Happy Mother’s Day! This baby took eight years of labor, but today my book is finally out, and María Zacarías Bernal de Berreyesa gets to breathe.
It's perfect that Mother's Day falls on Día de la Madre this year, because MINE is the true story of this Spanish-Mexican mother of thirteen, whose San José land (with a mercury mine) was also, in many ways, mine. It's a journey across landscapes uniting two mothers born centuries and cultures apart.
I'm sharing the introduction below, which tells how we met--143 years after she died--and why her tale of betrayal, murder, and greed seemed mine to tell.
MINE brings untaught history to light, and restores a voice to María Zacarías, who deserves to be heard. It was a finalist in the 2020 San Francisco Writing Contest (creative nonfiction) and the California Historical Society 2014 Book Award Contest. I’m excited and honored by all the interest in this remarkable Californio mother, and I hope her story will resonate with you as well.
¡Feliz Día de las Madres, Zacarías !!
From the introduction to
MINE: El Despojo de Maria Zacarias Bernal Berreyesa
Like most Californians, I grew up with a fourth-grade, mission-project vision of our state’s earliest history. For most of my life I remembered only bell towers, and gray-robed priests, and smallpox epidemics that had killed many Indians. I knew nothing of the Californios who had “owned” the land for seventy-plus years, of their permanent disruption by the massive influx of foreigners—whites, that is—after 1848. Research showed me what American greed cost Zacarías and her people, but my heart showed me who she was through our common land.
Rancho San Vicente, so integral to Zacarías’s mid-life and livelihood, has felt like “mine” for decades. Most of it is still ranchland, except for the corner where my children’s grade school stands beside her creek. For hundreds of mornings, after dropping them off, I would walk the banks of Los Alamitos, soaking up its beauty, reflecting on my own rural childhood. Often, I took my children there to play after school, so their childhoods would hold the same kinds of memories as mine.
After my teens began driving to high school and my chauffeur role came to an end, I went back to the creek with my dog, working through motherhood angst and mid-life loss. In that anxious, sorrowful state of mind I began to see glimpses of a story there, odd words and aberrant phrases scattered throughout the waters and woods. I noticed the green glossy surf of non-native periwinkle, the face of a snarling devil in the knots of an oak, the distorted scar of an arrow carved in a trunk. I heard crickets rasping in the middle of the day. I found rusted mattress springs beneath the weeds, rotted chunks of lumber sticking out of banks, and bits of tumbled brick beneath the silt. I saw vultures hunkering together on rocks in the creek, and paddles of prickly pear cacti poking through weeds. There was an ancient, massive cactus stand my dog refused to pass, and when I carried her past it, I felt her trembling.
There were signs of a mystery at Los Alamitos, a tale of something significant under its skin. I became convinced that something momentous had happened there. It was like being in an empty gothic chapel, appreciating its simple grace, yet feeling there might be stolen relics wedged in the vaults, morbid stains in the splendid fretwork. I already knew of the extinct quicksilver mines in the mountains’ spurs, but I felt something else was embedded nearby, something deeper than mercury mine shafts and cinnabar caves—something richer than ore. The creek was connecting me to both the past and presence.
Now and then I thought that my raw state of mind might be making me imagine things, until one day, while visiting the Almaden Quicksilver Mining Museum, I learned that the creek had once defined the western end of Rancho San Vicente, the home of María Zacarías Bernal de Berreyesa.
Who was she? I asked.
The short answer astounded me. I understood, in a flash, why Los Alamitos Creek had been speaking to me; I knew she too would have paced its banks, caught up in grief and loss. By then I had spent almost half my life on her league—in my children’s classrooms on the corner of the ranch, or down by the creek that bordered her land, or in the surrounding hills—and suddenly I knew she had been with me all along.
I found longer answers to “who was she?” at tables and desks, enough history to know her story deserved to be told. But I found the real Zacarías in natural places, not pictures or print. I felt bound to her by “our” land.
So I have told her tale of losses through connections of the heart, weaving our experiences together in situ, under the influence of places and seasons we have shared across time. In doing so I intend MINE to resonate across cultural and political lines, to create empathy for María Zacarías Bernal de Berreyesa as a mother and woman, and to deepen awareness of our state’s Spanish-Mexican roots.
MINE was a finalist in the 2020 San Francisco Writing Contest (creative nonfiction) and the California Historical Society 2014 Book Award Contest. It also won departmental awards at San José State University. MINE is available in paperback on Amazon.
If I were to plot my watershed moments on a graph of my life, and draw lines from point to point, the result would not seem to show progress. The inner lessons learned would not plot out like formal accomplishments would: there would be very few straight strokes, and no clear pattern of upward or even forward momentum. Most of the graph would be a scribble of overlapping swoops, back and forth and up and down and around. Frankly, my growth chart would look like a loopy mess.
But the longer I live, the less chaos I see in the tangle. Standing back, days or decades later, I see where seemingly small, unconnected events--a chat with a driver, the gift of a ring, a misdirected email or text--ended up criss-crossing in zig-zaggy, who'd-have-guessed ways. I see astoundingly meaningful patterns, unbound by our notion of time, unlimited by any linear sense of order. I see the proof that what goes around comes around, yet never in one perfect circle. The swirl of synchronicities that says every little thing matters.
This swirling mass of small "insignificant" things forming astounding patterns is an opening image in my friend Julian Hoffman's new book, Irreplaceable. He's describing a murmuration of starlings from underneath a pier, a rise of a thousand-plus birds into a shape-shifting form: "The starlings spiralled, ribboned and wavered, a vast tremulous cloud of intelligence, each curvature and warp in the air a response to their dynamic but precise volatility"--and a stunning show of collaboration and beauty. But the birds aren't performing for humans; none of them is trying to astound. As Julian says:
Each and every starling in the shifting body of birds is constantly moving in relation to its closest companions, regardless of the flock's size. According to an Italian study, orientation and velocity are precisely calibrated to a starling's seven nearest neighbours, so that the orchestral swing of a murmuration is governed by tiny deviations almost instantaneously transmitted by way of a ripple effect through the entire assembly.
The first time I read this scene I was at the beach in Santa Cruz, where ripple effects were at my feet in glittery residue of rocks, and in surging waves from faraway continents. It brought to mind my belief in the connectedness of all things, not only spiritually but elementally, not only laterally but deeply through eons. We are all acting in concert with our neighbors, intentionally or not; every action has repercussive effects. And as that thought arose, so did a murmuration, right in front of me, out of a half-sunken ship.
Awed by the synchrony, I thought of the swirls that my friendship with Julian had created. We had first connected in 2011, when he responded warmly to my comment on his gorgeous, prize-winning essay on Terrain.org--I quickly learned that's who he is, gracious and thoughtful and kind to everyone. Two years later our paths crossed in person at the AWP conference in Seattle, which had awarded his new book The Small Heart of Things their coveted nonfiction award. And the year after that, I had the honor of hosting him during his Bay Area book tour, and of introducing him to the California redwoods and elephant seals.
Three connecting loops in three years--three memorable days in 2014 that got me wondering who and what I needed to be. Three days that lit a fire under me, as a writer, an MFA student, an environmentalist, and so much more, as I wrote about here. Julian's brief visit changed the shape of my life across the next six years, from inspiration to action. The new shape was dynamic, shifting from one role or goal into another, transforming through myriad small deviations, as in Julian's description of the murmuration's flow:
Together they shape-shifted into mystifying forms as evening fell around us--the black coil of a sinuous snake at sea, a bowl set spinning through salt air, a wine glass brimming with the last of the drained light. No sooner had a shape been perceived than it had already morphed into something radically unrelated, as if a sequence of ethereal phantoms, fugitive and fantastic in their unfolding.
In 2019, my year of not-so-tiny deviations, Julian released Irreplaceable: The Fight to Save Our Wild Places, honoring the efforts of devoted individuals to protect certain at-risk land. His much-lauded, lyrical writing brings to light their network effect on the world, the interconnectedness of all species, the nonlinear consequences of our actions. His timely book makes it clear that everything we do, as individuals and as a species, matters, and our actions have repercussive effects in all directions,
Those effects may not chart out right away; we might feel like we're on our own and going nowhere for a while. But if we do our own small part in the moment, without worrying about "measurable success" or immediate outcomes, it will all add up. This truth pervades all arenas, from external activism to personal choices. When we do what we must to be who we are, we contribute to a greater whole. And when we step back someday, we'll see a meaningful murmuration of collaboration, beauty, and progress.
To purchase Irreplaceable, please consider supporting your local independent bookshop. It's also available on Amazon in hardback and paperback.
This senses poem was written in tribute to our dear old apple farm, set in the Watsonville hills south of Santa Cruz. My sister and her family live there now, and it still looks, feels, tastes, sounds, and smells -- like dust and so much more. The photos, however, were mostly taken in spring, which so beautifully belies the dust.
I smell dry earth, the sweat and dung of horses,
Distended burlap sacks of chicken scratch,
Hot laurel bay and eucalyptus leaves,
Mom’s chili, wood smoke, ragweed, saddle soap,
Alfalfa hay in musty verdant stacks
Shoved into forts and stages and storefronts,
Shellac and varnish, paint and paint remover;
The pungent scent of fly spray, salted air,
Oats, rotten apples, dead mice inside walls,
Wet soil on boots, pink Cecil Brunner roses,
Hot cider, Folger’s coffee, flannel shirts,
The fallen fruit that scents the orchard dust.
I feel the strain of lifting sodden straw
From muddy stable floor to wheelbarrow,
Cool coastal fog against my neck as Dad
And I hike with a thermos over hills
Vibrant with dew. I feel that barn-sour pony
Tearing home beneath me -- my numb panic,
Hard fall, sharp shoulder pain, embarrassment;
The amber evening sunlight on my arms
While cantering through undeveloped land,
The sticky, chunky texture of the oats
Inside the wooden feed box; scratchy hay,
The privacy of tree-forts and the sense
Of secret space yet union with all things,
Legs dangling down from slender eucalypti
That, bending, send me to the forest floor;
My purple fingers pricked with berry thorns,
And dust like talcum powder underfoot.
I hear the John Deere sputter, cough, and growl;
Rain jumping on the corrugated roof
Of our old barn, dogs howling, roosters crowing,
Ducks squawking, horses breathing, hooves clip-clopping;
The clanging dinner bell across the acres,
Danita yelling at her mom next door,
The screech of tires where the road turns sharply,
The thump of hammers, wail of table saw,
Dad calling “All right!” or, “Aw, cruminelly,”
Wind fluttering through the acacia trees,
The crunch of driveway gravel that announced
A date, his car eclipsed by silver dust.
I see the old red of the sagging barn,
The oak worms Shawn and I picked from our sleeves,
The plays presented on our rustic stage –
Small Becky in a sapphire evening gown
As Salome, delivering the head
Of St. John on a platter (skull-sized rock
Besmeared in ketchup underneath a scarf);
The Scotch Broom frothing from the well-road banks,
Sun sinking in a shred of distant sea,
The broad leaves of the fig tree splayed to keep
Most of the summer sun from my green cave,
The steep twist in the forest trail where
Our ponies liked to dash across the roots,
The blossoms on the bellflower apple tree
Whose branches brushed the soil like a skirt,
The scrubby brush that filled the dense corral,
Clouds, columns, devils, swirls, and puffs of dust.
I taste the sweet Satsumi plums, the quince,
Ollalieberries, kumquats, and persimmon,
Fresh crispy apples eaten under trees
Or whittled into cider, pies, and jams
By Mom, who made the most of everything;
That bitter unknown fruit we used for pranks,
Dad’s catch pan-fried in cornmeal, kidney beans,
Spaghetti, chard and spinach, deviled eggs,
Surfeit zucchini tucked in every dish,
Pure well water, warm cheesy casseroles,
Tart sourgrass, wild fennel, boys I kissed,
Big gulps of ocean air and orchard dust.
At five o’clock this morning I was journaling about my commitment to 2020 as a year of vision—not only retrospection and foresight about my life, but about inner vision, about my commitment to “see the light” one step at a time. I expressed gratitude for the trinity of body, mind, and soul that empowers me to see the lamp on each point of my path, and to move my foot into its glow, one step at a time.
I noted that I don’t need to see the big picture – the whole trail, the destination signposts, the aerial view of the path through the woods (or desert, or sea, or mountains) – I’m just supposed to put one foot in front of the other, one step at a time. I’ll get there when I get there—in fact, I am already “there” with every step, since life is the journey and not some place of arrival.
I wrote that “Living is not static or conclusive; it’s dynamic and perpetual. So life’s meaning is in taking each step, trusting that I’m going in the light-right direction, being thankful for my current place and the power to move forward. It’s in not turning up my nose at any of the people the universe puts in my path. Everyone and everything is a chance to serve or learn.”
I followed my journaling, as usual, with a few moments of meditation, to clear my mind for better reception throughout the day. But strangely, in the brief moment I was able to clear all of the words from my mind, out of nowhere (I thought) a sad, terrible image arose: of Robin Williams stepping off a chair to die at the end of a rope. I had no idea where that image had come from, or why it showed up just then, but it made my blood surge with sympathy. My heart ached for that miserable man, the sad clown who hid under his own brilliant humor, behind twinkling eyes and an ever-endearing smile. I imagined, for just a second or two, what he might have thought and felt as he took that step, and then I erased that too.
Today’s steps began at six o’clock, as they always do, with literal steps along the coast, in a stunning, soul-feeding setting suffused with new sunlight – a glorious beginning. My walk along the bluffs, wharf, beach, cliffs, village and river always suffuses me inwardly with joy, stoked in large part by my favorite playlist pouring out of my headphones, in “shuffle” mode. My morning stroll has a soundtrack determined by the universe, and every song seems aligned with every new shade of dawn.
But today I was more conscious of my physical steps, of the physical path I was taking, one step at a time. I was more aware of my commitment to go be receptive to people in my path, not just in my own music-and-nature-happy mind. I smiled at everyone I saw and said hello even though I couldn’t hear myself speak, because of the Plain White T’s or Fleetwood Mac. I stopped on the wharf to feed peanuts to the seagull who waits for me there each day, and I waved at the woman who does yoga there, facing the sun. I called good morning to fishermen as Phillip Phillips sang “Unpack Your Heart.”
But when I reached Depot Hill to walk along the bluffs, I saw a woman approaching whom I knew just well enough that I ought to stop and chat—she’s vivacious and bright, one of those effervescent people who can keep you awhile, though you can’t help enjoying yourself. Not ready to leave my private world, I considered just smiling and walking on, knowing my headphones would show I was occupied. I knew she wouldn’t think it rude if I didn’t stop.
Then I remembered my commitment to each step, to not turn away from any person put in my path. So I pulled the headphones down around my neck, paused the playlist, and said “Hey, how are you this morning?”
She replied, with a catch in her voice, “Oh, I’m so very sad! My childhood friend just hung herself Friday, and I can’t get past losing her. We used to walk to kindergarten together. We walked these bluffs together for years – she had a house up here, and this was her favorite place.” And she choked back a sob. Of course I gave her a hug, and we talked for awhile, about people who suffer, and the dignity of choice, and the merits of seizing the day and hugging our friends. She told me that her friend had been a woman full of laughter and love, who just couldn’t handle the pain of her ailments and life.
When we moved on, I paused several yards away, my music still on hold. It had been a sweet, short conversation that I hoped had served her well, but I knew it had served and taught me. My morning writing and meditation had prepared me to pause in my path, to recognize and honor the person placed there by design. The image of Robin WIlliams had preheated my heart to sympathize from my core with the woman who had taken her own. And I had learned that a conscious decision to see will bring on the lamp, the glow, the path, the momentum, the lesson, the meaning of life for me.
I turned toward the sunrise and started to walk, and undid the pause on my playlist. Which song, out of nearly two hundred happy love songs, came “randomly” into my ears? The odd dark song in my light-filled mix: Don’t Fear the Reaper, by Blue Oyster Cult.
Came the last night of sadness
And it was clear she couldn't go on
Then the door was open and the wind appeared
The candles blew then disappeared
The curtains flew then he appeared, saying don't be afraid
Come on baby, and she had no fear
And she ran to him, then they started to fly
They looked backward and said goodby,
She had become like they are
She had taken his hand, she had become like they are
Come on baby, don't fear the reaper
I don’t know why this sequence of situations and images and people were presented to me today—why the light shown on such sadness, why it gave me these visions of suicide and grief. I just know I followed the light this morning, and that vision and value are revealed one step at a time.
Dry fields sticker with foxtails and burrs.
Hot air buzzes thick with wasps.
Red poison oak bushes rage out of hard-packed ground.
Starving deer hem skirts of sharp-leafed oak.
Wilted wildflowers relinquish more color each day.
Hard to tread there without getting stuck or stung.
Hard to reach out there and not get a rash in return.
Hard to feel peace there when life is not getting its fill.
A year and an hour away, in rising light,
Seafoam laces the edge of a silver cove.
The ocean supports the present seekers who wait
Above or upon its surface, knowing the day
Will tender its gifts. Six surfers sit and gaze
Toward distant ripples likely to transform to waves;
Four seagulls hover, scanning for sparkles of fish;
Two sailboats rest on the glass, awaiting a breeze.
On the bluff, a climbing vine that has outgrown its trellis
Clambers over a weathered roof, lifting unopened blooms
To the fog-dampened, fostering light of the coastal sun.
Zacarías's nephew, the younger Antonio Sunol, was killed by a squatter while patrolling the family’s rancho. The intruder had been haphazardly shooting at cattle until one dropped, wounding many, and Antonio, from his horse, had confronted him about the cruelty and waste. He had invited the shooter to come to his home and get all the meat he desired, but asked him to stop killing and wounding the cattle. In response, the squatter shot Antonio. His broken-hearted father, the senior Antonio, lost any vestiges of support he might have had for the American infiltration of California. - from MINE: El Despojo de María Zacarías Bernal de Berreyesa
I'm ambling around the local park, where the grass is sparkling with dandelion blooms that bring my Audrey to mind. I used to call her my "dandelion daughter" when she was little, because she was such a bright, strong-rooted girl who couldn't be repressed -- and yet could be delicate, too. Sometimes, like now, I selfishly wish she hadn't moved to Hawaii.
There's a team of girls practicing soccer in the field, just like she used to do. They're all dressed in different bold colors, making me think of a tumble of Skittles -- Audrey loved those candies. She loved playing soccer, too. I'm remembering how hard she'd run for the ball, how her face would light up and she'd follow her kick with a laugh.
I've walked fifty yards farther when I see something red in the grass, the only piece of litter in sight. It's a Skittles wrapper next to a dandelion bloom -- no, I'm not making this up. And as I'm trying to put that coincidence together, the coach on the field yells "You got this, Audrey!" -- and I just have to smile and think, oh yes you do, and I'm so happy for you. Stay where you are and bloom with all your might.
The universe has many voices, and sometimes it talks to me in several of them at a time.
226 years ago today, María Zacarías Bernal de Berreyesa was born in the presidio barracks of San Francisco. She almost didn't make it -- she was so near death at birth that she had to be rushed to the tiny chapel next door for an emergency baptism by the commandante. These are the ruins of the chapel where she was "saved" -- her soldier father, Joaquin Bernal, may have laid these foundational stones as one of his duties.
I'm celebrating her birthday, her survival, and the completion of my book with a sangria at the Presidio Officer's Club, just a few feet away from the barracks and chapel sites. Today seems like a good day -- and this seems like the perfect place -- to begin sharing bits of her story with you. Here's a scrap from the prologue of MINE, about the night she was born and baptized, November 5, 1791:
Candlelight quivers across a bloodstained bed, where a weary-eyed woman is curled on her side, watching a midwife bend over a silent bundle. A sweating young soldier stands inside the door, turning his hat in his hands. Voices drift through the glassless windows, the brief worried questions of relatives--¿esta bien? ¿Aun vive?—the murmur of women, and the whimpering of the newborn’s two sisters. I can hear the disconsolate squawks of wet chickens, the rumble of waves on the nearby shore, the rain that falls through the thatched roof and thuds on the floor.
The baby has been born instantem periculum mortis, in danger of immediate death, and might not live long enough to be baptized at Mission Dolores four miles off—not even long enough to send for a priest.
This photo was taken by Mary Lovely, a lovely stranger who listened with enthusiasm as I explained while I'm here. Thanks for listening, Mary.)
It's been an educational, vertebrae-crunching six years, but MINE: El Despojo de María Zacarías Bernal de Berreyesa is now off to my hoped-for publisher and SJSU! Here's a little intro to Zacarías and her tale.
María Zacarías Bernal de Berreyesa was a Spanish-Mexican matriarch of early San José. The Bernals and Berreyesas had arrived in San Francisco in 1776, and helped settle the Bay Area throughout the mid-1800s; Zacarías’s father and husband were ranchers of neighboring estates in San José, and the hides-and-tallow trade had made them rich.
But in 1846 John C. Frémont came to town, and began his destruction of Zacarías’s world. With his support (if not instigation), the Bear Flaggers revolted and captured three of her sons. When her husband rode north to check on their welfare, he was murdered by Kit Carson, acting on Frémont’s order.
When the Gold Rushers swarmed in three years later, the widow’s land ownership was questioned—as were all Californio claims of land ownership. Zacarias, though, had a quicksilver mine on her land, and that metal made gold much easier to refine. Mercury rose in price, and sixty claimants rose against her—squatters, capitalists, and their lawyers. Even President Lincoln sent men to claim the mine, but she held her ground all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In 1863 the mine operations were decided to be on her rancho, but by the time that league of land was affirmed to be hers, it had been sold to cover legal bills. Financial losses were meaningless, though, because by then she had also lost nine of ten sons—some of them to violence and vigilante mobs, fueled by the tensions over the land and mines—seven sons gone in one turbulent decade alone.
It is our overlapped places and fears that connect Zacarías and me. Rancho San Vicente, so integral to her life and livelihood, has felt like “mine” for decades. It is still open land, except for the corner where my children’s grade school stands, and I have spent countless hours along her creek, journaling my thoughts and worries. So I have told Zacarías’s tale of losses through connections of the heart, weaving our experiences together in situ to “ground” our empathy, playing out our stories on our common stage, under the influence of places and seasons we have shared across time.
Like most Californians, I grew up with a fourth-grade, mission-project vision of our state’s earliest history: I remembered only bell towers, and gray-robed priests, and smallpox epidemics that had killed many Indians. I knew nothing of the Californios who had “owned” the land for seventy-plus years, of their permanent disruption by the massive influx of foreigners—whites—after 1848. Research showed me what American greed cost Zacarías and her people, but my heart showed me who she was through places and sons. I have looked at her life through the lens of our love for both. MINE is intended to resonate across cultural and political lines, to create empathy for Zacarías as a mother and woman, and to deepen awareness of our state’s Spanish-Mexican roots.
Knotholes scar the broad boards of the faded fence,
like age spots on a weathered face
framed by funky hot pink bangs
of bougainvilla blooms.
Knotholes cheapen lumber for builders
but enrich it for me.
Knotholes are cross-sections of joints,
Reminders of branches that used to be
Buttresses for birds’ nests,
Byways for squirrels, and
Beds for raccoons.
Knotholes record, in the grooves of their rings,
The soundtracks of chipmunks, owls, wrens, ravens, and jays--
Lifetimes in squabble and song
Playing silently on.
Knotholes are signs of outgrowth, and so of Life--
The life of the tree, the lives of each of its denizens,
The lives of we who inhaled its Invisible gifts.
They signify the whole of the ever-giving tree.
Knotholes are not holes but