• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

— If the bears had not ripped Fred Gilbert's arms off, he might never have made the connection with Maria Amparo 40 years later. The accident happened when he was a boy. He'd gone to see an "outlaw" circus - more a band of wild animal owners - in Tecate, Mexico. "They were bedding down the animals, and seven of us boys started to fool around, sneaking underneath the tent. There were two rows of cages, and there was this lion that was asleep, and we dared each other to kick the lion's butt. So big-mouth here kicked the lion. It got up. I'm eight years old. You've got to remember what size I am. This thing stood up; it was like King Kong. I ran backwards. I hit the bears' cage. The [first] bear reached out, took my right arm completely off. Completely. Just swiped it off, like he was catching a fish."

Gilbert winces even now. "I felt the pain. I took off. I'm running with the boys, and the boys are screaming that I have blood on my pants - I was wearing white jeans - and they were starting to get soaked with blood. I couldn't find my arm. I looked back, and I saw it on the ground, and it was still moving, auto-reflexively. And I went back to try to pick it up. And then I lose the other arm to the second bear. I'm being ripped apart now, okay? I'm being mauled. The first bear has my face. He has his teeth into my skull. He cracks a bone. Then my uncles and some servicemen had some tent poles. They screamed and slammed at the bears. They tried to beat and lever them away."

It's as fresh now, 45 years later, as the day it happened, September 18, 1952. The men managed to free him. But there were no ambulances.

"The police didn't want to put me in their car because my blood would mess it up. I'll always be thankful for that, because they put me in an ice-wagon instead. Doctors think that's what actually saved my life. Because of the coldness and the cleanliness. It helped stop the shock and the bleeding and the infection."

That day defined Fred Gilbert's life. The feisty kid got gangrene, almost died several times, yet he survived. Even now, at 53, he carries the scar on his upper lip and the dents in his head where the bear's teeth sank in. He wears two artificial arms with calipers for hands. But he's made something of his life. He became a recreation counselor for the handicapped. He worked 30 years in the field and helped organize handicapped Olympics in Bakersfield, St. Louis, and Tijuana. He set up events such as Camp Friendship, day- and week-long retreats held in Old Town and Mt. Laguna for the handicapped. Among Central American immigrants in San Diego, he became known as a man who could help them find medical and social services.

Fred Gilbert drives his own car. He even has 90 hours' flying time to his credit with the Civil Air Patrol. Yet he's tried to commit suicide seven times. Not, he says, because of his artificial limbs. "I just couldn't handle not doing what I wanted to do. I spent nine months in a psychiatric institution for depression. It was frustration."

It was also attention deficit disorder. Discovering that helped. But his real rescuer - aside from his wife Journalyn - is a woman who died 102 years ago: Maria Amparo Ruiz Burton. "She has put a passion back into my life," says Gilbert. "The more I looked at her life, the more I could see: in a sense she's like me. She had to struggle all the way too."

It began four years ago, when Gilbert agreed to help his daughter Lucila with her Chicano history project for SDSU. Lucy had to write an essay on a San Diego pioneer. She avoided the usual icons - Cabrillo, Serra, Bandini, Dana, Horton. Instead, father and daughter, both bilingual, started wondering how people of Californio descent - Spanish who settled San Diego before Mexican independence - lived through the transition from Mexican pueblo to late-19th-century American town. Especially women. So Lucy chose Maria Burton, the most obscure woman she could find.

Burton lived during that crucial period, from 1833 to 1895. She was beautiful, educated, articulate, and adored - until she demanded to be taken seriously by the male establishment. She brought cement to the streets of San Diego, castor oil to its factories, and plans for a permanent water supply. She glamorized life in San Diego with her parties and reflected it in her novels and plays.

And, as with Gilbert, it was an early crisis that defined Maria's life: the American army invaded her hometown of La Paz in 1848. Maria was only 14 but already beautiful. After La Paz surrendered, she tended to the American wounded and dying and became famous when someone wrote a ballad about her.

The guns had hushed their thunder

The guns in silence lay

Then came the senorita

The Maid of Monterey

Although she loved her country

And prayed that it might live

Yet for the foreign soldier

She had a tear to give

And when the dying soldier

In her bright gleam did pray

He blessed this senorita

The Maid of Monterey.

Maria and her family went to live in Northern California's Monterey, transported there by the American commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Stanton Burton. He had fallen for Maria, perhaps at one of the balls La Paz society threw for the conquering soldiers. Burton, already a national war hero at 28, was stricken with love. He arranged for her family's transportation north to the safety of Monterey, where he proposed. And from that moment on, Gilbert says, Maria's life reflected all the tensions of living between California's two cultures.

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

More from SDReader


Sign in to comment

Let’s Be Friends

Subscribe for local event alerts, concerts tickets, promotions and more from the San Diego Reader