Last week, the Supreme Court, the same body that saw fit to select George W. Bush as president in 2000, issued a ruling allowing corporations to contribute unlimited funds to political campaigns. It reminded me of a true Californian story, which I adapted into a play, and screenplay. I’ll explain.
In 1889, in San Juan Capistrano, Modesta Avila was 19, “uncommonly beautiful” and also feisty, perhaps too much so. She’s semi-famous because she had the courage (or naiveté) to oppose the biggest corporation in the world, the railroad. Especially with poor Mexicans, the railroad ran track dangerously near property lines without permission or compensation. With Modesta, it was 15 feet from her front door.
Imagine 10,000 buffalo stampeding by your bedroom in the middle of the night. As the train roared past Modesta’s house the walls shook, soot caked her windows, and the deafening noise literally frightened some of her chickens to death and left others unable to lay eggs. And you thought your neighbor’s smoking was a nuisance?
Modesta stormed to the railroad office and demanded money to move. They actually considered paying her until their lawyers concluded that deeds issued to Mexicans before California statehood were invalid. Modesta had been “railroaded,” a rather fitting term. The lawyers felt that she should be grateful that they weren’t throwing her off her own property (proving that lawyers did what lawyers do, even back then).
So Modesta decided to make her protest public. She strung up a clothesline across the track and hung her wet clothes to dry, including sheets and undergarments. This forced the train to stop, at least long enough for railroad employees to tear it down.
Unfortunately, Modesta had irrevocably stepped into the eternal battle between rich and poor. (And who do you think always wins that one?) Raising the ante, Modesta put a sign on the track, “This Land is Mine!” Having second thoughts hours later, she persuaded a railroad inspector, with whom she was likely having an affair, to take the sign down. Here’s the clincher if you just love corporations as I do.
Even though Modesta’s sign came down before any train arrived, four months later the railroad decided to make an example of her. After all, this objecting to having one’s land stolen could catch on among other poor Mexicans. So, they had Modesta arrested and charged with “attempted destruction of railroad property.”
With San Juan Capistrano being a railroad town, no lawyer would take Modesta’s case. No lawyer who liked to eat regularly, that is. Finally George Hayford, a drunk, one-armed barrister, stepped forward.
Sober during the trial, Hayford was inspired and the jury was hung 6-6. But at the second trial (a week later) the railroad spread rumors that unmarried Modesta was pregnant and a prostitute. She wasn’t the former but possibly was the latter. Either way, you got to love the railroad’s smear tactics (reminiscent of Karl Rove and Valerie Plame).
In finding her guilty, the jury recommended leniency. But the judge, the dishonorable James W. Towner, who, surprise, surprise, was on the railroad payroll, sentenced Modesta to three years at San Quentin. In fact, she was the newly formed Orange County’s first felon.
Just months before her release, Modesta, then 22, died in prison, most likely of tuberculosis. But fortunately, this tragic tale has a somewhat happy ending.
In celebrating Orange County’s centennial in 1989, the YWCA courageously included Modesta Avila among the 30 most notable women in the county’s history. This alleged prostitute was on the same list as prominent OC socialites, which must have steamed the blue bloods. But it gets better.
In 2001, environmentalists in six counties, trying to curb railroad pollution, formed the “Modesta Avila Coalition.” They’ve successfully lobbied Sacramento for increased anti-pollution legislation.
But the railroad in San Juan Capistrano wasn’t through. In 2002 they sought a second line. To protest the threat to 200-year-old landmark adobe homes, the activists in town duplicated Modesta’s tactics by stringing clotheslines across the track. The women even dressed like Modesta. To everyone’s shock, the State Transportation Committee unanimously rejected the railroad’s petition.
In the century since Modesta’s death, the railroad has returned over 18,000,000 acres they had acquired fraudulently. So, 113 years too late, Modesta Avila was finally vindicated.
But back to last week’s infamous Supreme Court ruling. President Obama labeled it “A major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, and health insurance companies to drown out the voices of everyday Americans.” Apparently, he didn’t care for it.
President Lincoln might have felt similarly. A former railroad lawyer, in 1864 he wrote, “When corporations are enthroned, an era of corruption will follow until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”
As of last week, I’d say the corporations were officially enthroned.
When he isn’t railing about the railroad, Jack can be reached at Jackneworth@yahoo.com.