“Be neither a conformist nor a rebel, for they are really the same thing. Find your own path, and stay on it.” —Paul Vixie
I awoke at 3am on a Sunday morning and for two hours lay in the dark watching my thoughts tie themselves into knots.
By the dawn’s early light I decided, for no apparent reason, I would drive to a town I had long heard of but had never been to, San Juan Capistrano.
Then, for no apparent reason, I laughed.
(In the interest of brevity, I removed this from the above paragraph: I had first heard of Capistrano when I was a boy watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon in which the animated rabbit was in the shower, wearing a flowery shower cap and using a scrub brush and singing, “Oh, when the swallows a-come-a-baaaaack to Capistrano!”)
It was still early morning when I drove into a parking garage near the train station in San Juan Capistrano. The nearly empty concrete parking structure was, for no apparent reason, reverberating with music so loud it vibrated the windows of my car. But when I drove onto the rooftop level, I discovered the apparent reason. A film crew was taking advantage of the golden sunlight to shoot a music video. I parked and stood by, watching a buxom Latina fronting a nine-piece band complete with horn section. She wore vampire makeup, a purple latex micro-skirt, and vertigo-inducing stiletto heels. She shook her head to make her long straight black hair cover her face. Then shook her head to make her hair fly off her face. All while banging out power chords on an electric guitar suspended below the tsunami wave of her surgically enhanced breasts.
(I deleted this: It happens. In Southern California.)
I walked across the train tracks to the old part of Capistrano, where the narrow lanes were lined with old-growth shade trees and hidden among the trees behind flowering hedges were tiny, sagging wood houses that had been built in the mid 1800s. Some of those houses were still being used as private homes. Others were being used as antique stores, cafés, and restaurants.
(This served no purpose, so I removed it: It was a beautiful morning. Most mornings are. When we are healthy and free to wander around.)
One of the small farmhouses was being used as a petting zoo. Children rode in circles on the backs of toy-size donkeys and ponies. Swarms of calmly quacking ducks followed the feet of children who were scattering packets of feed. Once in a while the ducks would nip the butt of a pigeon who had crashed the free buffet. Just past the petting zoo was a fenced field in which about a hundred people were standing or sitting at picnic tables and in lawn chairs, listening to musicians playing guitars and fiddles and ukuleles, and watching a line of stout women swaying side to side and singing. They sang about feeling grateful for all of Creation, and its anonymous Creator.
(I removed this excess description, hoping the reader would see it or something like it without my having to show it: The women who were undulating their ample hips and waving their hands in a slow-motion hula wore faux grass skirts and flowery blouses.)
My wanderings carried me back across the train tracks to the modern side of Capistrano. In a city park I saw workmen positioning a lectern and microphones in front of a five-foot high wall of amplifiers. A large banner strung between two shade trees informed me this would be a political, not a spiritual, gathering.
(I removed this because it is judgmental, simplistic, and essentially true: The event would be a loud rallying of like-minded citizens deeply angry at their government for trying to provide more of its citizens with health care services.)
Fortunately, my wandering soon took me back to the wrong side the train tracks, back into the sanitized and preserved Mexican California history. I soon came to a pocket park under construction. Stone paths had been laid down but the landscaping had not been started and the brown earth was exposed to the warming sun. The main feature of the new park was a low curving stucco wall that had been embedded with bronze plaques depicting events and people from the town’s past. There was a photoengraving of a dark-haired dark-eyed woman staring straight back at me, and I stopped to read her story.
She had been born almost where I stood, a hundred years ago. Modesta Avilla earned her plaque on this wall because, like Henry David Thoreau (whose face is on lots of engraved plaques in New England where I grew up), she dared to express resistance to civil government.
In 1889 the Santa Fe railroad laid its tracks across Modesta Avilla’s family’s property—without paying them. While Thoreau’s civil disobedience took the form of refusing to pay taxes to support slavery and the war on, coincidentally, Mexico, Modesta Avilla expressed civil disobedience to the state of California, née Mexico, by stringing her clothesline across the railroad tracks on her property. And hanging her family’s laundry on it.
Like Thoreau, Modesta Avila was arrested.
Unlike Thoreau, who spent one night in jail, Avilla was sentenced to three years in jail. She became California’s first felon.
(Trying to make an already sluggish essay flow, I removed this boring statistical aside: America in general and California in particular have evolved greatly since jailing Modesta Avilla for airing her clean laundry in public. By 2009, the United States achieved the highest documented incarceration rate in the world, managing to keep 3.1% of its adult population, (7,225,800 people) under correctional supervision, i.e., probation, parole, jail, or prison.)
(After deleting the above diatribe, I realized I also had to delete this related snippet: Perhaps one way America paid for the expensive feat of jailing so many of its citizens was not helping out the 18.9% of non-elderly Americans (50 million people) who were without health insurance in 2009.)
When I got back into my car on the roof level of the parking garage it was past noon, the golden light had turned into hard white daylight, and the Mexi-Cali rockers were gone. Maybe home to bed.
A few days later I asked the oracle (the www) to tell me more stories about Modesta Avilla. The oracle obliged. I read how an historian, alive now, described Modesta Avilla, dead a century ago, as a “charming dark-eyed beauty.” I reckoned he had seen the photo engraved on the plaque in Capistrano.
The historian also wrote that Avilla depended more on her beauty than her intelligence “to keep food on the table and a roof over her head.” He said she was extremely proud.
(I deleted this, assuming the reader, if willing, could do their own translation of the historian’s code talking: Modesta Avilla was Mexican, a prostitute, and, worse, she was an uppity Mexican prostitute.)
The historian’s narrative told how, despite locals saying Avilla had strung her clothesline across the tracks, the Santa Fe Railroad claimed she had put a railroad tie across their tracks.
(I redacted these ignorant and irrelevant questions: Aren’t railroad ties big and heavy? Did someone help the 22-year-old Mexican whore with such hard labor? Would not that make them an accomplice? )
The railroad claimed that an agent of its employ had, fortunately, removed the tie before a train came down the tracks.
(I cut this: Apparently also before anyone not employed by the railroad saw it.)
The first jury to try Modesta Avilla deadlocked. But the state-railroad partnership was determined, and paid for a second trial. “Rumors circulated,” the historian writes, “That the attractive single woman was pregnant.”
(I deleted: Shocking!)
Modesta Avilla’s attorney appealed and was able to argue before the state Supreme Court that his client was convicted on her reputation, not her deed.
(On the advice of legal counsel, I deleted: She was railroaded!)
Her attorney lost the case. On an unspecified technicality. And during the second year of her three-year sentence in San Quentin prison, 22-year-old Modesta Avilla died.
(I delete this anti-climactic ending: One night not long after my Sunday morning in San Juan Capistrano, I again awoke at 3am and again lay for hours in the dark watching my thoughts tie themselves in knots. By the dawn’s early light, I fell back into sleep. And I dreamed of Modesta Avilla. She was wearing a purple micro-skirt and stiletto heels, tossing her long black hair around while banging on a guitar and belting out Spanglish lyrics, backed by a 9-piece band.)