The dusty yard they call the plaza is silent, except for the roar of one voice. ''You' re afraid, aren't you? You won't face me down. First you fire me in front of all the Indians and then you won't face me down! Well, this time, ColoneI Couts, you're going to, like it not!"
A couple of doors clunk quietly closed. The wind sifts through the newly planted trees and around the tall flagpole that once flew the Spanish flag, then the Mexican green-white-and-red tricolor, and now the 36 stars of Old Glory. The two men stand in the ditch beside the Estudillo house. The only other live things are a couple of chickens scraping the dust outside the little brick courthouse.
Juan Mendoza, the ex-major-domo of Colonel Cave Johnson Couts’s Rancho Guajome, is carrying a six-shooter and a knife. For weeks he has been making loud challenges in the bars for Couts to have enough cajones to come into town and show his face. Now, finally, he’s appeared, with a riding coat on and a shawl over one arm. Mendoza starts ranting again. “You fired me in front of the Indians, and you’re too yellow-bellied to...”
He suddenly stops. Couts has pulled away his shawl. Opened his coat. Mendoza’s face drains. He sees the black shine of a double-barreled shotgun. He turns to run.
The man falls into a bed of green reeds. Blood pumps red among them. He groans. Doors open. People from all around the plaza of the pueblo of San Diego see blue smoke drifting up from the twin barrels of Couts’s shotgun.
For a moment he looks down at the man. Then he looks up at the house of his late father-in-law, Don Juan Bandini, at the very spot where 20 years before, in 1846, Don Juan’s youngest, most coquettish daughter, Ysidora, fell into his arms. Legend has it that it happened as he rode into town. Lieutenant Couts then, part of a procession of Black Dragoons of the U.S. Army come to reinforce the American occupation of San Diego. Ysidora was so excited, the story goes, she leaned out the window too far and fell. Lieutenant Couts caught her perfectly, saved her life. Scholars point out that Bandini’s house had only one story at the time. Still, Couts returned to court Ysidora, and even though he didn’t speak a word of Spanish, he and Ysidora were married, and he was accepted as an extension of a Silver Don family.
Now, 20 years later, a man is dead at Couts’s feet — and not the first one. The Silver Don’s fortunes are sliding, and he is about to face a murder charge.
He turns back to where his horse and wagon are tied, climbs aboard, and trundles out of the square, bound for his distant Rancho Guajome, near present-day Vista.
That’s where we’re standing now, exactly 130 years later. Guajome. From the Luisefio wakhavumi for frog pond.
There are five of us here, chatting in the morning sunlight in a green dish-shaped valley: Cave Couts’s two great-grandsons, Chris and Kirk Richardson, me, my wife Carlita, and her cousin Kathleen Brennan. In a way, this is one of those connecting moments. Carlita and Kathleen are also descendants of Cave Johnson Couts and the families he married into. They’re some sort of cousins to the Richardsons, but they had never met. Today is the first time Carlita has ever seen Rancho Guajome, one of the last and one of the most magnificent haciendas of the Silver Don era, and a symbol of past glories for the whole family.
Ever since I married Carlita, I’ve been hearing about the Californios, the glittering life that the Silver Dons led before the Americans came and “occupied” Alta California. The great families who created this town, the Estudillos, Argueilos, Bandinis, Alvarados, Carillos, Machados, Wrightingtons, Crosthwaites, Serranos, Osunas had ranchos often so huge they still fill entire pages of the Thomas Guide, on the big blank spaces of pasture-land outside town.
Both Carlita and Kathleen have talked, in the ten years I’ve been in San Diego, of their grandmother Arcadia and her insistence they recognize the glory of their Spanish grandee roots. They were members of one of the “great families” of New Spain, which had owned huge tracts of California before the Americans...
When Carlita is really mad at the government, or at some politician coming to the border with tough talk about tripling walls to keep the hordes out and “shipping them all back to where they came from,” she always yells, "They are the illegals! The Americans came in and took our land! Stole California! What Iraq tried to do to Kuwait!”
Then she gives me the basic history to back it up. The leather-jacket soldiers and Father Serra tramping up Baja, founding the San Diego mission in 1769. The rise and fall of the missions, the era of the great land grants. The Silver Dons’ great asset, the “California Banknotes” — the hides of their cattle that they shipped by the million to the Orient. Then the U.S. forces occupying California in 1846. The Mexican-American War. California joining the Union in 1850. The gradual swamping of the Dons’ lands by squatters and immigrants. The abandonment of romantic, collegial Old Town in favor of pragmatic, gridded, centerless New San Diego. The feeling, among the old Spanishspeaking families, of being strangers in their own land. “Can you believe,” says Carlita, “I had Spanish beaten out of me at grade school? They rapped my knuckles when I spoke my own language, California’s own language.”
Carlita points out that her brother Fred and son Frankie both look like a reincarnation of Don Santiago Arguello, the tall, haughty comandante of the San Diego presidio whose family “came over with Cortes himself’ and whose ranches covered present-day Tijuana and Mission Valley.
Yet I’d always wondered, Is this real, keeping all this tradition alive? What is it with all these great Californio families? Do they even still exist?