Joaquin Murieta: Sinner or Saint

Joaquin Murieta was a man shrouded in myth, mystery and romanticism.  It’s impossible for readers to not become fully enveloped in his adventures of violence and revenge.  At times, the reader sympathizes with Joaquin as a victim of injustice and bigotry.  Other times, the reader is easily disgusted by the brutal, oft unwarranted violent acts of Joaquin and his comrades.  By some of these depictions, Joaquin becomes somewhat of a heroic character and martyr to his fellow Mexicans in California.  In the same token, he is also largely demonized by the Anglo-Americans of the area.  Any crime committed in the state is deemed to be the workings of “Joaquin” – no last name necessary, although Murieta was only one of many bandits named Joaquin during that period – regardless of how far away the incidents were from each other.  The story of Joaquin Murieta fits in perfectly to the changing times of California and the idea of Mexicans vs. Anglos.  Based off the early depiction John Rollin Ridge presents of Joaquin, it is easy to see why the bandito did many of the things he did, and at the same time, the story clearly shows how easily the Anglo-Americans could vilify such a character.  Ironically, the author of the story has a somewhat similar story of rising from injustice and seeking out his own form of vengeance.  Ridge/Yellow Bird’s life story makes him unable to be an unbiased storyteller.  His depiction of the racialization of certain ethnic groups speaks volumes about his own personal experiences and tells a sub-story in which Ridge uses certain characters to represent deeper issues.

Joaquin was a man wronged – a man seeking vengeance upon any and all Americans (and often times anyone else) who crossed his path.  One of Ridge’s first descriptions of the bandit is as a hard working, peaceful young man.  “The first that we hear of him in the Golden State is that, in the spring of 1850, he is engaged in the honest occupation of a miner in the Stanislaus placers, then reckoned among the richest portions of the mines. He was then eighteen years of age, a little over the medium height, slenderly but gracefully built, and active as a young tiger” (Ridge 8).  Unfortunately, Joaquin’s “honest occupation” was short lived.  Like many other non-Anglo miners, Joaquin was forced out of his home and Anglo-Americans (and others) took over his job.  At first, many Anglos didn’t see Mexican workers as a threat.  However, as time went on and American capitalism grew, more and more Mexicans became displaced and lost their jobs.  Also, as immigrants began coming from farther away lands, Anglos started to make it even harder for non-whites to find work in the mines. “This competition between white miners and Latin Americans for economic position in the mining region led to the enactment of the Foreign Miners’ Tax Law of 1850, a clear example of an attempt at social closure.  The statute required a twenty-dollar mining permit from all ‘foreigners’ in the mines” (Almaguer 70).  Beyond the ethnically charged work force, the new “Americans” showed their superiority in other ways.  The same lawless men that took Joaquin’s land also went so far as to strike him violently upon the face and took advantage of his beautiful mistress.  Again, unfortunately, this was simply another sign of the times.  Many White men of the time believed that their alleged higher status equated a desire from Mexican women.  An infamous example of this is the story of Juanita de Downieville.  The woman, actually named Josefa, acted in self-defense against a drunken miner named Cannon who was attacking her and her male companion, Jose.  Despite the fact that Cannon acted dangerously and maliciously toward the couple, Jose and the pregnant Josefa were blamed for the murder.  Cannon was very popular around the area and was characterized as calm and peaceful, while Josefa was demonized as an antisocial prostitute.  Rodolfo Acuña perfectly describes this injustice by saying, “The attribution of bad character is part of the racist justification for abuse, but the nature of her character is irrelevant to the judgment that lynching anyone is wrong” (Acuña 118).  With this, the reader can see why Joaquin went of his hunt for revenge.

Joaquin, like many of his fellow Mexicans had been wronged, and he was taking the steps he felt were necessary to right them.  Mexicans could see him as their own sort of Robin Hood.  Oppositely, Anglos readily demonized him and criminalized other Mexicans because of his actions.  Joaquin became the scapegoat for crimes in the state and he was feared from county to county.  In one scene, Joaquin encounters a group of Anglos ready to murder him if they ever saw him.  “Looking up, he observed three or four Americans engaged in loud and earnest conversation in relation to his identical self, in which one of them, a tall fellow armed with a revolver, remarked that he ‘would just like once in his life to come across Joaquin, and that he would kill him as quick as he would a snake’” (Ridge 31).  However, Joaquin was never one to shy away from a fight.  He announced to the man that he was Joaquin and that if anyone was to do the shooting it would be him, and just like that, he was gone.  Later in the story, Ridge points out just how much of a name Joaquin had made for himself and just how Anglos reacted towards him.  “He had scarcely land on the other side before he was attacked by a party of Americans, (for it must be borne in mind that the whole community was aroused) who, being superior in number, poured hot lead into his midst with such bewildering rapidity that he was compelled to fly to the utmost precipitation, leaving, in his hurry, several very fine, loose horses” (Ridge 127).  From the myth that surrounded the man, to the real-life occurrences of others such as Joesfa in California, it is easy to see how Joaquin Murieta became a legend to the Mexicans and a villain to the Anglos.

Similarly, with the “facts” that are presented in the novel, the reader must decide for himself whether Joaquin is a tragic hero whose revolutionary acts were cut short by the very Anglos whom he wished to defeat, or if he was simply a crazed outlaw bloodthirsty for vengeance.  In many a scene throughout the novel, Ridge very much presents Joaquin as a man pushed over the edge.  “‘I am not the man that I was; I am a deep-dyed scoundrel, but so help me God! I was driven to oppression and wrong’” (Ridge 59).  Joaquin reaffirms the idea that he was pushed to his limits by those who wronged him. He turned from a peaceful, working man to a vengeful killer.  There are moments where he still shows his heart by letting innocent people live or returning a kidnapped maiden to her family.  But there are also moments where he and his band ruthlessly kill men simply for the money and the sport of it.  It’s often hard to decipher whether Joaquin is out for justice, thus making him a hero, or out for blood, thus making him a brutal murderer.  Ridge leaves readers with a final impression that puts the bandit somewhere between sinner and saint.  “His career was short, for he died in his twenty-second year; but, in the few years which were allowed him, he displayed qualities of mind and heart which marked him as an extraordinary man, and leaving his name impressed upon the early history of the State. He also leaves behind him the important lesson that there is nothing so dangerous in its consequences as injustice to individuals – whether it arise from prejudice of color or from any other source; that a wrong done to one man is a wrong to society and to the world” (Ridge 158).

Ridge himself knew all too well about injustice.  When the Whites of Georgia wanted the Cherokee people to move out West, Yellow Bird’s grandfather, Major Ridge believed it was futile to resist and advocated acceptance from the rest of his nation.  The migration happened, but those who had resisted decided to take out their anger on the Ridge family.  When the author was only twelve years old, rebels rode up to his house and stabbed his father to death.  That same night, his grandfather and a cousin were also murdered.  In the introduction to the novel, Joseph Henry Jackson writes, “Ideas of violence, sudden death, and – more important – long cherished revenge, might well enough have been planted in an impressionable boy’s mind by such events” (Ridge XIII).  In his teens, Ridge killed a man, perhaps acting out of self-defense against a man who was sent there to deliberately provoke an argument.  Nonetheless, Ridge himself was a man who knew about outrage.  His story is different than Joaquin’s in that he chose to write about malicious acts of revenge as opposed to enacting them.

Some readers might suggest that Ridge depicted such violent acts to satisfy the “blood-lust” and stereotypes of the Anlgos.  However, I choose to see it in a different light.  Because Ridge was not a “savage” as the stereotypes of his American Indian race suggested, he depicted savagery in his writing.  Ridge might have wanted to be an avenger himself, and that is why he chose to depict Joaquin in the manner that he did.  Conversely, he shows Three-Fingered Jack as a much more brutal character.  Perhaps this is a character symbolic of the changing America or perhaps it is the deepest, darkest place that a man could go.  Joaquin was the hero of the story, so he must act as such.  However, Three-Fingered Jack was a merciless side-kick who could be as gory as he chose.  A scene in which the two men come upon Chinese miners depicts the characteristics of the two.  Three-Fingered Jack conducts the pit-pocketing and violence, and Joaquin doesn’t dare confront him about the unnecessary act.  “The amount [of money from the Chinamen] was small – not more than twenty or thirty dollars – which so enraged the sanguinary monster that he drew his knife and cut both of their throats before Joaquin could possibly interfere to prevent it” (Ridge 48).  The violence against the Chinese continues all throughout the book.  Certain scenes in particular call out the ethnic group as being specific targets.  “The miserable Chinamen were mostly the sufferers, and they lay along the highways like so many sheep with their throat cut by the wolves.  It was a politic stroke in Reis to kill Chinamen in preference to Americans, for no one cared for so alien a class, and they were left to shift for themselves” (Ridge 97).  In all actually, the Chinese were treated horrendously and suffered greatly from the racist anti-immigrant laws being enacted in California.  Anglos viewed them as people completely contradictory to their own ideals.  “While they [Asian immigrants] too were unambiguously deemed nonwhite, these immigrants carried the extra burden of being a ‘peculiar’ people who spoke a completely unintelligible Eastern language, had ‘abhorrent’ culinary tastes, dressed ‘strangely,’ and practiced a form of ‘pagan idolatry’ clearly at odds with Judeo-Christian religious traditions” (Almaguer 8).  I might suggest that Ridge saw Chinese as strange foreigners coming into Mexican territory and changing their livelihoods.  Similarly, Anglos came to Ridge’s home and completely changed his life.  Be it as a symbol of times in one way or the other, Ridge’s depictions of racialization and violence (especially against the Chinese) are heavily influenced by the author’s own personal life.

The man, the myth, the sinner, the saint: there are many faces of Joaquin Murieta.  While John Rollin Ridge’s novel is heavily fictitious, the true occurances of the time of the California Gold Rush and the racializations of Mexicans, American Indians, and the Chinese creep through.  Ridge’s own life experiences cause the author to insert his own biases – symbolic or not.

Works Cited

Acuña, Rodolfo. “California lost: America for Anglo-Americans.” Occupied America: a history of Chicanos 118. University of Colorado Electronic Reserves. Web. 21 Sept. 2010. <http://ucblibraries.colorado.edu/circulation/ereserves/pdfs/courses/FALL%202010/ETHN%202001,%20ALDAMA/ON%20COURSE%20NOW/CH%205,%20CALIFORNIA%20LOST.pdf&gt;.

Almaguer, Tomas. Racial Faultlines: The Historical Origins of White Supremacy in California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Ridge, John Rollin. Joaquin Murieta. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1955.

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