'In an act of pure frustration, Modesta chose a symbolic act to voice her displeasure.' : Act of Defiance Stops Them In Their Tracks

Times Staff Writer

The gathering Sunday in San Juan Capistrano dripped with history. It was in Orange County's oldest town and was beside Orange County's oldest train station, which lies near Orange County's oldest continuously inhabited street, Los Rios Street.

And while the occasion for celebration was the 100th anniversary of the Santa Fe railroad's arrival in Capistrano, the main event was the re-enactment of a favorite local legend, the story of Modesta Avila, enemy of the Santa Fe.

A crowd of several hundred, which had already seen the exhibits of miniature steam locomotives and had heard speeches about the history and future of railroading, gathered around the Santa Fe tracks at the station to see Irma Camarena of San Juan Capistrano act out the story.

City Manager Steve Julian read the narration: Business at the Capistrano depot was booming by 1889, Julian said. The train was very popular--"but not to Modesta Avila. . . ."

"Modesta hated the train. It was noisy, dirty and a bit frightening. It kept her chickens from laying eggs, and its whistle kept her awake at night. Plus, the powerful California Central, parent company to the Santa Fe, had paid a pittance to people for right of way through their property. Something had to be done," Julian said.

"In an act of pure frustration, Modesta chose a symbolic act to voice her displeasure," Julian said.

Camarena as Avila strung a clothesline across the tracks and began hanging up her laundry. Several in the audience cheered.

Boos and Hisses

A simulated railroad agent ran to see and expressed simulated astonishment. He summoned a simulated sheriff, who, after a simulated struggle, removed the clothesline and took the offender away, to the boos and hisses of the audience.

"What happened to the woman who dared defy the mighty railroad?" Julian said. ". . . The dark-eyed beauty of San Juan became the first felony conviction in the new County of Orange, and her friends never saw her again. . . . In September of 1891 she died in (San Quentin) prison, having served two years of her term. . . .

"The railroad produced more stories, more local lore, but none so tragic as the story of Modesta Avila of San Juan Capistrano, Orange County's first felon, whose only crime was the desire for a little peace and quiet."

The story of an ordinary woman standing up to corporate arrogance, only to be cruelly swept aside, prompted a Costa Mesa biomedical engineer, George G. Siposs, to write an opera about the incident, which he titled "Modesta Avila." It was staged twice in Westminster in 1986.

More recently as part of the Orange County centennial celebration, Avila was included among 30 "women of courage" in county history, as selected by the county's YWCAs, said Mary P. Nolan, executive director of the Central Orange County YWCA.

The actual story of Modesta Avila is a bit less romantic, according to Jim Sleeper, an historian specializing in Orange County history.

Something More Substantial

Avila, who was 20 and single, had inherited land from her mother just north of the Capistrano train station. After the Santa Fe laid its track across her land, Avila demanded $10,000, and the Santa Fe promised compensation.

But by June, 1889, the Santa Fe still had paid nothing. According to Sleeper, Avila voiced her objections with something considerably more substantial than her laundry. She lugged a railroad tie across the rails, then had second thoughts and sent word to the railroad agent, who removed it before a train arrived.

She was arrested and prosecuted for the felony of obstructing a railroad track. It was not her first appearance in court. The previous year she had been convicted of "vagrancy," that era's euphemism for prostitution, and had spent 30 days in the County Jail in Los Angeles.

Her first trial for obstructing the tracks ended with a 6-6 hung jury, Sleeper said. She was scheduled for retrial the next week, but by then rumors of her pregnancy spread. She was convicted and within three weeks was in San Quentin to serve a three-year term.

Her lawyer, appealing to the governor for clemency, confirmed that she was pregnant and argued that the jury had been prejudiced by that fact. "Her real crime is that she is a poor girl not having sense enough to have been married," he wrote.

There is no record of the fate of the baby, and it is presumed to have died. Avila herself died in prison about seven months before her term was up.

The Santa Ana Standard's obituary was both sarcastic and compassionate:

"Modesta, a well-known favorite of the Santa Ana boys, died in the penitentiary this week at San Quentin. She had served two years of her time and was getting along finely when she was stricken down in the prime of her usefulness. Let those who are without sin throw the first stone."

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