- "Rough Justice" for Farmworkers:The Specter of Joaquín Murrieta in Raymond Barrio's The Plum Plum Pickers
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The head, which for a long time retained a very natural appearance, was carried for exhibition over a large portion of the State and thoroughly identified in every quarter where its owner was known.—John Rollin Ridge, The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta (157)
Every camp, that had any civic pride about it, had its hang tree.—Walter Noble Burns, The Robin Hood of El Dorado (202)
"Bang bang. Crash." An imposing and arresting noise opens Raymond Barrio's The Plum Plum Pickers (1969). Morton J. Quill, the manager of the Western Grande Compound labor camp, finds a broken window and a note that reads, "Quill boW Wowowo *Joaquín M.*" (figure 2). Pepe Delgado, a farmworker character, explains how this mysterious and disturbing note refers to "Joaquín Murrieta. … The Metsican Robin Hood, eh. The terror of the gringos" (32). Quill suspects the note signifies something more than a mere prank, namely that the workers are threatening to strike. Even though "at other times it was either Santa's Nose or Pancho [End Page 22] Villa or Luis Bananaz," this time the offending party has crossed the line: Quill says, "Strike, eh. Signing the note Joaquín M. was one big mistake" (34). With this exchange, Barrio begins incorporating into his novel of migrant agricultural laborers the legend of Joaquín Murrieta, the infamous bandit who terrorized Californians during the early 1850s in retaliation for crimes committed against him. Numerous robberies and murders were attributed to Joaquín and his gang before they were finally stopped by Harry Love's posse. In July of 1853, a man said to be Joaquín Murrieta was killed by Love's men, and his severed head was put in alcohol to be displayed throughout California. And yet, even as this clear proof would seem to confirm that Joaquín's terror had ended, disputes over the identity of the head and rumors that Murrieta was still alive suggest that the legendary bandit continued to haunt California.
Written in 1969, The Plum Plum Pickers is Raymond Barrio's sympathetic and timely novel about farmworkers' experience in the United States. In the background is the formation of the United Farm Workers (UFW), including the strikes, boycotts, and protests led by César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong. Barrio's novel emerged from the same context as Luis Valdez's innovative Teatro Campesino (Farmworker Theater), which featured farmworkers as actors and audiences. One could also situate Barrio's novel alongside Tomás Rivera's celebrated novel … y no se lo tragó la tierra (1971), a compelling picture of the lives of Texas-Mexican farmworkers from this period. The late 1960s were also important years for the Chicano student movement, when high school students walked out of their classrooms in the name of educational equality and demands were made for civil rights and political empowerment of Mexican Americans. Several of the young adult characters in The Plum Plum Pickers likely reflect Barrio's attempt to bring this generation into his novel.
In writing his social protest novel about farmworkers in the United States, Barrio uses the Joaquín Murrieta legend to draw out two salient meanings. First, Murrieta's story provides a way of remembering the Anglo conquest of western land, which provides the larger historical background of the story Barrio tells. Second, the legend helps uncover the racial politics and the visual spectacle of western lynching. In drawing on the Joaquín legend, Barrio suggests that the largely Mexican and Mexican American population of migrant farmworkers faces questions of justice that date back to California's annexation by the United States and persist into his day. The novel ends with the lynching of Quill, a scene that borrows from but also transforms parts of the Murrieta legend. This lynching scene serves as a troubling reminder of the past, emphasizing...