Keeping Tradition Alive

Times Staff Writer

Thelma Robinson made her annual candlelight pilgrimage Wednesday night to the Boot Hill grave site of a Mexican pioneer whose quiet adherence to the traditions of her ancestors has lived on for a century past her death.

But a few months short of her 93rd birthday, she had to be driven up a steep, narrow road leading from the central plaza to the 140-year-old cemetery in this near-ghost town of crumbling adobes and miners’ shacks in the western Sierra foothills.

It was the 80th time Robinson made the solemn march that has become a unique blend of Mexican and Anglo cultures and a regional spectacle.


She sat in a lime-green Volkswagen New Beetle, holding her candle out the passenger window as about 200 people from as far as San Francisco trudged past, two by two, on a path aglow with luminarias, shielding their candles from a cold wind.

Staring at the flame, Robinson said she was “thinking of my mother, Louisa, who is buried here, along with 29 other relatives.”

The Day of the Dead is big in Hornitos, a Gold Rush town about 25 miles northeast of Merced with 85 souls, few of them of Mexican heritage. Fewer still know exactly why adorning the grave of Dona Candelaria de Sapien, who last lighted a candle on these graves that look like “hornitos” or little ovens, at the turn of the 20th century, has become a cultural imperative. They just do it.

Led by the Rev. Stephen Bulfer of nearby St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, cattle ranching families, merchants, farmers and other celebrants emerged at nightfall from the plaza amid the clanging of a recently repaired church bell that hasn’t sounded in more than a decade.

The honor of ringing the bell back to life fell to 4-year-old Joseph Quinn, who tugged on the steeple rope with all his might.

Then they followed a two-block stretch of Main Street, chanting the rosary or walking in respectful silence to gather at the grave of Dona Candelaria.

With owls screeching overhead, the priest blessed the souls of the dead, and praised Dona Candelaria for continuing the observance in her lifetime.

Marchers ventured out to place their candles on the graves of friends, loved ones and strangers.

Among the faithful were 40 descendants of Don Chema Arroyo from Merced. One of the youngest, Gaby Arceo, 9, beamed as her mother bent to light her candle and said, “This is my first time here. I came to pray for the dead.”

Larry Page, 63, of San Francisco, arrived with three candles: “One is for my last childhood buddy who recently passed away. One is for an old cowboy I used to know around here who died three years ago and one is for an unmarked grave.”

“I was a gawker the first time I came here in the early 1970s. Now, I’m a disciple, and I’m not even a Christian,” he added.

Locals residents say that Dona Candelaria invited everyone in this once bustling gold mining center, regardless of their spiritual leanings or ethnic backgrounds, to join in her expression of cultural heritage, and communion with ancestors and the divine.

Little is known of Dona Candelaria beyond an obituary published around the time of her death in 1903.

The one-paragraph notice in a local newspaper said she was a patriotic woman of considerable wealth who generously shared with the less fortunate.

A large Mexican flag always fluttered from a pole in the corner of her yard on Mexican anniversaries.

When Presidents Lincoln and McKinley were assassinated, and when Queen Victoria died, she lowered the flag to half-staff.

By her request, a gold cross that hung above a shrine in her room was placed inside her coffin.

It is hard to know whether Dona Candelaria, who was one of the town’s last original Mexican residents when she died at 86, wished the sundown celebrations would become an annual rite of fall attracting hundreds of people.

But local residents like to think she did.

Among them is Trent Williams, 61, the third generation of the Williams family to carry a candle to Dona Candelaria.

After the Mexican matriarch died, her annual processions to the cemetery were kept alive by Amelia Williams and her son, Winnie, who died last year at the age of 94.

Winnie Williams’ wife, Pearl, who hadn’t missed a Hornitos procession since 1934, was in the hospital recovering from surgery related to a broken hip. So the rite fell to her son, Trent.

Taking a seat in the church for Mass, he said: “I’m impressed again, and this is my 61st time. I’m really proud of Grandma and Dad for keeping this alive.”

At its peak in the late 1800s, Hornitos was home to about 15,000 people.

This so-called melting pot of the Gold Rush was settled by Chinese, French, Germans and Italians, as well as Mexicans from Sonora, who had been driven out of neighboring mining camps by Anglos who viewed them as foreigners not entitled to dig into the California dream.

In those days, historians say, Hornitos was a lawless settlement of miners, gamblers, dance hall girls and saloons, a few of which were connected by an underground tunnel.

Ghirardelli market, predecessor to the chocolate manufacturer, now in San Francisco, got its start here.

Outlaws, including the notorious bandit Joaquin Murrieta, were frequent visitors.

Hornitos’ ground was so hard that the Mexican settlers buried their dead in above-ground tombs of rock that resembled tiny outdoor ovens -- hornitos in Spanish. Only piles of stones remain.

When the gold ran out, the population quickly diminished.

Dona Candelaria’s All Souls Day observance is still thriving because of the efforts of the 20-member Hornitos Patrons Club, which was formed in the 1940s to protect what’s left of a town that once was known as “the wickedest spot in the mother lode”: an old stone jail, a schoolhouse, a few sturdy brick walls and stone walls, and the cemetery and adjacent white, wood-sided St. Catherine’s Church.

Mass is said at the church twice a year: In April, for St. Catherine’s feast day, and Nov. 2, All Souls Day.

Then there is the 140-year-old Plaza Bar, which has been owned and operated by Manuela Ortiz for six decades.

After the pilgrimage, celebrants marched back to the plaza for a buffet that has certain similarities with those of the descendants of the Aztecs in rural Mexico, which also include communal meals and candlelight vigils.

Instead of tamales and decorated sugar skulls, however, local residents ate hot dogs and drank coffee and hot chocolate.

“It might seem quiet here most days,” said Dorothy Bauer, 89, who helped prepare a pot of beans for the ceremony. “But sometimes we have an awful lot of fun.”