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.