Santa Cruz's Dark Past and Present: Destiny?
"Two Mexicanos Lynched in Santa Cruz, California, May 3, 1877"
Poem by Martin Espada
More than the moment
when forty gringo vigilantes
cheered the rope
that snapped two Mexicanos
into the grimacing sleep of broken necks,
more than the floating corpses,
trussed like cousins of the slaughterhouse,
dangling in the bowed mute humility
of the condemned,
more than the Virgen de Guadalupe
who blesses the brownskinned
and the crucified,
or the guitar-plucking skeletons
they will become
on the Día de los Muertos,
remain the faces of the lynching party:
faded as pennies from 1877, a few stunned
in the blur of execution,
a high-collar boy smirking, some peering
from the shade of bowler hats, but all
crowding into the photograph.
The story of lynchings in California is one that is largely overlooked, lurking in the dark shadows of the South’s lynching legacy. However, that is not because lynching was less prevalent. In fact, California’s rate of 27.4 lynchings per 100,000 Mexicans between 1848 and 1879 was higher than South Carolina’s rate for blacks (18.8) and comparable to Alabama’s (32.4).(1) This culture of lynching was pervasive in the normally quiet pioneer town of Santa Cruz. On May 3rd, 1877, two Mexican men, Francisco Arias and José Chamales, were in jail awaiting trial for allegedly murdering a white man(2). Both were taken from their jail cell and lynched by a mob in the middle of the night(3). Given the local approval and enjoyment of the killing spectacle, lynching clearly was not just an issue of the American Southeast, but rather, an deep-seated national trait. Although more overlooked, Santa Cruz’s culture around lynching is indicative of a larger American societal trend in this time period. Specifically, driven by Manifest Destiny, white Americans would stop at nothing to assume their “natural” role at the top. This sentiment still exists in the Santa Cruz Area, but unlike the South, this history is intentionally avoided because it would tarnish California’s liberal image and force many to confront the difficult topics of racism within their western communities.
For a number of reasons, the circumstances and local reaction to the lynching reveals an intense white supremacist attitude in Californians. By way of background, after the Mexican-American war, many white Americans came to believe that it was their “God-given right to possess” this region. In addition, they believed taking their “rightful place at the helm of the nation,” would make “Mexicans and Indians...magically melt away(4).”This sentiment is reflected in the local newspapers’ condonement of the lynching, the writers not “see[ing] how such wretches could have been more satisfactorily disposed of than upon the gallows(5).” Furthermore, the Sacramento Union described the lynched as men who have “no more conscience than tigers possess(6),” further perpetuating this supremacist attitude with animalistic imagery. To most in Santa Cruz, these Mexicans, “desperate assassins(7),” were ruthless, violent creatures that had to be “disposed of” for their own entertainment and satisfaction. The crimes that the lynched did or did not commit were merely an excuse for whites to wreak havoc on Mexicans who were perceived as taking land that was rightfully theirs.
Evidently, as reflected in the media, lynching culture ran deep in the hearts of many in Santa Cruz, very similar to the white supremacist attitudes generally associated with the South in this time period. A Santa Cruz newspaper justified the lynching, noting that “property owners and taxpayers, representatives of almost every trade, profession and business interest(8)” participated. Lynching was not just a habit of the impoverished hoping to gain an upper hand, but rather an activity of established citizens, fully supported within the community. Further contributing to this notion of a lynching community are is the circumstances surrounding the infamous photograph, pictured below, after the lynching. The photo, ““Hanged at the Water Street Bridge,” was clearly “shot during daylight hours,” although the two were “hanged at two o’clock in the morning(9).” Evidently, by waiting until the next day instead of disposing the bodies, the community came together for the sole purpose of celebrating this killing. Santa Cruz was so immersed in this supremacist attitude of Manifest Destiny that it normalized children smiling and posing in front of lynched corpses. Given the sheer amount of people gathered in the photo, lynching clearly was not simply about achieving justice. Rather, as in the South, lynching was a symbol of power that pandered to white supremacists’ sentiments. Thus, lynching was not just a Southern problem, but rather an inherent American issue.The lack of condemnation and substantive investigation(10) by law enforcement solidifies this notion. It also signals an institutionalized lynching culture, no doubt a product of Manifest Destiny supremacism.
The sense that “Mexicans” could just “magically melt away(11)” along with the history of their systematic lynching continues to pervade Santa Cruz society. Specifically, the Santa Cruz Public Works Department’s history of the Water Street Bridge fails to acknowledge that it was the site of this lynching, citing the bridge only as providing a “distinctive gateway into downtown Santa Cruz(12).” The only metaphorical gateway the article provides is an insight into Santa Cruz’s normalization and masking of such violent lynching. For Santa Cruz and America as a whole, the memories of Mexicans lynchings are too much to confront. It is far easier to just let them “magically melt away(13)” like the Mexicans that were killed. The 163 Mexicans that were lynched at the hands of white supremacists in California between 1848 and 1860 (14) were victims of a society that believed it could assert its white dominance through violence. Santa Cruz covers up this bloody past up because as a society we cannot accept that it truly happened. Embracing it would be a step forward in improving race relations and the transparency of our society.Yet publicly acknowledging this dark chapter would be too much of a tarnish on Santa Cruz’s and California’s reputation as inclusive, progressive regions. It is simply easier to forget about the culture that engendered these lynchings than to confront it and grapple with hard questions. This culture still remains prevalent in the Santa Cruz area, according to a native of Ben Lomond, a town directly next to the city from which Arias and his lynchers originated. The life-long resident, Max Bauerle, mentions specifically that “individuals in [Felton] fly Confederate flags in their yards and preach white power.” Manifest Destiny’s ideals of entitlement and white supremacy still hold true in the Santa Cruz area, yet uncovering them would reveal a darker side and sully a town that Bauerle notes prides itself on having “very little crime and contact with racism.”
Image Credit: Geoffery Dunn. "Santa Cruz's Most Notorious Lynching." GoodTimes. Published November 12, 2013. Accessed April 26, 2015. http://cdn.boulevards.com/files/2014/07/Hanging3001-300x300.jpg
Poem: Martin Espada. "Two Mexicanos Lynched in Santa Cruz, California, May 3, 1877." The Poetry Center at Smith College. 1990. Accessed April 30, 2015. http://www.smith.edu/poetrycenter/poets/twomexicanos.html
Lynch Law at Santa Cruz- The Two Murderers of De Forest Found Hanging to a Bridge Timber." Sacramento Daily Union, May 4, 1877. Accessed May 17, 2015. http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc?a=d&d=SDU18770504.2.25.1.1&e=-------en--20--1--txt-txIN-------#