The Audacious Act That Made Modesta Avila A Legend — And Orange County's First Felon
Feminist hero. Chicana activist. Mouthy drunk. Sex worker. Would-be terrorist. Modesta Avila has as many labels as there are stars in the Southern California sky.
Some people believe she is "The Lady in White," a ghostly apparition who stalks the train tracks on the edge of San Juan Capistrano's Los Rios Historic District. The oldest continuously occupied residential neighborhood in California, Los Rios was the Avila family's home before the neighborhood was bisected by a railroad in 1888.
A year later, in June 1889, Avila placed a railroad tie and a steel bar on a newly laid section of the California Central Railroad track, just before the express train was due to come through town. She wrote a note and tied it to the items: "This land belongs to me. If the railroad wants to run here, they will have to pay me $10,000."
With this audacious act, she became a legend. She also became Orange County's first convicted felon. Who was Modesta Avila? And who has the right to tell her story? These questions have swirled around her since her disappearance (and perhaps death) in 1892.
Keeping Up Appearances
To understand Avila, you have to understand her family's background, says historian Richard Brock, author of Modesta Again: Setting the Record Straight.
In a March 2021 lecture for the Orange County Historical Society, Brock explained that Avila's father, Jose del Carmel Avila, was the illegitimate son of an indigenous woman and a man who belonged to the sprawling Avila family. They were Californios, descendants of Spain and the old money elites of 19th century California. On top of the enormous institutional and societal racism Native Californians faced, Jose, as a "bastard," was unable to claim his paternal family's status.
In 1843, when he was still a child, Jose (or his family) and a cousin petitioned the Mexican government for a land grant. He received 14 acres north of Mission San Juan Capistrano. With this title in his grasp, Jose was now a respectable, land-owning Californio.
His daughter, Modesta, was born in 1867, one of 11 children, near the towering ruins of the mission's Great Stone Church, which had been destroyed in the earthquake of 1812. The lives of San Juan Capistrano's residents, who were mostly Californios and the indigenous people they forced into servitude, revolved around the mission.
According to historian Lisbeth Hass, author of Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769-1936, the Avila clan was probably comprised of small-scale farmers and laborers. Avila's mother boarded guests in one of the two homes on the family property. Although Modesta probably worked from a young age, she received a better education than most women and learned to read and write English.
These were useful skills in a changing world. During the second half of the 19th century, American immigrants began flooding Southern California, eager to colonize and capitalize on the land of sunshine.
Powerful American railroad companies also arrived during Avila's childhood, drastically altering the lives of the region's longtime residents. "They made you rich or poor. If they bypass the town, the town might dry up," Hass says. If a rail line was built in your town, the impact could still be devastating. "Here's the railroad taking broad swaths of land, and it's being given it by the U.S. government. They can come in and they can really disfigure a town and take people's property."
During the 1870s and 1880s, waves of immigrants, advances in rail transportation and a real estate boom meant Californios increasingly found themselves squeezed out of the economic elite. Railroad companies went to great lengths to trick, coerce and force landowners into selling their property, often with the U.S. government as their wingman.
"A lot of the Californios, the older, more established families, had lost their property in a drought and then a deluge of water. There was very bad weather for about four years [and this happened] at the same time they needed money to make their land claims or defend those land claims in court. Really, they lost out economically," Hass says.
The Avilas were among that number. In 1886, Jose Avila sold his 14-acre parcel to real estate magnate Marco Forster for well below market value, according to Brock. Judge Richard Egan, who was known as "the King of Capistrano" and would later become a right-of-way-agent for the Santa Fe Railroad, notarized the sale — but it was not made public. Brock believes that Jose insisted on keeping the deal secret to assure his standing in the community.
"The family continued to live on the land as if it were their own, and they kept up the appearance of land ownership," Brock explained in his talk at the OCHS.
It appears that 22-year-old Modesta, who was frequently out of town, never knew the land had been sold. She lived with a sister in a small house on what she believed was still her family's property. (Brock says the home was about a quarter mile from the San Juan Capistrano Historic Depot, which still stands today.) Although she had a boyfriend, she remained unmarried and lived a remarkably independent life for a Californio woman in that era.
"She was a woman who was willing to cross different boundaries," Hass says. "I got a sense that she was a woman who knew how to comport herself very deliberately... And there was an almost poetic sense of how she moved about in life. She was bright and she was uncompromising."
Avila's beliefs would soon be tested. In 1888, the California Central, a subsidiary of the Santa Fe Railway, laid tracks outside her front door. A year later, on a morning in June 1889, Modesta heaved what Brock says was at least one railroad tie and a steel bar onto the track (not the strung clothesline of popular legend). On it, she attached her famous note demanding $10,000 in compensation.
A Polish immigrant named Max Mendelson happened to be waiting for a train when he discovered the obstruction. A postmaster, railroad agent and real estate speculator, Mendelson was likely the kind of man the Avila family saw as an enemy, someone who was bent on destroying their way of life. That day, he foiled Avila's plans.
Authorities did not immediately arrest Avila for the attempted sabotage. Her action wasn't that uncommon. Many irate landowners in California — including James Irvine, Griffith J. Griffith and Josefa Serrano de Ríos — had fought to stop railroads from laying tracks on their land, with varying degrees of success.
According to Hass, in the weeks following the incident, Avila began telling townspeople that she was negotiating with public officials and railroad representatives to receive compensation for her family's land. She claimed that the Santa Fe Railroad had agreed to pay her $10,000. She held a large fiesta at her house to celebrate the supposed deal.
For authorities, the party was a bridge too far. Avila was arrested for "keeping a disorderly house" and eventually jailed for a month for "vagrancy." These brushes with the law would lead to rumors that she was a sex worker, rumors that persist to this day.
For Hass, the fact that Avila had no true legal claim to the land is part of what makes her story so compelling.
"She was making a fictive claim, which to me was as important as making a legal claim. She didn't have a legal claim to make at that point but she acted 100% to the end as if she did," Hass says.
Author and performance ethnographer Sarah Rafael García, who is spearheading "Modesta Avila: Obstructing Development Since 1889 (#MAOD)," a collaborative digital storytelling initiative, believes Avila's protest illustrates important questions about the nature of land ownership.
"At that point, who really owns the land? It doesn't matter. It's a matter of who maintains it and who built a home there. Because there's so many definitions of ownership in this country," García says.
García is intrigued by the idea that Avila may have seen herself as her family's advocate, attempting to protect them with her literacy.
"As a child of immigrants and the first in my family born in the United States, I think her story is very relevant to folks who have to be the public speaker for their parents and for their family," García says. "She was like the OG of that. And when it comes to dealing with that in the 1800s, women were not even seen unless they were married to a man, and brown women even less."
Whatever her role in her family, the Avilas were unable to help Modesta when she got in real trouble.
On October 15, 1889, Orange County authorities arrested Avila and charged her with placing an obstruction on the railroad track. Her trial, in front of an all-white male jury, was held on October 22, not in tight-knit San Juan Capistrano but in nearby Santa Ana. It ended in a hung jury and Avila was retried a few days later.
Both trials were rife with racism and misogyny. Hass writes in Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769-1936:
"Avila was prosecuted not only for her defiance of railroad interests but also for her unconventional gender behavior… Her 'reputation' was cited unfavorably more than once during the hearings; indeed, her boyfriend's employer threatened to fire him if he was seen with her again, and then did so. A general sense of mockery pervaded the testimony of some witnesses as well as English-language newspaper accounts of her case. The Santa Ana Weekly Blade, for example, reported her appeal to the California Supreme Court under the heading 'Modesta Again.'"
According to B.V. Olguin, author of La Pinta: Chicana/o Prisoner Literature, Culture, and Politics, Avila was tried as much for being a mouthy woman as she was for committing a crime. While on the stand, an Orange County Justice of the Peace related Avila's actions after her arrest:
"While she was in the court room waiting for the officer- I was making out a commitment- she did a great deal of talking. Among other things she said she was going to get $10,000… That they had to pay her for it; that she couldn't get the money out of them in any other way, so she blocked up the track. She didn't state what with — if she did, I didn't pay any attention. I was busy and she was talking — in fact, she was doing a great deal of it."
At both trials, no one (including her father) told the court the Avila family's plot of land had been transferred to a new owner. On October 29, 1889, Avila was convicted by the second jury of obstructing the tracks and sentenced to three years in notorious San Quentin Prison, located in Marin County in Northern California. She reportedly kept her cool when the sentence was read.
"When the judgment was rendered, she was not affected in the least, but left the room with a smile on her face," one reporter wrote, according to Macida Dodson in the L.A. Times.
Avila probably knew the cards were stacked against her. While appealing the ruling, her lawyer, George Hayford, argued that her confession couldn't be taken seriously because she had been drunk at the time. He also further disparaged his client's character later in a letter: "Her real crime is that she is a poor girl not having sense enough to have been married."
According to Olguin, even presiding judge J.W. Towner was shocked and said, "This is the first time in the course of my life or legal practice that I ever heard or knew of its being attempted to show bad character of the defendant by the defense itself!"
Avila was sent to San Quentin, which had opened in 1852, where the inmates were disproportionately non-white. "There was an overwhelming number of Californios and Mexicans in the prison," Hass says.
At this point, Avila's life moves from the realm of history and social justice into unsolved mystery. For more than a century, the common belief was that Avila died in prison. Brock believes this is because of an article printed in the Santa Ana Standard, 19 months after Avila's conviction. The author, Dan Baker, a big railroad booster, wrote:
"Modesta, a well-known favorite of the Santa Ana boys, died in the penitentiary this week at San Quentin. She had served two years of her time and was getting along finely when she was stricken down in the prime of her usefulness. Let those who are without sin throw the first stone."
In his talk for the OCHS (available on YouTube), Brock says he has uncovered new information suggesting Avila was released from prison. According to Brock, her famous mugshot is often cropped, obscuring a note scrawled on top that reads: "Discharged 3-3-1892."
Brock also found an article from the March 5, 1892 San Francisco Call, which reports that a "comely woman" named "Modesta Belau," who had just been released from San Quentin for obstructing railroad tracks, had arrived at a train station in Sausalito. According to Brock, police were worried she was meeting up with fellow ex-convicts at the tracks, and that she may be forced into prostitution.
He further claims that in April 1899, a Northern California newspaper reported on the marriage of a man named Frank Edward to one "Modesta Abilia." Then, the trail goes cold.
Modesta Avila's Legacy
Whatever the case, Avila's story continues to evolve and scholars are still debating whose interpretation is most valid.
García feels Brock has been unwilling to share his research with other historians and says his perception of Avila is problematic. In Picture This: The Modesta We Never Knew, García's researcher, Cecilia López, writes: "Historians such as Richard Brock and his work, Modesta Again: Setting the Record Straight, have countered Modesta's narrative by criminalizing and sexualizing her."
Brock, for his part, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Activists have also utilized Avila's life as inspiration. "In Santa Ana, artists have portrayed her and have duplicated her image in the fight against gentrification," García says.
The Modesta Avila Coalition, based in Southern California, works to hold mass transit accountable for its environmental impact. For three years, LibroMobile, an arts cooperative and bookstore in Santa Ana, has presented the Modesta Avila Award to notable Latinx writers. Olguin says influential Chicana author Elena Maria Viramontes keeps a picture of Avila on the wall of her office.
Over the years, artists have reenacted her protest (using the fictitious clothing line) and made her life into an opera (centered around an invented romance with a white man).
Perhaps the facts of Modesta Avila's life are less important than what she symbolizes. Right or wrong, her fight to be recognized in a world where she was minimized and dismissed is one that resonates to this day.