Para Violante, en sus primeros meses
I met Jacinta in the migrant camp where we grew up. I remember that it was the beginning of June, a few days into the start of the harvest. At that time, Jacinta had lived for nine springs—she was two years younger than me—and for obvious reasons she still used her given last name, López del Campo. Those of us who saw her timidly climb the stairs and enter the last shack, which served as our classroom, with her butterfly notebook pressed to her chest and her gaze glued to her sun-toasted legs, never imagined that in less than ten years she’d be proclaimed the artistic heir to Joaquín Murrieta, a figure shrouded in dust but fondly remembered within the Mexican communities settled in the central lands of California.
It’s possible that today no more than half a dozen people could place the name Jacinta Murrieta. Most of them will surely confuse her with a distant relative of Joaquín—some Javiera who in her last years dedicated herself to selling, at fairs in the valley, autographed, gold-plated engravings featuring a horseman dressed like a Chilean cowboy subduing wild colts. Other people probably will connect the figure of Jacinta with a sharpshooter from the beginning of the century who patrolled by night the Arrollo de Cantúa, an ancient refuge of Murrieta in which La Mora hid the loot of her empire, stolen from ranchers of the region.
I, who first participated in her acts and later followed her travels through the California farmland, assure you that the real Jacinta Murrieta never carried a gun that wasn’t a prop, much less engaged in commerce with apocryphal engravings.
However, there was no lack of people who tried to profit from her image. Following the relative success of Here Comes La Migra, an Alabama businessman named William van Pierce sought to resuscitate the old business of postcards that had done so well in the South. Van Pierce’s intention was to “capture” Jacinta’s public spectacles and reproduce not the major scenes but her grand escapes, in which you could observe the fervor of the coppery faces pursuing Jacinta. It was Van Pierce’s bad luck that the work mounted on the outskirts of the city of Delano was the last staged by such a peculiar artist before her disappearance.
I remember that, on the first day of school, seated on the floor, Jacinta remained attentive to the lessons of Begonia Beltrán, a sociology student and acting aficionado who worked as a volunteer teacher in the camp. In the morning, the youngest pupils practiced drawing the even numbers from 2 to 10, and we learned to do sums by the dozens. After lunch, Miss Beltrán asked us to read some couplets that narrated the adventures of a swallow and a grasshopper in the Sierra Nevada. I read the first three stanzas, and Martina, who would later accompany Jacinta in Tortilleras, followed with the next three. Then came Jacinta’s turn, but instead of continuing, she stayed silent with her gaze fixed on the wooden trunks that we used as desks. Beltrán lifted her gaze from the book and reminded Jacinta of the page number and the section we were working on. Jacinta continued contemplating the trunks, now running the fingers of her left hand through her braided hair.
The teacher at that moment understood what was happening and volunteered to finish reading the passage while we transformed ourselves into the characters from the song. Hearing this idea, Jacinta shook from her stupor and directed a grateful smile at the teacher. Beltrán began the reading, and all of us got on our feet. While most of us students timidly gesticulated basic scenes, Jacinta jumped over the trunks, raising a fine dust that triggered coughing, hung by her knees from the curtain rod, and swung energetically until you could hear the whole shack creak. She jumped back to the floor and forgot the grasshopper. Her little arms threw the trunks against the wall, making a racket. Lastly she paused at the edge of the room, extending her arms elegantly and finally breaking into a run in circles to take flight and observe us with narrowed gaze from great heights. At her young age, Jacinta observed what most people never manage to get a glimpse of in their whole lives.
The school year—which in reality amounted to one month for us—ended five days after Jacinta’s arrival in the camp. That summer my parents and my two younger siblings and I moved to the town of Avenal. Crawling on our knees, from Monday to Sunday we pulled carrots and onions from six in the morning to five in the afternoon. Every other week, we visited the town to get a pack of cornmeal and various quantities of potatoes and beans. If we were lucky, Papá bought us some peach caramels that we shared at the end of our dinners.
A month passed and we were able to escape, if just a little, the 104-degree temperatures by finding work in the cherry orchards where Jacinta and her parents worked, around Visalia. In spite of the kicks and hairpulls Jacinta received from crazy Catarino, her father, not a single day passed in which we didn’t run around the furrows repeating the couplets of the swallow and the grasshopper. Also, during lunch, hidden in a corner of the orchard, we invented our own characters. Jacinta’s favorite was El Tata. I close my eyes and see Jacinta with faded cowboy pants that had to be folded many times above her boots, a wide mustache in the style of Zapata assembled with dried leaves, and a belt improved with red watering hose. Imitating a hoarse voice, she would lift in her right hand a thick branch and demand that “his” wife serve him an overflowing plate of beef stewed in chile verde with freshly made flour tortillas on the side. Next, as soon as he tasted the food, he’d throw the plate at his wife’s face. The scene ended with a scratched eyebrow and the woman entreating on her knees while Tata left the table and battered back the door on his way to the saloon.
We saw our teacher Beltrán the following year during the first week of May, a time when we finished cleaning up the weeds in the fields to prepare for the harvest. Beyond reviewing the material already learned and continuing with our reading exercises, this time Beltrán surprised us with a revelation. In the first lesson she spoke about a new art form emerging in our area that featured our people; she was referring to a type of free performance that encouraged spectators to be participants and functioned as a motor of social change. None of us knew what she meant by “social change,” but even so, the hauling strength of a tractor came to mind. Every time Beltrán described the works she’d attended, her face shone and her muscles tensed, most of all her jaw. At intervals she walked around us raising her voice and her left fist, and in these moments the neighbors could hear “Long live Joaquín Murrieta!”
The Saturday that we put on Light Lunch, the weather was on our side. It wasn’t even nine in the morning and the temperature had reached 96 degrees in the shade. With our schoolmates, sweating beneath the same clothes that we worked in, we assembled on the central patio a stage set composed of two levels. On a platform made of pieces of floorboard, we set a table with four chairs protected from the sun by a straw umbrella. In front of every place setting were the respective plates, glasses, and silverware. The chairs were occupied by four scarecrows—father and mother, older brother and little sister—wearing the best clothing we could find. Complementing their attire were plaster masks. Six feet behind the table appeared a small garden of lettuce and tomato, three hoes, and three dog leashes. There was also a leather whip. When we finished mounting the set, a transient squall let loose dust and rain and made up our faces perfectly.
The activities started punctually at midday. Our camp neighbors circled around the patio expectantly when Beltrán gave the signal that those of us playing farmworkers should take up our positions in the field. We drew closer to the foreman, who already gripped the whip and ordered us to put leashes around our necks. He suddenly whipped the air and we fell to our knees; with our fingernails we removed clods of earth, and on a wooden crate we collected the lettuces and tomatoes. From time to time the foreman made one of our backs bleed, and that made us speed up our pace. Meanwhile, under the shade, the scarecrows enjoyed lemonade and lettuce and tomato sandwiches. Suddenly, toward the back, you could hear the voice of Beltrán: “Strrr—ike! Strrr—ike! Strrr—ike!” So I got to my feet and threw the hoe at the foreman, but he caught me by the leash and spit in my face before stomping me to the floor. In this moment, Jacinta appeared dressed as Joaquín Murrieta, mounted on his horse—in reality a disheveled mop—and with one rifle butt felled the foreman. Afterward, she dismounted the horse, walked toward the table, and took with both hands the jar of lemonade. She returned to the fields to offer us the drink, and we drank until our shirtfronts were wet. Free of the leashes, we walked toward the table, took the scarecrows by the shoulders, and staked them in the earth. To finish off, seated at the table without the help of utensils, we partook of the light lunch. Jacinta, for her part, remounted her horse and rode behind us shouting, “Jacinta Murrieta has arrived!” The women in the audience applauded while the men shouted the name of Joaquín.
This was the last year that Begonia Beltrán served as volunteer teacher in the camp, although she continued to visit us. For two seasons the school remained closed. Eventually came some forgettable teachers who’d already been paid, and the only thing they wanted was to leave running as soon as their contract was up.
The first time that we were apart, Jacinta was thirteen years old. Due to the shortage of water, work opportunities in the California fields had declined considerably, and my family abandoned the camp to head toward the coast to the north. Jacinta and I wrote to each other once a month. From her letters I gleaned that her mother’s beatings increased at the same pace as Catarino’s benders; he didn’t tolerate Encarnación lifting her gaze to observe the men who worked beside her. The last time, she had ended up in the traveling clinic with three broken ribs and lacerated legs. Around this time, Jacinta asked me about the apple harvest in Washington and the possibility of my family lending her some money to get there. We couldn’t, however, do anything to help Jacinta and her mother. Mamá was pregnant with my third brother, and we could barely sustain ourselves. Moreover, winter was coming.
I didn’t have any news of Jacinta for more than six months, despite my own punctual letters, in which I told her of the birth of Baltazar and the possible return of my family to California. From some men recently arrived in the camp, we knew that Jacinta’s mother had disappeared. They told us that one Friday night the shouts and the sounds of dishes breaking against the walls of the shack had resumed. At daybreak, the women who washed clothes on the patio saw Jacinta’s mother limping away, her face covered in a black shawl. She seemed to be heading toward the police station located some three miles from the camp. No one saw her return. When we finally came back to the camp two years later, Jacinta told me that Beltrán had asked about her mother at the station, but the police insisted that no woman with the features described had stopped by there. Some speculated that, tired of being mistreated, Encarnación had decided to abandon everything and go back across the border, but Jacinta was sure that her mother would never do such a thing.
Catarino’s alcoholism worsened with the absence of his spouse. Constantly, Jacinta had to escape out the window and hide in our shack to wait for the effects of the liquor to tame the old man. Meanwhile, she continued to work in the fields, and her father received her salary every fifteen days without peeling himself away from the bar. On Saturday nights, she and I left the camp behind, climbed into an unknown ride, and meandered through the deserted streets of Fresno, while the others slept. It was during one of these nighttime walks that we discovered the posters that announced events, and over the course of some months, we attended several shows and got to know an actress who always had secondary roles.
The actress went by Candy Malatreta. At the end of the performances, she and Jacinta spent hours discussing what they considered an over-the-top set or a theme that pretended to be progressive but stopped short and didn’t do anything more than entertain the audience with sporadic jokes. It was Candy who encouraged Jacinta to stage Beach Day in Winter.
We enacted that plan on December 12 during a day of rain. At dawn, as if it were rehearsed, we played out a choreography of dozens of clean and definitive pruning snips that woke some curled up baby hawks in the mesquite stand that encircled the vineyards. The severed members fell to the ground, grazing the trunks and finally dying on the clay. The pruning lasted for a few hours, until the labor stopped for twenty minutes for lunch break.
Leaning against the trucks at the edge of the orchard, chewing tortillas, were three dozen men and women, the majority wearing baseball hats and sweatshirts long enough to be dresses. From a distance you could hear a rumor that seemed to tug along the edges. Faced with this murmur, the women made as if to stand, but the sound disappeared rapidly, and so they chose to return to their places. The men stayed quiet until they heard the groans. The foreman stood up and the rest cautiously followed. They came within six feet of my body lying in the mud and covered with fallen branches. I heard them murmuring, but none had the courage to uncover my dehydrated body. Finally, one of the women touched my shoulder, and in that instant I jumped up and started to run between the furrows with my arms open like a sparrow in the air. At my back I heard dozens of boots sloshing through the mud, but soon I arrived at the spot chosen by Jacinta: the south side of the vineyard, where there was an irrigation ditch. Facing the canal, slumped over a cot that we had modified to resemble a recliner, Jacinta was wearing a tiny red bathing suit that went perfectly with her skin tone and her dark glasses. At her feet, you could read a damp piece of cardboard: Look at me, look me in the eyes, you blind man.
The women let loose a cackle, but in front of the glassy eyes of their husbands, they covered their mouths. The foreman and the men insulted us and one of them threw the pruning shears at Jacinta, just grazing her abdomen. Jacinta stood up, and before receiving any belt buckle beatings, we dove into the freezing canal water and swam until we reached safety.
When we returned to the camp, barefoot and barely covered by a piece of tarp that we’d pulled from an abandoned house, my parents were waiting under the dry oak tree at the entrance. That night we stayed up late discussing my friendship with Jacinta, without knowing where she had gone after escaping Catarino’s beating and his frustrated attempt to mark her face with a piece of hot metal. This was the first and last time that I participated in one of Jacinta’s acts. Still, our friendship held until the moment she disappeared.
Because of the reputation she’d earned, Jacinta had trouble finding work in our area. However, this mattered little to her. Two weeks later she moved to the outskirts of Fresno and, according to what Martina told me, began to frequent the meetings of the Brown Bears. There she listened to the battle plans from different factions, and for a while she walked around distributing propaganda in the bus station near the migration offices. One night, along with Martina and three other friends, she went up to the podium and directed the rest of the Brown Bears to fight against inequality and discrimination within this very group. The girls hadn’t spoken more than three minutes before the first cup of coffee was emptied upon their chests. Soon they heard the reprisals of the men, who demanded they abandon the premises or face the consequences.
For the next weekly meeting of the Brown Bears, Jacinta prepared Tortilleras.
The session had barely begun, and from within the auditorium were heard orders in favor of and against the points presented. The banging of the mallet was intended to calm the voices amidst the shouting, but to no effect. Then sounded martial trumpets from the patio and instantly silence fell. Bernardo, the leader of the Brown Bears, was the first to glance out the door, and he could see a corral made of thick cords and different obstacles that diminutive teddy bears were supposed to surmount. In every corner was a soldadera with her cartouche across her chest and her 30-30 rifle, all pointed toward the auditorium. Through the megaphone, Jacinta ordered the men to leave single-file and gather in front of the entrance.
And the show began: Behind Jacinta appeared two women with arms around each other’s waists. The first, Martina, was dressed as a soldadera, and the other wore an Adelita dress cut short above the knees. The couple walked toward the auditorium and, a few feet from the door, without breaking formation, united in a long kiss. The men broke the silence first with mocking guffaws and later started elbowing each other to join the women and form a trio. Jacinta had to sound the trumpet one more time to maintain order. She also put the pistoleras on notice so that if anyone moved they wouldn’t hesitate to pull the trigger. Two very tall women emerged from the shade and positioned themselves as guards at Jacinta’s sides. She stood up from the sofa from where she’d been giving orders. The women hefted the sofa onto their shoulders in order to place it at the front and deposit it in such a manner as to allow the other two to enjoy their generous figures. Jacinta again took up the megaphone to announce the obstacle course for the little bears and threw the baton to mark the start of the competition, and just like that, every one of the little bears ended up drowned at the end of the first well. Jacinta headed toward the door of the auditorium and proclaimed the death of the cubs while the pistoleras shot blanks toward the cloudy sky of the Valley.
The Brown Bears broke out of their lines and began running around. More than one threw coins at the faces of the actresses. Others shed their boots, which went flying and crashed against the women’s backs. The two women on the sofa received most of the hits. Martina nearly lost an eye and Jacinta, for her part, lost her lower left incisor. Before being completely captured, however, they turned off the lights and each one escaped as she could from the scene.
Jacinta hid in the camp for more than three months until the mood among the Brown Bears calmed down. One afternoon, while walking around the camp, we saw Catarino lying face down beside a garbage can. He was accompanied by a mangy dog licking his ears. We drew closer, covering our noses. Jacinta squatted down, gave a half turn to the inert body, and pulled from his neck the medallion of the Virgin that her mother had given her when she was a girl. Before we left, she put a few coins on his gray-haired chest.
We were in the middle of harvest season, and in the fields people had started to forget about Beach Day in Winter. It wasn’t hard for Jacinta to again find provisional work in the vineyards. For a time we worked to the northeast of Fresno, near Merced, until we finished the harvest at that ranch. Later we heard that, in the direction of Delano, the ranch owners were so desperate to find farmworkers that they promised to pay six cents per box of grapes, an increase of thirty percent.
The first days were amazing. I earned on average a little more than two dollars, and Jacinta three and a half. On the third day arose the problems. It must have been close to 9:30 when, at one mile distance, we saw the dust kicked up by some ten trucks. When they arrived at the edge of the field, we heard the first shouts. Right away the megaphoned voice of a man spoke of betrayal to the cause and demanded that we stop working; next, in a chorus, we heard them shout: “Wetbacks, go home!” We continued cutting the bunches and placing them carefully in the boxes—this harvest was for export. The shouts continued until lunchtime, and later we heard two more trucks approach. A pair of rifle shots into the air, and at that instant calm returned.
The next day we came back in good spirits; it had been our best payday in more than ten years of working in the fields. By the lunchtime pause, we’d finished more than thirty boxes and predicted a modestly historic day’s work. Ten minutes after lunch the dust cloud returned. This time the trucks didn’t stop at the vineyard entrance but continued at great speed between the thin paths that partitioned the field. They were vans full of migration patrol, who jumped out running in search of undocumented migrants; some workers grabbed the boxes of grapes and tried to hide themselves amid the green vines that stretched to the ground; others fled by hanging from the tractor that pulled in the direction opposite the agents. Jacinta and I started running at the same time toward a field of safflower about to be harvested. The spines tore our skin from our ankles to our waist. A migration agent saw us enter the field, but upon seeing the safflower he smiled at us from a distance and turned around without a thought. Covering our wounds with damp earth, we threw ourselves into the furrows in the center of the plantation until the vans drew away.
Eight days passed before we could walk normally. I still retain this memory in my right calf; every time I see this large scar in the shape of crow’s wings, the figure of Jacinta slumped above my bed and planning her last act returns to mind.
Here Comes La Migra was mounted on the eighth of November. The action occurred on the patio of the church where there’d been a vigil that brought together groups that tried to improve the working conditions of farmworkers who met certain prerequisites. Before the vigil was a seven o’clock mass, and when Jacinta arrived, the parishioners left the patio in search of a coffee or aguardiente. The dry heat of summer had stayed behind, and the black sky, covered in low clouds, threatened a storm. The roofs of the tents jerked side to side. The sound of a guitar arrived and entered through the door. Jacinta wore her work clothes; the hood of her sweatshirt partially covered her face. Attached to her waist was a water bucket that marked her tracks on the floor, and when she paused in the center of the patio, it emptied completely on her back. Jacinta let loose a shout, and not for the cold, but because she began singing “La Jardinera” by the Parra sisters. Three boys and a little girl formed a circle around her; the adults maintained their distance, exchanging grins. When Jacinta finished the song, red and blue lights reflected over the doorway of the church. Contemplating them, the artist raised her gaze and stopped her song; she gave the guitar to the little girl, turned around, and walked toward the entrance. She saw two uniformed men and offered her wrists to be handcuffed. Finally, she turned her head toward the organizers of the vigil and shouted loud and clear so that they could hear: “I am Jacinta Murrieta, artist of the farmland and undocumented worker: at your service, comrades!”
She herself had alerted the migration agents before the start of the seven o’clock mass. Between the lightning and the camera flashes from a local journalist who had covered the vigil and who would later publish a brief article about the artist, Jacinta serenely entered the van without anyone saying a single word.
Following her departure, when I finished each day’s work in the fields, I would walk toward the post office located in front of the police station with the hope of finding one of her letters. Years passed. We completed harvest after harvest, and no news ever came from Jacinta. For those who still ignore her existence, I, who first participated in her acts and later followed her travels through California’s farmland, offer this semblance of her life and work.
Julio Puente García migrated to California from Mexico, initially working as a farmworker. After completing his PhD in Hispanic literature at UCLA, he published his first book, Acrobacias Angelinas, which received the Rudolfo Anaya Award in 2021. The short story “Jacinta Murrieta” is part of his second project, Tierra de Jacinta Murrieta.
Jennifer Acker is founder and editor in chief of The Common, and author of the debut novel The Limits of the World, a fiction honoree for the Massachusetts Book Award. Her short stories, essays, translations, and reviews have appeared in Oprah Daily, The Washington Post, n+1 and many other places. Acker has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and directs the Literary Publishing Internship and LitFest at Amherst College.