thornton

Publisher: Encounter Books, San Francisco

Features: 159 pages plus Notes, Bibliography, and Index; $26.95

Mark Dworkin

he past few years have seen a number of groundbreaking books that have served to clear away the myths surrounding the short and violent life of legendary California bandit Joaquin Murieta. This new book by California State University at Fresno professor Bruce Thornton is an important addition to recent works by John Boessenecker and others, and furthers the Murieta story by placing him more squarely in the context of his period of California history than before. Thornton's book tells Murieta's story well, and because of its stress on context, it also offers the reader a rich history of nineteenth century California.

In the manner of T. J. Stiles's recent Jesse James, Last Rebel of the Civil War , the author offers readers little in the way of new information about the shadowy Murieta himself. Like Stiles, what Thornton does in placing Murieta in his times is herald an exciting and overdue approach to a greater understanding of the legend. A reader interested in the minutiae of Murieta's life will search the book in vain for new revelations about either Murieta or even the writers who created his legend, men such as John Rollin Ridge. What Thornton offers are new interpretations about how early writers like the troubled Ridge used Murieta's brief story to live out what the author calls "their own revenge fantasies." Thornton also convincingly disproves the idea that anyone can use Murieta to understand Hispanic-Anglo history or even Californio -Mexican history.

Thornton deconstructs the romantic history of the early Californios , clearing away notions that have persisted into our time. The idyllic pre-gold rush life lived on the ranchero was a life supposedly characterized by gracious living and frequent fiestas. But it was a life built on Indian slave labor, people treated so poorly by the landed gentry that they were fed in pig troughs. It was a doomed life in any case, given what Thornton calls its 'chronic neglect and mismanagement.' The American seizure was merely the latest in a line beginning with the Spanish confiscation of the land from the Indians, followed by Mexican expropriation from the Spanish, and had the Americans not moved when they did, the likelihood was that the British would capture the territory.

For those who see Murieta and his crime wave as an inevitable result of Anglo-Hispanic conflict, Thornton demonstrates how Californios as often as not identified with their new Anglo rulers and not the even newer Sonoran and Mexican migrant criminals. Both criminals and victims, and even the posses that hunted criminals, were often ethnically mixed, social class and victimization mattering more than ethnicity. Understanding Murieta and his life simply by ethnicity breaks down under Thornton's scrutiny.

Murieta's gold rush era in California was one of chaos and brutality in human relations, singularized by an influx of rootless men on the make. It was a society without the leavening of women or families to soften its coarseness. There was banditry and criminal activity of all kinds, and wanton murder was a common occurrence. The modern concept of social banditry, robbing from the rich in a Robin Hood manner, simply didn't fit the time or circumstance. Murieta was only active in this maelstrom for three years, from 1850 to 1853, and never considered himself a revolutionary or social avenger. He was a thief and a killer, he and his gang leaving a string of victims up and down the length of California. Their targets were frequently innocent, non-resisting Chinese miners, usually found with their throats slashed. It is the twentieth century that made Murieta something he never claimed to be, a symbol of Hispanic revolutionary resistance and pride.

Thornton's case is that predatory crime and rapid retribution better explains Murieta's life than race and oppression, and that the latter explanations are based on a misreading of Murieta's short and brutal life. The book is divided appropriately into two main sections, history and myth. Murieta's personal story is merely a tiny chapter in the history, dominated by the epic tale of California. Myth and its uses and, more accurately, its misuses dominate this book, and Thornton's ideas should challenge everyone who has ever used, or intends to use, Joaquin Murieta as a symbol.


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