Myth and memory in ‘Joaquín Murieta’

How a forgotten Cherokee writer’s 1854 dime novel wove its way into the Chicano movement, the modern western and Batman

Myth and memory in ‘Joaquín Murieta’
A poster for Pablo Neruda’s The Splendor and Death of Joaquín Murieta in Dresden, East Germany, in 1975. (Deutsche Fotothek)

If you stand close enough to Denver’s Federal Boulevard and search for “Tlatelolco” in Google Maps, you’ll be served two results, 1,446 miles apart. One is a historic district in Mexico City, built on and around the remains of a 14th-century Aztec city-state of the same name. The second, Google Maps will tell you, is Escuela Tlatelolco, an educational institution located in a small, L-shaped brick building across the road from Denver’s North High School.

The second listing is an error, a digital ghost; no such place has existed in that building for several years. Escuela Tlatelolco, founded in 1971 by Chicano activists led by Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, graduated its last class in the spring of 2017 and sold the building shortly thereafter. Originally private, Escuela Tlatelolco had become a contract school within the Denver Public Schools system in 2004, offering bilingual, Montessori-style P-12 education to low-income Latino students, many of whom had flunked out of other DPS schools. Parents and alumni treasured Escuela’s role in the community, but it consistently ran afoul of the district’s standardized test-based performance metrics. Over community objections, DPS ended the contract in 2016, and Escuela Tlatelolco closed its doors a year later. Today, the space has been redeveloped into Nurture, a “wellcare marketplace.”

Escuela Tlatelolco was named in honor of the distant Mexico City square, where the modern-day Plaza de Las Tres Culturas memorializes the Mexican nation’s roots in both indigenous American civilizations and Spanish colonial rule. Reckoning with these conflicting and overlapping national identities, complicated further by the reality of what it meant to be born in or immigrate to the United States, was a project at the heart of the Chicano movement led by Gonzales and other Mexican-American activists across the West in the 1960s and 1970s.

In his best-known piece of writing, an epic poem published in 1967, Gonzales performs this reckoning by assuming a panoply of identities in rapid succession. The poem’s speaker tells us that he is Cuauhtémoc; he is Nezahualcóyotl; he is Emiliano Zapata; he is Juan Diego. He is both colonizer and colonized, victor and vanquished: “I am despots Díaz / and Huerta / and the apostle of democracy / Francisco Madero.” It must have seemed impossible to weave together the tangled strands of five centuries of oppression, revolution and cultural transformation into a single identity, a single name. That, perhaps, is why it’s so powerful that Gonzales dared to do exactly that, in the poem’s simple refrain, its title and its opening line: “Yo soy Joaquín.”

I rode as far East and North
  as the Rocky Mountains
all men feared the guns of
          Joaquín Murrieta.

—Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, “I Am Joaquín” (1967)

John Rollin Ridge was 23 years old when he arrived in California in the summer of 1850; like nearly everyone else, he had come to make his fortune digging for gold, and like nearly everyone else he failed at it. After a few months, he gave up placer mining in the Sierras and took a job as a newspaper correspondent, chronicling the thriving commerce, political machinations and frontier violence of the era’s Sacramento Valley boomtowns. Slender, handsome and brooding, he wrote misty-eyed Romantic poetry for early California literary journals that was often published under his Cherokee name, Yellow Bird, or Chees-quat-a-law-ny.

Ridge was born to a powerful family of mixed-race Cherokees in 1827, when the Cherokee Nation still encompassed much of the northwestern corner of the state of Georgia, along with parts of Alabama, North Carolina and Tennessee. Under leaders like Ridge’s grandfather, Major Ridge, the Nation had worked hard to carve out a place for itself in the young United States, adopting European agricultural methods and styles of dress and inventing its own system of writing from scratch. Four months after Ridge was born in the Nation’s capital of New Echota, it adopted its first constitution, faithfully modeled on the American one.

Major Ridge struggled for decades to chart a path that would allow the Cherokee Nation to survive the tidal wave of American territorial expansion. He had vehemently opposed campaigns of resistance like the one urged by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, and led Cherokee troops alongside General Andrew Jackson against other Native American tribes and the British in the War of 1812. But in the years after the war he also rebuffed the federal government’s attempts to persuade the Cherokees to give up their ancestral lands in exchange for territory in present-day Oklahoma. The Ridges and other Cherokee leaders had done what all powerful men in the early American South did: built plantations and bought slaves to work them, or sought fortunes by running trading posts or ferries. They believed that having adapted to the ways of their European-American colonizers, a remarkable cultural transformation over the span of just a few generations, would be enough to protect their sovereignty.

They were wrong. In 1829, gold was discovered in the north Georgia hills that comprised much of the Cherokee Nation’s remaining territory. As many as 15,000 white settlers flocked illegally into the Nation, nearly rivaling the remaining Cherokees in number. It was America’s first true gold rush; the Cherokees called it the Great Intrusion. Gangs of white fortune-seekers marauded through the territory, robbing and brutalizing Cherokee farmers. “Occasionally individuals or whole families were murdered as they slept,” writes historian David Williams in The Georgia Gold Rush. In parallel with the extralegal violence, long-running efforts by Georgia’s state government to expel the Cherokees through more official means took on added urgency — and found an eager new federal partner in Jackson, who had earlier that year been sworn in as the country’s seventh president.

At last, the Ridges came to believe that the Nation’s migration to the West was not a matter of if but when, and on what terms. John Ridge, John Rollin’s father, became an especially strong advocate for the negotiation of a removal treaty. “Our national existence is suspended on the faith and honor of the United States alone,” he wrote. “We are in the paw of a Lion — convenience may induce him to crush [us] and with a faint struggle we may cease to be!” In 1835, lacking authorization from the National Council but believing they had secured the most favorable terms possible, Major and John Ridge led a small group of Cherokees in signing a treaty that relinquished all of the Nation’s claims east of the Mississippi in exchange for five million dollars and new lands in the Indian Territory. “They point the way West,” John Ridge had once written, “and there they say we can live happy.”

These were the cataclysmic events that made up the first ten years of John Rollin Ridge’s life, which ended with his family’s voluntary exodus to the Territory in 1837. There was worse yet to come. Though only a small, unrepresentative faction of the Cherokee Nation had signed the removal treaty, the U.S. government used it as a pretext to violently enforce the expulsion of the roughly 16,000 Cherokees who remained back east. An estimated 4,000 died of starvation, disease and exposure in the forced marches across the South that would become known as the Trail of Tears, and many of the Cherokees who arrived in the Indian Territory in 1838 and 1839, scarred and immiserated, placed blame squarely on the Ridge family. A law passed by the Nation a decade earlier had made it a crime punishable by death for any Cherokee to sell off lands without authorization, and on the morning of June 22, 1839, the law was enforced in a series of carefully timed executions. Major Ridge was gunned down while fording a river near the Arkansas border, while John Ridge was dragged from his home shortly after dawn and stabbed to death. John Rollin Ridge watched his father die in agony in a scene that he would later write “has darkened my mind with an eternal shadow.” He was twelve years old.

Gold strikes, land grabs, broken promises, brutal violence, ethnic cleansing — it was all there in the beginning, all these elements that would make up the bloody, combustible sagas of the West, ingrained before hardly any white men had so much as crossed the Mississippi. No wonder that John Rollin Ridge, who grew so acquainted with the manifold horrors of the American frontier so early in his life, would go on to become one of its foundational mythmakers. No wonder that the young, romantic newspaperman traveling the goldfields would hear the tales of a fearsome bandit and folk hero called Joaquín and be the first to recognize their literary and commercial value, to blend together fact and rumor and invention into a narrative whose themes would resound through the centuries. No wonder, too, that the country would forget him for it.

It seems more probable than not that a man named Joaquín Murrieta did, in fact, embark on a deadly spree of robberies and cattle raids in California in the early 1850s. Beyond that, things get fuzzy, obscured not only by the fog of 170 years’ distance but also by the dubious factual standards of the newspaper accounts that comprise most of the contemporaneous evidence of Murrieta’s existence. California authorities at one point believed that there were up to five Joaquíns — an 1853 act of the legislature, authorizing the creation of a Ranger force to hunt them down, named them as Murrieta, Valenzuela, Carrillo, Ocomorenia and Botellier — but it’s possible that these were simply aliases used by one or two men. Compounding the confusion were the varied spellings of each name used by American journalists and lawmen at the time, with Murrieta just as often rendered as Murieta, Murietta, Muriati or Muriatta.

In any case, John Rollin Ridge’s The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit, published in 1854, is surely not the work of pure historical fact that its author claimed it to be. At the very least, many of its biographical claims about its title character are unattributable to anyone but Ridge himself, who didn’t hesitate to fill out his narrative with detailed action scenes and extended passages of dialogue that he couldn’t possibly have witnessed or verified. Of course, the fact that Joaquín Murieta is so heavily fictionalized in many ways makes the novel more interesting, not less.

Murrieta, as Ridge describes him, was a Sonoran-born Mexican miner who was working a claim in the California goldfields in early 1850, when a gang of white men, declaring that “they would allow no Mexicans to work in that region,” savagely beat him and raped his wife — only the first in a series of cruelties inflicted upon Murrieta and his family as Americans flooded into the territory that they had seized at the end of the Mexican-American War two years earlier. In Ridge’s telling, Murrieta retreats to a small farm in the Sierras only to be driven from it by another mob; later, he’s arrested and publicly whipped as an accused horse thief, and his brother is lynched. At last, Ridge writes, “[w]anton cruelty and the tyranny of prejudice had reached their climax,” causing Murrieta to break bad. “In many ways Joaquín’s early history was much like that of the writer who was to immortalize him,” writes Ridge’s biographer, James W. Parins. “His later career had to appeal to Ridge’s deep thirst for revenge.”

As an influential (if not quite all that good) work of American literature, Ridge’s novel is remarkable for its resolutely sympathetic portrayal of its protagonist, who by the end of his brief criminal career has become something much more than a mere bandit:

“I am at the head of an organization,” said he, “of two thousand men whose ramifications are in Sonora, Lower California, and in this State. I have money in abundance deposited in a safe place. I intend to arm and equip fifteen hundred or two thousand men and make a clean sweep of the southern counties. I intend to kill the Americans by ‘wholesale,’ burn their ranchos, and run off their property at one single swoop so rapidly that they will not have time to collect an opposing force before I will have finished the work and found safety in the mountains of Sonora. When I do this, I shall wind up my career. My brothers, we will then be revenged for our wrongs, and some little, too, for the wrongs of our poor, bleeding country.”

Ridge, who was writing for a U.S. audience and fully expected his book to be a hit, doesn’t quite excuse or celebrate the misdeeds of a character who, he wrote, “had contracted a hatred to the whole American race, and was determined to shed their blood, whenever and wherever an opportunity occurred.” But he takes pains to portray Murrieta as the outlaw leader with a heart of gold, reining in the excesses of the more cold-blooded men in his outfit, including his psychopathic lieutenant, Three-Fingered Jack — among the many enduring tropes in Western fiction that can be traced to the Murrieta legend. “I am a man,” he tells Rosalie, a young woman who has been abducted by one of his men, promising to return her to her family unharmed. “I was once as noble a man as ever breathed, and if I am not so now, it is because men would not allow me to be as I wished.”

Repeatedly throughout the novel, Murrieta revels in pulling off a particular trick: facing an unknowing enemy across a dusty street or a card table, unrecognized or in disguise, before dramatically revealing his identity and making his escape, or exacting his revenge. Ridge describes an episode in San Gabriel in which Murrieta learns that the unfortunate Capt. Wilson, a local sheriff’s deputy, has set out to capture him:

The next night after this discovery, a great excitement was raised in the street, and a crowd rushed up to see an apparently very hard fist-fight between two Indians in front of the hotel at which Wilson was stopping. He, in common with others, stepped out to witness it, and was looking on with much interest when a dashing young fellow rode up by his side on a fine horse, and stooping over his saddle-bow, hissed in his ear, “I am Joaquín.” The astounded hearer started at the sentence, and had scarcely looked around before a pistol-ball penetrated his skull, and he fell dead to the earth.

Long before “I am Joaquín” became a rallying cry for Corky Gonzales and the Chicano movement, Ridge sensed the revelatory power of this simple declaration of self — one that takes on added dimensions when the question of Joaquín Murrieta’s existence is considered in the full context of Gold Rush era history.

While the specifics of Murrieta’s origin story are unlikely to ever be concretely verified, it’s beyond dispute that Mexican Californios were subjected to brutal, systematic oppression by white American settlers in the years after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Protections for Mexican landowners that were negotiated as part of the treaty proved hollow as U.S. courts set to work dismantling the ranchos, while thousands of people of Mexican descent were targeted by racist laws like the Foreign Miners’ Tax and, later, the Anti-Vagrancy Act. Murders and lynchings were common, and the violence occasionally took on more organized forms, like an 1850 rampage in which a militia of 2,000 Americans looted and razed the mining camp of Sonora, “firing at every Mexican in sight.”

The Mexican-American academic Luis Leal wrote perhaps the definitive work of scholarship on the Murrieta legend in his lengthy introduction to a 1999 reprint of Ireneo Paz’s Spanish-language version of the tale, first published in 1904 and heavily cribbed from plagiarizations of Ridge’s novel. In it, Leal raises the rather obvious possibility, backed up by historical evidence, that Joaquín, as a very common first name among the thousands of Californios who suddenly found themselves strangers in their own land, may have referred to many more than just one, two or even five men:

The name Joaquín was first used in the newspapers to refer to Mexican bandits, though without identifying any one of them by a surname, between 1850 and 1851. In 1852 when the newspapers began to publish complaints about the so-called Mexican bandits, they had no concrete information as to whom those “bandits” might be… All the abuses, assaults, robberies, and murders that occurred were shortly attributed to Joaquín, who quickly became a mythical figure capable of appearing in different places at the same time.

For American settlers, Joaquín became a racist caricature, a specter invented to haunt the goldfields and justify further violence and oppression. For Californios, then, why shouldn’t the name have also become a Spartacus-esque statement of solidarity, resistance personified? “I am the masses of my people and / I refuse to be absorbed,” Gonzales’ Joaquín declared in 1967. Ridge’s Joaquín “was actually disguised the most,” he tells us, “when he showed his real features.”

Even while writing his novel, Ridge feared a loss of authorship over the myth of Murrieta. So protective was the young author of the character he was helping create that he frets in the text itself that key nuances were already being erased by his contemporaries. Recounting an occasion on which Murrieta showed kindness to a poor ferryman, he writes: “I mention this incident merely to show that Murieta in his worst days had yet a remnant of the noble spirit which had been his original nature and to correct those who have said that he was lost to every generous sentiment.”

Unfortunately for Ridge, his role in immortalizing Joaquín Murrieta was destined to be forgotten. The first edition of his book sold only a few thousand copies, possibly because the publisher went bankrupt; a plagiarized version, serialized in the California Police Gazette in 1859, proved far more influential in spreading the legend, inspiring versions of the tale that were published not only in the U.S. but also in Spain, France, Chile and Mexico. Ridge complained bitterly about the thefts in an author’s preface to a later reissue of his novel, but didn’t live to see its publication. He died in 1867, at age 40. Today, the English-language author most often associated with Murrieta is Walter Noble Burns, whose 1932 novel The Robin Hood of El Dorado gave the bandit the same treatment that Burns had previously given to Billy the Kidd and Wyatt Earp.

Of course, the very comparison to those towering figures in the Wild West mythos speaks to Murrieta’s decidedly minor stature, at least for American audiences. It’s not hard to see why. When Burns’ novel was adapted into a 1936 film, the screenwriters chose to depict Murrieta as robbing rich Californios, not American settlers. The more popular Police Gazette rewrite of Ridge’s novel and its derivatives, writes Hsuan L. Hsu, “demonized Murieta by omitting some of Ridge’s psychological and legal explanations for Murieta’s motives.” Over the years, the tale has at times undergone even more extreme revisions; one wildly racist 1948 comic book, an issue of Lev Gleason’s short-lived title Desperado, portrays Murrieta as a bloodthirsty maniac, with all the familiar story beats, including the murders of his brother and wife, carefully rewritten to erase any hint of American wrongdoing. The comic is narrated, no joke, from the point of view of a gallows, which rues missing the chance to snap Murrieta’s “slimy neck”:

“I was the one staunch defender of men’s rights, and the fear I struck in men’s hearts was one of the important things that kept the West together and let it grow to its present greatness! I protected people’s possessions from horse-thieves and cattle rustlers! I protected their lives from the lustful murderers who terrorized frontier towns! In a way, I was the one symbol of justice in those lawless days! And I’m proud of what I accomplished.”


In general, the farther the story of Joaquín Murrieta has strayed from Ridge’s original version, the more success it’s found with American audiences. The character was the obvious inspiration for pulp writer Johnston McCulley’s Zorro, who first appeared in 1919 — naturally, with the setting changed to the Spanish colonial era — and the lineage of masked, caped crusaders for vigilante justice extends directly from there to Bob Kane’s Batman. To gain a secure footing in the canon, the outlaw can be a hero or he can be a sworn enemy of all Americans, but he can’t be both.

A far richer tradition of the Murrieta legend has been passed down through the years in the Spanish-speaking world, including in Chile, where the character is recast as a Chilean immigrant to the goldfields. Pablo Neruda’s only stage play, a libretto entitled The Splendor and Death of Joaquín Murrieta, premiered in Santiago in 1967 — adaptations of it found success on stage and screen in the Soviet Union — and Isabel Allende put a new twist on the tale in her 1999 novel Daughter of Fortune. With its blend of history and imagination, romance and tragedy, the legend is perhaps most at home in corrido ballads and other Mexican folk traditions. “The story is best told by a grandmother,” writes the Mexican-American essayist Richard Rodriguez. “Listen to the stories, the songs, the poems about the life and you will believe that something terrible and sad happened in California once upon a time.”

Ridge would find little in common with the generations of Chicano activists who found themselves so inspired by the hero he played such a crucial early role in creating. Like his father and grandfather, Ridge was, in his pre-California days, a slaveowner, and in the Civil War era he became a fierce opponent of abolition as editor of the National Democrat and other Copperhead newspapers. Despite his novel’s moralizing against “the prejudice of color, the antipathy of races, which are always stronger and bitterer with the ignorant and unlettered,” he would go on to affiliate with the fringe white-supremacist group Knights of the Golden Circle, a forerunner to the Klan. A relentless advocate for Native American assimilation, he dabbled in phrenology and consistently defended the maltreatment of many Western and Plains Indian tribes whom he judged unwilling or unable to be “civilized.”

Perhaps the best that can be said for Ridge is that he seemed to understand, at least in certain moments, the consequences of abnegation and surrender. In his first published piece of writing, a poem published in the Arkansas State Gazette in 1847, he addresses the dark clouds of a gathering thunderstorm, an omen through which he glimpses his own mortality: “My name by men may be forgot / My works in cold neglect may rot.” Ridge, never to resolve the many contradictions within himself, greeted oblivion with religious defiance:

Go! Sound the fall of kingdoms’ crown,
Of nations crushed and trodden down,
Of grandeur cast, of pride o’er-thrown;
E’en, if thou wert the smoke of Hell,
My pride thy roaring could not quell—
Eternity! with thee I dwell.

—John Rollin Ridge (Yellow Bird), “To a Thunder Cloud” (1847)

Corky Gonzales didn’t want to be forgotten. “I Am Joaquín” is nothing if not an act of virtuosic, centuries-spanning memory, and of faith in the revolutionary power of art.

I shed the tears of anguish
as I see my children disappear
behind the shroud of mediocrity,
never to look back to remember me.
I am Joaquín.
I must fight
And win this struggle
for my sons, and they
must know from me
Who I am.

Those lines still appear on Escuela Tlatelolco’s website, but the school is entering its fifth year of dormancy. Today, visitors walk the halls of its former building on their way to massages, yoga classes and energy-healing appointments. “Nurture provides a place for all of our community members to meet all of their self-care needs under one roof,” its website says. “By maintaining our well-being, we create the space and time to contribute to our community, friends, families, and our planet.” The description doesn’t get too specific about who “our community” is, but I stopped in at the café on a recent afternoon for a coffee and a pear-hibiscus cupcake, and you can surely guess.

There’s no trace of Escuela left in the building it once called home — but would some cheap gesture at memory, a plaque, a land acknowledgement, be enough? A mile south on Denver’s west side stands the Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzalez Branch Library, opened in 2015 and so named only after a prolonged fight between champions of his legacy and opponents, including some of the same Denver police officers who spied on, harassed and even bombed Gonzales’ Crusade for Justice in the 1960s and 1970s. Inside the Gonzales library, the walls are full of recreations of Chicano murals, inspirational quotes from activists, photos documenting the history of the movement. But the neighborhood around it is already far different than it was when the library was first planned fifteen years ago, boxy new townhomes and luxury apartment complexes doing the quiet, inexorable work of displacement. Gold strikes, land grabs, broken promises.

Is memory enough? And if it’s not — what then? In his poem, Gonzales writes that even when “hordes of Gold starved / Strangers” robbed his people of their material wealth, the plunderers “overlooked that cleansing fountain / of nature and brotherhood / Which is Joaquín.” By what strange, alchemical process can language and symbols, heroes and stories, the ghostly stuff of myth and memory, leave their mark upon the world? What does it mean to believe that art and literature and music are, as Gonzales wrote, “the real things of value”?

The façade of the library named after him is wrapped in multicolored “threads,” its angular geometries and vibrant oranges and turquoises evoking the indigenous textile traditions of Mesoamerica and the Southwest. But the ends of the threads are frayed, and they run only in parallel, never intersecting — all warp, no weft. A thread can tie one thing to another, but alone, it moves only through one dimension, fragile and formless. Only slowly, painfully slowly, with patience and purpose, back and forth, over and under, through and around, careful acts of vision and repetition, does the thread become something more, can memory materialize.