The secrets of Los Gatos Canyon

Along the border, identity and memory.


The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills.
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves? 
The radio says, “They are just deportees.”

            -Woody Guthrie, “Deportee”

Los Gatos Canyon has seen things. It has seen, and it remembers. Keeps a datebook in its hardpan. Hash marks in the rings of the black oak trees. Then, once in a while, a light breeze will come along and blow off the dust, expose the canyon’s memories. Memories like the 1948 crash of a plane chartered by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, which killed 28 “deportees” and inspired the Guthrie song. But the canyon’s memories go deeper than that.

Approximately 100 years before the crash, on the heels of the signing of the Treaty of Peace, Friendship, Limits and Settlement between the United States of America and the Mexican Republic — aka The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo — a 19-year-old vaquero from Hermosillo, Mexico, crossed the invisible line in the sand between Sonora and Alta California.

The front page of the Fresno Bee after 28 Mexican citizens died in a plane crash in Los Gatos Canyon on January 28, 1948.

A charming, free-spirited kid with a black mane and serious eyes, he arrived on horseback with a new bride and a head full of dreams. The plan was to try their luck in California’s thriving Gold Rush and secure the kind of life they could only dream of back in Sonora. So keen was this young vaquero, the stories say, that in a few months’ time, he and his wife had amassed as much gold as experienced prospectors could accumulate in years. On a cold autumn night, a gang of miners decided to teach the young Mexican a lesson, and so they raped his wife. And just in case he got any ideas about reinterpreting that good ol’ Treaty of Peace and Friendship, they tied the kid to a pine tree and horse-whipped him almost to death. He survived and swore vengeance on those responsible. 

A few years after crossing that invisible line in the dirt, this kid had forged a reputation across the state as one of the deadliest cuththroats to ever step foot on American soil. Still in his early 20s, Joaquin Murrieta, the “Robin Hood of El Dorado,” and his crew made the brothels of Whiskey Row in downtown Coaling Station A — later Coalinga, California — their vulture’s nest. It wasn’t unusual for Murrieta’s men to wake up some mornings strewn along the Los Gatos Canyon road, after trekking home drunk toward the nearby caves of Three Rocks, his reported hideout.

Then came July 25, 1853, Cantua Creek, Fresno County. California State Ranger Harry Love, a heap of a man once described as a “drunken brute,” and his posse put a slug in Murrieta and shut him down for good. And while they were at it, they took out Murrieta’s right-hand man, Manuel Garcia, aka Three-Fingered Jack. They leapt off their horses right then and there, on the banks of Cantua Creek, in the shadow of Los Gatos Canyon, and severed both Joaquin’s head and Manuel’s hand, later to be pickled in jars and exhibited in the nearby town of Stockton. A century later, in 1960, Walt Disney put out a comic book called Zorro: The Masqueraders of Los Gatos Canyon, forever sealing Murrieta’s fate as the dashing avenger in black. No one remembers Harry Love. 

Joaquin, the Mountain Robber" (c. 1848).
Thomas Armstrong/Sacramento Union Steamer/via Wikimedia Commons

More dust, more memories. By the time Murrieta’s blood had completely washed out of Cantua Creek, an old fling of his emerged from the banks where her querido took his final breath. Her name was Mariana Andrada and to this day, among the folks of Coalinga and Los Gatos Canyon, she is still referred to by her nickname, “La Loca” — “The Crazy Woman.”   

I once visited an old-timer. Like the canyon, he remembers.

“I suppose it was around 1880 or so. Murrieta had had this girlfriend of his, I mean when he was still alive ,of course. Guess she was a prostitute from down by Whiskey Row, but she lived up in the canyon. Her name was Mariana but everyone knew her as La Loca. One morning, she stands on her porch and starts preachin’ the word of God, claimin’ the world’s gonna end and such, and that it’s gonna happen exactly on May 16. She says anyone who believes in God should follow her up to Three Rocks and they’ll be spared. Supposedly, that’s where the Lord’s gonna open up His Kingdom or somesuch nonsense. Well, this rancher by the name of Angel and his wife, Trini, are the first to follow La Loca, and right away they start donating to her cause. 

“In a matter of weeks, Mariana’s followers get to be a few hundred, if you can believe that, and they start calling themselves ‘Mariana’s Faithful.’ So meanwhile Angel and Trini are now donating a cow a day, which in those days was nothing to sneeze at. Pretty soon four years comes and goes and now it’s May 16 and everyone’s talkin’ about The End, they’re all tremblin’ by now. Well, Angel and Trini have a son who lives, well, not too far I guess, and pretty soon he hears a rumor that everyone up in the canyon has just about lost their minds, and that his parents are a part of all the craziness. So the son, I think his name is Gaytino, he returns and finds that his folks have gone from being well-off ranchers to these poor broke souls. It’s obvious to him that his parents are neck-deep in the whole thing. 

“The big day comes, and that mornin’ La Loca leads her people up to Three Rocks. By the way, they also call it Joaquin Rocks, ‘cause it’s where Murrieta would hide out, you see. Anyhow, all these people are waiting for God to appear up there, and La Loca stands up and touches the giant rocks and starts mumbling some gibberish. Of course everyone assumes she’s speakin’ in tongues, I guess, so they’re in awe, until nothin’ is happening. At first they were tremblin’ and whisperin’ “so-long”, but pretty soon they get to wonderin’. La Loca notices this, so she starts on with her sermon. After another hour or so, it’s hot as Hades out and people are getting fussy. Finally, just about evening time, some get to whispering and others are leaving, until pretty soon it’s dark and only a few bodies are left hanging around. La Loca sees this and starts weepin’ and then starts beggin’ for the Holy Lord to appear before her. I mean she’s really giving it her all now, sobbin’ up a storm, but when she turns around she discovers that every last one of her Faithfuls had vanished. Except for Angel and Trini, of course.

“After that day, her following dwindles, but Angel and Trini are more faithful than most, so they follow her for another year or two. Sometime later, La Loca decides to make one final prediction. She makes it known that a member of the well-off Carona family will die unexpectedly. Well, Angel and Trini have a daughter who is married to a Carona, so now Trini’s in tears over the news. Her daughter had just had a baby girl with the Carona boy and Trini loved being a grandma to it. So what do you know, a few weeks later the little girl is found dead in her crib. No one knows for sure, but folks suspect she was poisoned. The rumor is La Loca had a hand in it, so they call the Fresno Sheriff and she’s arrested. Problem is there’s no evidence, so she’s set free. Shortly after the little girl died, Angel and Trini went, and supposedly all of three of ’em are buried in a grave on their old homestead up near White Creek. A few years later, La Loca was run over by a train near Hanford. She died the drunk that she was.”

These things and many more the canyon has seen. These and many more it remembers.

Tim Z. Hernandez is a writer and performance artist whose work has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and NPR’s All Things Considered. All They Will Call You, his account of the 1948 Los Gatos plane crash, will be released in January by the University of Arizona Press. He is an assistant professor at the University of Texas El Paso’s Bilingual M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing.

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