This Saturday, I will provide artistic mentorship to a group of Orange County Latina high schoolers who have taken on the ambitious endeavor of creating 3 murals dedicated to 3 important women in California history. The 3 historical figures are Dolores Huerta, Judith Baca and Modesta Avila (pictured above). With the cutbacks in creative arts in California public and private schools, I think it is important to continue to provide training and creative dialogue with students. I feel very privileged to be able to give of my time to such important work. Often I wish there had been such exciting projects to work on in my teen years, then I step back and remember that our time as an artistic movement had only begun to sprout back then.
Now that you are intrigued by Modesta’s picture (above), I will tell you her story. These are the histories we do not learn in school and that is why art, mentorship and creative sharing is important for our young people.
Modesta Avila was a young woman who defied the Santa Fe Railroad and ended up in jail as the first felon in Orange County, in 1889.
Modesta lived in San Juan. She was an extremely proud woman and felt her mother’s rights were being trampled by the Santa Fe Railroad. She was very upset with the railroad, as she felt they had never paid for a right of way through her mother’s land. The trains were dirty, noisy, and kept her chickens from laying eggs.
She decided to do something about it. Locals said it was only a clothesline across the tracks with her laundry; Santa Fe said it was a railroad tie. A railroad agent removed it before a train came. Four months later she was arrested and charged with “attempted obstruction of a train.”
The jury tied in her first trial. In the second, rumors circulated that the attractive single woman was pregnant. In 1889, moral standards weighed heavily and the jury convicted her. She was sentenced to three years in San Quentin. Her attorney, George Hayford, appealed that his client was convicted on her reputation, not her deed. He was heard before the state Supreme Court, but lost on a technicality.
Modesta Avila died after serving two years of her sentence. She was 22 years old.