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The Medicine of Memory

The Medicine of Memory
A Mexica Clan in California

A work of creative nonfiction on the forgotten history of California.

November 2002
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256 pages | 6 x 9 | 18 b&w illus. |

"People who live in California deny the past," asserts Alejandro Murguía. In a state where "what matters is keeping up with the current trends, fads, or latest computer gizmo," no one has "the time, energy, or desire to reflect on what happened last week, much less what happened ten years ago, or a hundred." From this oblivion of memory, he continues, comes a false sense of history, a deluded belief that the way things are now is the way they have always been.

In this work of creative nonfiction, Murguía draws on memories—his own and his family's reaching back to the eighteenth century—to (re)construct the forgotten Chicano-indigenous history of California. He tells the story through significant moments in California history, including the birth of the mestizo in Mexico, destruction of Indian lifeways under the mission system, violence toward Mexicanos during the Gold Rush, Chicano farm life in the early twentieth century, the Chicano Movement of the 1960s, Chicano-Latino activism in San Francisco in the 1970s, and the current rebirth of Chicano-Indio culture. Rejecting the notion that history is always written by the victors, and refusing to be one of the vanquished, he declares, "This is my California history, my memories, richly subjective and atavistic."

  • Preface: Maize for the Metate
  • Phantoms in the Mirror
  • The "Good Old Mission Days" Never Existed
  • Josefa of Downieville: The Obscure Life and Notable Death of a Chicana in Gold Rush California
  • Triptych: Memories of the San Fernando Valley
  • Gathering Thunder
  • Tropi(lo)calidad: Macondo in La Mission
  • Petroglyph of Memory
  • The Marin Headlands: A Meditation on Place
  • The Homecoming of an Azteca-Mexica Clan
  • Notes
  • Selected Bibliography
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

Alejandro Murguía is Associate Professor in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University.


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Memory is history, but history is not always memory. By that I mean that memory is not always included in the history of this country. Take my memory of California as an example. My California is different from the histories I had to endure as a young man, the ones that left me out of the picture while rugged white pioneers conquered the West. In that history I am merely a passive figure, useful only as a foil for actions taken by others. This sort of history I do not accept, not because I'm stubborn (which I am), but because it's a simplistic view and at its core untrue.

The Medicine of Memory argues that without historical memory, I am a displaced person, severed from the land, nothing and no one. My assertion is that we all have historical memory. You don't have to be a scholar to discover your historical memory, you just have to be curious. Go explore history for yourself, in public libraries or archives, in state parks and historical sites, even in petroglyph caves; interpret it your way, demystify it, strip it of its privileged, elitist, inaccessible stance, as if it were pure and you were going to spoil it with your dark soiled hands.

Every writer will tell you that stories are healing, liberating. But only if we write ourselves into history, expropriate it in a sense, redefine it, rewrite it even, can it be liberating, a means of breaking down oppression and confusion. If I appear in history, then I have a chance to understand myself. And I am a complex person, a twenty-first-century mestizo, and even that concept needs some fine-tuning, a reevaluation, and a new definition. I must also warn you that some wounds just won't heal, no matter how we write them. Some insist on festering, making closure elusive, perhaps not achievable until another generation comes along to better understand our past: how we were killed and massacred and how the evidence was buried in archives or deep within our memory.

The approach to writing history has changed a lot since I was a young man. The new Chicano historians are much more inclusive, are more conscious of different viewpoints, and are gradually recovering our history. But when I think of California, I still find many incidents whose place in history leaves me unsatisfied. To insist on taking another look at history implies a challenge to the belief that history is certain. And the most certain truth about California history is that it is uncertain. The past is far too complex to have just one fixed version. The past is like a trensa, a braid of many different strands twined together, and each historian picks one strand to follow, reject, recover, or rewrite.

It is clear to me that history depends on the writer's subjective arrangement of details and events. Whenever you look at the past, whether through the lens of memory or the opaqueness of text, the view is distorted by the viewer's own subjective place in the present. Objectivity is a myth. Any historians who claim objectivity are fooling themselves and their audience.

Since history is subjective, there is no zero degree of bias. Take, for example, Hubert Howe Bancroft's massive multivolume history of California, based on his impressive collection of manuscripts and documents. In the final analysis, his California is mostly his subjective interpretation (and the subjective interpretation of those he employed to write sections of it), with all his biases (and his writers' biases) on race, ethnicity, class, and gender, which are obvious to any careful reader. With a stroke of the pen, for instance, he dismisses a central event of Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo's narrative as "purely imaginary."

So here's my first confession: I am not objective; this is not an objective story. I'll be the first to admit that my California is subjective; there is no objective wall between the subject and myself. I am not writing history per se; instead I am unraveling the strands of time/space/memory that define my presence here. I propose a history based not on "objective" Western methodologies, which are not "objective" anyway, but on intuition, memory, and landscape; not on linear chronological time, but on circling the events till they become understandable to me.

Historians are trained to find patterns; I have looked for the pattern of names—the Lugos, Olivas, and Murguías—that appear in history and have tried to make sense of the whole through their individual experiences. In a way I have engendered my own line back through history. But it is not exclusively family names that I relate to; I also use the Nahuatl concept of calpulli (clans), the shared characteristics and experiences, as a template of my landscape. Besides researching the usual sources, I also researched my imagination. I looked at the landscape as a guide to what I needed to tell. I wrote about those places that hurt and tried to figure out why they hurt. What atavistic memory drove me to the site of the lynching of a Mexican woman, or to the Modoc Lava Beds? All I can say is that I was compelled to understand these events from my own perspective. Now as I look back, most everything in this book circles around resistance and survival—resistance to annihilation; survival because we were not annihilated.

So who am I? Yo soy Californio, Latino, Mexica, Xicano, or whatever you call me. I am one of those faceless millions who seem to have popped up overnight and you now see everywhere. If you spot me on the street, my historical connection to the land you call California, and I call Califas, is hardly obvious. But believe me, it is here and it is deep. I am a native son; my placenta is buried in the backyard of my mother's house in the barrio of Horcasitas, where her family, the Lugos, are a vast clan that settled in and helped populate Southern California. So I have never considered myself a newcomer here. The first diaries of overland exploration cite the name Murguía on the topography of the Bay Area—Punto Murguía is located just beyond present-day Point Reyes—yet our name has long been erased from all current maps.

Now comes the question of language. I am bilingual and I love it. To me, being bilingual is natural, no big deal. My father always insisted that we master Spanish and English. His advice was that in knowing two languages we would be able to communicate with twice as many people and also serve as a bridge between Mexico and the United States. My father, with his sixth-grade education, has more sense and wisdom than recent governors of this state do. How hard can it be to handle both languages? Néstor García Canclini, in Hybrid Cultures, tells of meeting a Zapotec Indian who handled three languages and cultures (Zapotec, Spanish, and English) and switched instantly back and forth without missing a beat, or losing his Zapotec identity. If we don't move in the sphere of bilingual, trilingual, multilingual, or even interlingual worlds, we'll get left further behind by the day.

The attacks on the Spanish language have been constant and continuous since 1846. Just in my lifetime I've survived two waves of anti-Spanish furor, one in the sixties and one in the nineties. So for me to be bilingual, to be a part of the Spanish-speaking world, is a right worth fighting for. I love the sense of expansion that I get from knowing more than one language; I love how English takes me one place and Spanish a different place. English gives me a sense of precision, and because it is so flexible, it allows me to borrow from other languages. Español allows me to look at the world with a different lens, to save the language and culture, to keep the world from being homogenized; with Spanish I can describe things, concepts, and relationships that don't exist in Anglo-Saxon culture—piñata, mestizaje, compadre. With Spanish I can love in the most romantic language; English allows me to argue with my opponents or to curse them in their own tongue so they understand precisely that they are bastards, sons of bitches. Spanish makes me part of Cervantes and García Márquez; English gives me Donne and Ondaatje. Why should I give up one for the other, when I can have my cake and eat it twice?

Spanish also puts me in touch with a part of California that English can't. Through Spanish, I'm part of the first diarists who came through here and jotted down their impressions of this land; I see the landscape through their eyes, feel it through their words. I am part of California in a way I could never be if I was monolingual. To me, being monolingual is madness, ignorance, and a sign of being culturally challenged. Whoever has traveled in other parts of the world knows that people speak more than one language. It is a shame that in California, a truly multiethnic land, the cause célèbre is monolingualism. The public school system in particular lacks bilingual teachers, not to mention texts. Imagine how innovative our schools would be with a more bilingual-bicultural curriculum. If we lose our Spanish, whether through politics or acculturation, we'll be cut off from the continent we belong to, the source of our culture and power; we'll be relegated to isolated islands of thought, able to understand our bosses' commands but unable to express who we really are.

But we Latinos need to express ourselves, otherwise we're just figures in the background making wild gestures like actors in a silent movie. We need to place ourselves on center stage, to rid ourselves of complexes as immigrants. To do that we must destroy the belief that we don't belong here, that we just arrived and therefore haven't contributed to this society, or that our language is foreign to this landscape. These are terribly false assumptions. We have not just arrived. We have not always been poor and landless and powerless. Before we can write history, we must first know language, and for us, language is a two-headed beast. At one time, Spanish was the language of California, and that is important to remember because it shows how deep our roots go. Just look around you. Can you pronounce the Spanish place-names in your city, town, or neighborhood? If you can name the ground you stand on, if you know where the bones are buried, the land is yours. And since 50 percent or more of the population of California now speaks Spanish, that language is as important to us as English. I only wish I knew more languages—Japanese, for instance, or a little Russian besides Nasrovia. Being bilingual-bicultural brings me closer to California's past and future. Spanish is the future language of California, just as it was the past language of California. English, of course, is the present, so this book is in English, though I consider it the bastard tongue.


People who live in California deny the past. In this land, what matters is keeping up with the current trends, fads, or latest computer gizmo. And as the present moment fades, our memories of it are discarded like yesterday's newspaper. We go through our daily lives—raise kids, shop at the mall, eat at our favorite taquería or Thai restaurant—without the time, energy, or desire to reflect on what happened last week, much less what happened ten years ago, or a hundred. We also pretend ours is a perfect state, a sort of nirvana on earth, with wealth and pleasure enough for everyone, and we delude ourselves that we live blessed by God and flag, and that is how it's always been. But if you want to raise the hackles of those who live in comfort and delusion, just take a look at our collective past. If you look at the number of lynchings that occurred during the Gold Rush, suddenly the romanticism associated with this event goes right out the window. Our pretensions about a "Golden State" with a romantic past don't stand up to scrutiny. The past is the prime enemy of California's own vision of itself.

I suspect we also turn our back on the past because we simply don't want to know that California history is filled with vicious and violent incidents. It is also filled with contradictions that are difficult to reconcile, since we have few heroes and many villains. The difference for me is that I want to know what my place here is. What is it that draws me and keeps me here? Intuitively, I've always felt this land was mine. Now, through writing this book, I've come to understand why this is so. Not only is this land mine, but I will not be removed, deported, or relocated from it. I am here permanently; this is my space I'm telling you about.

I am interested in history, but I'm not a historian. I'm not a journalist either. (I've been accused of being a poet, but that's another issue.) In writing about California, I let myself be guided by my own interests, by the stories that piqued me: mostly stories excluded from the official histories and anthologies or, if they are included, given little importance. I'm writing somewhat like José del Carmen Lugo or Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, the dispossessed Californios who wrote about their lives in the 1870s; at least that's been my approach. Although I do not have Vallejo's prestige or influence, I fuse my own story with the political and cultural history of my time. In the words of Señor Vallejo written back in 1875: "It is my story, not yours, I propose to tell. . . . If I give my story it must be worthy of the cause and of me."

I have approached these stories with the lay reader in mind, as opposed to the specialist or the professor. I call them stories because of a sentence in Tomás Eloy Martínez's book on Eva Perón: "If history—as appears to be the case—is just another literary genre, why take away from it the imagination, the foolishness, the indiscretion, the exaggeration, and the defeat that are the raw materials without which literature is inconceivable?"

My approach is that history is not static, it's not something cast in stone. I'm concerned with living history; I have deliberately inserted myself into the story. The past in this case is also the present. In the process of writing this book, I used what came my way, just as a Huichol shaman crossing the desert picks only the peyote buds that appear along his path. I wanted chance to intercede as it does in life. The texts I found, and the quirky things that happened in my life on a day-to-day basis—all of it was maize for the metate. To give just one example: for weeks I searched in libraries for an account of the battle of San Pasqual. I found it one bleak Sunday at a friend's house in an old magazine that he'd kept for years, not knowing the reason was so he could show it to me and I could insert it into this story.

Academics and purists will criticize my methods, but every native son has the right to tell his roots. I don't know if being born here gives me the right to take this approach, but what of it? I did not ask anyone's permission to live here, and I won't ask it for what I'm going to say. I'm not even sure this is history as much as it is a retelling and re-imagining of selected events that I believe have shaped this land and have shaped me. This is my California history, my memories, richly subjective and atavistic, though I stay as accurate as I can to what Gore Vidal calls "the agreed-upon facts." Whether you accept my story or not, I list my sources.


History—as the saying goes—is written by the victors, never by the vanquished. I am neither of the victors nor the vanquished. If anything, I am of the survivors—the curious survivors who have brooded on the past and wondered about the future. What is my history of California? I know for sure that it has many facets, each angle reflecting a particular light. I consider indigenous creation myths as important as scientific geological studies. The California in this book exists in my memory and in my subjective perceptions; this book is as much about this pequeño país as it is about myself—if and where these two roads cross is something for the reader to decide.

In the end, though, I stand with Oscar Wilde when he says, "The only duty we have toward history is to rewrite it."



“With new conceptions and interpretations, this book is a significant contribution in a number of fields: California history, México and the Southwest, pre-colonial California, Chicano studies. It is also an example of the finest of memoir literature.... Murguía is an elegant stylist reminiscent of Hemingway in his deceptive simplicity.”
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Professor of Ethnic Studies, California State University, Hayward


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