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  Texas : Features : Humor : Column - "A Balloon In Cactus"

Joaquin Murrieta,
Robin Hood or Just Plain Hood?

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand

Everything about Joaquin Murrieta is disputed. He was either the Mexican Robin Hood or the El Dorado Robin Hood. He was either an infamous bandito or a Mexican patriot. He was born in either Alamos or Trincheras, in either Sonora, Mexico or Quillota, Chile.

He was either descended from Cherokee ancestors who migrated to Chile in the late 18th century, or a noble landowner of mainly Spanish blood. He either sympathized with Native Americans or with Mexicans.

One thing that is not disputed about Joaquin Murrieta is that he was born in 1829 and made his way to California in 1850, seeking to cash in on the gold rush. Legend has it that, while mining for the elusive metal element, he, his wife and his brother suffered an attack by American miners who envied his success and discriminated against him. Talk about sore losers, they not only raped his wife, they hanged his brother, and horsewhipped the innocent Joaquin to a bloody pulp.

Murrieta tried to do the right thing and sought redress in the courts, only to find further injustice. He was unable to prosecute the perpetrators because Mexicans were prohibited from testifying against a "white" man in California at that time.

Seeing no choice but to seek vengeance outside the law, Murrieta formed a gang of his own, who hunted down and killed at least six of the miners. Now Murietta and his band were outlaws, called The Five Joaquins: Joaquin Botellier, Joaquin Carrillo, Joaquin Ocomoreniaq, Joaquin Valenzuela and Joaquin Murrieta.

The Five Joaquins had a sixth member, not named Joaquin. His name was Manuel Garcia, who was affectionately called Three-Fingered Jack. The band rustled cattle and horses, robbed banks of over $100,000, and murdered no fewer than 19 men. It seems they did what they felt like doing when they felt like doing it, the crimes occurring solely in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The Governor of California, John Bigler, got pretty mad about this and created the California State Rangers, led by a former Texas Ranger inconveniently named Captain Love. Poor Love had the seemingly impossible task of finding and arresting The Five Joaquins (and presumably Three Fingered Jack), and could only offer the new California Rangers a paltry $150 per month. As an incentive, they could split a bounty of $5,000 if they captured Murrieta himself. On July 25, 1853, they got their chance.

An encounter between the Rangers and a group of Mexican men took place, and two Mexicans were killed. It was thought that one was Murrieta himself and the other was Three Fingered Jack. The Rangers must've been pretty bloodthirsty, because they stuck Garcia's three-fingered hand and Joaquin Murrieta's head in a big jar filled with brandy to preserve their trophies. They then displayed them all over Northern California where spectators paid one dollar each to see them. When they tried to collect the bounty, Murrieta's sister said the head did not belong to him because there was a scar on his face but no scar on the now-pickled head (which was lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake).

A mere year after this unseemly event with the head and the hand, legends about Murrieta began in earnest. San Francisco newspapers and even a book came out telling the story of the wrongs done him by the hostile miners, events which had unleashed the fury of Five Joaquins and a Garcia in their quest for revenge.

Truth about Murrieta background no longer matters. History and legend ultimately came together creating his posthumous reputation as a Robin Hood fiercely avenging injustices against Mexicans.

His life, truth or legend, has been the basis for many songs, novels, plays, and even the first Russian rock opera. Murrieta's story can also be seen in motion pictures like The Robin Hood of El Dorado and The Mask of Zorro, in which his brother is portrayed by Antonio Banderas.

Not a bad legacy for a man of whom so many facts are disputed.


Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
January 5, 2008 column

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