The Many Myths of Murrieta


Ay, what laws so unjust

To call me a bandit.

--From the ballad “Joaquin Murrieta”


Darting about a table littered with maps, antique books, Gold Rush-era portraits and a jug of Mexican moonshine, Alfredo Figueroa seems determined to revive this ghost if it kills him.


He’s chattering a blue streak, smoothing newspaper clippings, riffling census records and jabbing his finger at the name of the dead man they simply won’t let rest.

“We’re trying to clear up his name,” Figueroa insists.

The departed in question is Joaquin Murrieta. About 150 years ago, he became California’s first celebrity outlaw. Most historians agree there was such a person, probably born in Mexico and probably larcenous. Little else is clear.

But that has hardly been an impediment to scores of writers, poets, filmmakers and historians of all stripes. Murrieta has served as a veritable one-man cast of stock characters. There’s the bloodthirsty bandido, the defenseless victim, the heroic avenger, the Robin Hood. He’s short and dark, tall and blond, Mexican, Chilean, Spanish.

He is known variously as “El Famoso,” “El Patrio” and simply “Joaquin.” His image has served as Gold Country tourist gimmick and Chicano-rights icon. They’ve displayed a head (supposedly his) in a jar, dug (vainly) for his body on both sides of the border, and tussled so mightily over the tiniest details of his life that to write “Murrieta” with two Rs is to offend those who insist on spelling it with one.

More recently, moviedom turned him into Zorro’s ill-fated brother. And the novelist Isabel Allende converts him into a Chilean lover and miner in her latest work, just released in Spanish in the United States.

Now Figueroa, a former farm worker organizer, is leading an effort to establish a story line more ambitious, and charitable, than many over the last century and a half.


He claims that he and hundreds of other people around California and the Southwest are Murrieta’s descendants. They say Murrieta, no mere bandit, was stealing horses and weapons to arm a rebel force aiming to recapture territory Mexico had lost in the war with the United States. According to their account, he eventually retired to his hometown of Trincheras in Sonora, Mexico, where he died of old age.

They have no more definitive proof of their claims than other Murrieta theoreticians. If any Murrieta birth or death records exist, they have yet to be found. What paperwork does exist is about as solid, evidence-wise, as your average Bigfoot photograph.

Nevertheless, the descendants group and allies have managed in the last five years to get a park in Tucson renamed for Murrieta and have won the right to build a cultural center in Trincheras, where kin from both sides of the border have taken to congregating each autumn.

The group counts among famous Murrieta relatives Luis Donaldo Colosio, the Mexican presidential candidate slain in 1994, and the Chicano balladeer Lalo Guerrero.

“We no longer have to be ashamed that we are descended from Joaquin Murrieta,” said Figueroa, who says his great-great-grandmother was Murrieta’s cousin.

A Maddeningly Pliable Nature

It’s been 30 years since the world thought much about Murrieta, who, for all the media play, never quite cracked the A list of cultural icons, a la Pancho Villa. His last break came in the 1960s, when Murrieta enjoyed a political blossoming of sorts among Chicano activists who read in his banditry an early resistance to white racism against Latinos in the Southwest.


Since then, most Californians couldn’t pick his mustachioed mug out of a lineup and might sooner wonder if he founded Murrieta Hot Springs. (He didn’t.)

The outlaw horseman’s obsessive devotees may snipe over biographical details long ago stamped to dust. But others see universal appeal in Murrieta’s shadowy and maddeningly pliable nature.

“There’s part truth and part myth. But that’s part of the reality of Joaquin Murrieta--that he can be practically all things to all people,” said Mario T. Garcia, who teaches Chicano history at UC Santa Barbara. “He just won’t go away.”

To plot how Murrieta got here is to navigate a fun house of historical refraction. Fake leads and questions of identity taunt at every turn.

The best-known version of the Murrieta tale is basically this: A band of Mexican brigands led by “a desperate fellow named Joaquin” is blamed for a plague of robberies and brutal murders--some estimates reach into the hundreds--all over Gold Country starting in 1850. John Bigler, governor of the newly formed U.S. state, creates the California Rangers under the command of Capt. Harry Love to end the scourge. The state puts up a $1,000 reward, later raised to $5,000, for Joaquin’s capture, dead or alive.

The hunt only heightens Murrieta’s reported bravado. According to one historical account, he scrawls defiantly on a reward poster: “I will give $10,000 myself, Joaquin.”


On July 25, 1853, just before the reward offer is to expire, a shootout between Love’s men and a group of Mexicans in a Central Valley arroyo leaves two of the gang dead. One is identified by Love as Murrieta. With the reward in mind, Love lops off the head to verify his achievement. The hand of the second man, believed to be a savage henchman known as “Three-Fingered Jack,” is also severed. Both items are pickled in jars and displayed for months as traveling sideshow exhibits. Murrieta’s celebrity is equally sealed.

Yet a mystery mushrooms. A letter published in a San Francisco newspaper insists that he is still alive. It is signed “Joaquin.” In fact, there appear to be four or five Joaquins in related gangs, probably inflating Murrieta’s reported exploits even further.

The Murrieta legend got lasting legs--and human feelings--thanks to a sensational account published in 1854: “The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit.” John Rollin Ridge, a San Francisco journalist, told in romantic, storybook strokes how a buoyant young Murrieta was enjoying an honest miner’s life until lawless bigots raped his beautiful wife, lynched his half brother and subjected Murrieta to a whipping. This, Ridge wrote, shoved him into murderous vengeance against “the whole American race,” killing and plundering as he went.

“He walked forward into the future a dark, determined criminal,” Ridge wrote, “and his proud nobility of soul existed only in memory.”

Dismissed by some as whole invention, Ridge’s book nonetheless served up all the fixings--good and evil, revenge, the chase--needed to inspire a cascade of knockoff novels and brand-new story lines. One novelist cast Murrieta as a Spaniard who fought alongside the Texans in the war against Mexico. Another ditched the beheading and drowned him in a lake instead. And in a Spanish translation of a French rendition of a pirated version of the Ridge telling, Murrieta became--presto!--Chilean. (As in the new Allende novel, Murrieta also hails from Chile in a 1966 play by none other than Nobel Prize-winning writer Pablo Neruda.)

A Touchstone of Ethnic Pride

Historian Luis Leal, who recently completed a detailed study of the ever-changing depictions, said Murrieta was in the right place at the right time for dime-novel celebrity. California lacked larger-than-life characters and bandits, such as Robin Hood, who were in vogue during the Romantic period, said Leal, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois who is currently teaching at UC Santa Barbara.


But what has made Murrieta worth fighting about has been his role as a touchstone of national and ethnic pride. Writers and scholars from Chile, which sent many miners to California’s Gold Rush, claim him as their own. Mexicans and their descendants in the United States bristle at suggestions Murrieta could have come from anywhere but Mexico. He is described as a defiant outlaw from Mexico in a well-known Spanish-language ballad more than half a century old.

For Chicanos, a 1967 poem called “I Am Joaquin,” by activist Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, helped vault Murrieta into a pantheon of rebel heroes, such as Emiliano Zapata. He became viewed as a “social bandit.” His story captured “popular feelings of righteous indignation expressed in various ways by Mexicans as they came into contact with Americans during the middle and late 19th century,” said Emilio Zamora, who teaches Mexican American history at the University of Houston.

An amateur historian named Frank Latta finished 60 years of research in 1980, concluding that the bandit survived the ambush at Arroyo Cantua near Fresno only to die elsewhere a few days later of wounds suffered in a separate shootout. Still, a Fresno-area group for two decades has held an annual summertime ride and fiesta at the arroyo to commemorate the ambush.

A Missing Head, an Empty Grave

The Murrieta mystery has given rise to an odd fraternity of cognoscenti, who are given to saying nasty things about each other in private and taking the whole tangled business to eerie lengths.

Alberto Huerta, a professor at the University of San Francisco, once petitioned former Gov. George Deukmejian to have the supposed Murrieta head located and properly buried. Manuel Rojas, a Mexicali writer allied with the descendants group, went so far as to dig up the Mexican grave believed to be Murrieta’s. He said he found only a metal button, since mysteriously vanished. A Carmel screenwriter who has peddled a Murrieta script he says is the most accurate--Murrieta’s death is left a mystery--keeps a vial of blood and snip of hair provided by a distant Murrieta relative. The purpose is to aid genetic testing if a corpse is ever located.

Figueroa, once a colleague of the late labor leader Cesar Chavez, organizes yearly get-togethers for scores of Murrietas from both sides of the border. (The self-declared “descendants association” is probably a misnomer, because Murrieta apparently died childless.) Rojas, author of a book on Murrieta, is the group’s historian. Marian Acuna Rodriguez of Las Vegas is the family genealogist. She has combed Sonoran church archives and genealogy files in the United States, documenting many other family ties, but has yet to find proof of Murrieta’s life or death. “I won’t quit till I do,” she vows.


The group, citing tales passed by word of mouth across generations of Murrietas in Mexico, insists that he eluded the 1850s manhunt and fled across the border to Tecate. In the early 1880s, the version goes, Murrieta returned to Sonora with a second wife and ultimately died there.

The association has put up a monument and plaque in Sonora saluting “El Patrio,” and plans are afoot for a museum. Next, Figueroa said members want to clean up schoolbook depictions of Murrieta as a bandit. Figueroa has been singing the famous corrido about Murrieta since childhood and trying to mobilize Murrieta relatives for a decade. Only now is it catching on, he said. “We’re just a poor people’s campaign.”.

The timing may be perfect. Interest in Murrieta is up after his portrayal in the hit “The Mask of Zorro.” Several screenplays about his life are said to be making the rounds, and an early Spanish translation of the Murrieta saga is slated for reissue.

Meanwhile, Allende, in her new novel “Daughter of Fortune,” casts Murrieta as a miner turned bandit who is tracked to California by his Chilean lover. The woman hears of an outlaw fitting his description, but ultimately finds only his head in the jar. “The figure [of Murrieta] was so vague and so mythological that it allowed me to play with it any way I wanted,” she said in a telephone interview.

But stories alone will never solve a mystery.

Prodded for any documentation on Murrieta, Rojas, the writer, agrees to meet with a reporter across the border from his Mexicali home. He slides into a restaurant booth and pulls out a single plastic sheath. “No one has this letter,” he announces. “Absolutely no one.” Rojas presents an ink-blotched page. It mentions a planned arms shipment, ends with a battle cry: “All or nothing!” and is signed J. Murrieta. Rojas says the letter was given to him two years ago by someone who has since died.

The document is tattered but, on close inspection, not especially old-looking. The pale lines and torn edge suggest something more like 20th century notebook paper.


Rojas shrugs. He says he makes no claim it’s authentic.