Picture This: The Modesta We Never Knew

Train depot in background, black and white photograph of a woman in foreground

Tracing a relevant role model in US History

By Cecilia López

Amid the pandemic, I was invited to be a research contributor for Sarah Rafael García’s archival ethnofiction project on the life of Modesta Avila. During this time, I had moved back home after completing my first year as an undergrad student at the University of California, Berkeley. My initial reaction to Modesta Avila’s story was utter shock at how young she was when she battled for land rights. Just like Modesta, I am nineteen years old and was born in Santa Ana, California where she had familial ties and was convicted in court. As I reflect on my everyday struggles, I cannot fathom the fears and emotions that went through Modesta’s mind as she tried to sustain her livelihood. 

Photograph of Modesta featured alongside original images of the Combs House, and Cannery and Packing House. Below Avila’s photo, the inscription states: “In 1889, Modesta Avila objected to the Santa Fe railroad running through her mother’s land and hung a line of laundry across the tracks. Although she removed it before the train arrived, she was later charged and convicted of a felony, sentenced to three years in San Quentin and Died there at age 22 after serving two years of her sentence.” Photo Credit: Cecilia Lopez

Modesta Avila, a Mexican American a folk heroine, is known for her resistance against the Southern Pacific Railroad during the 1800s. Born and raised in San Juan Capistrano, California, Modesta lived in her family’s home that laid fifteen feet away from the railroad tracks. The many disruptions caused by the train impeded on her life and ability to engage in daily activities, such as caring for her hens. After voicing her concerns and still seeing no necessary measures being enacted or even considered by the railroad company, Modesta took matters into her own hands by placing a laundry line post across the railroad tracks. Along with this physical barrier, she attached a note: “This land belongs to me. And if the railroad wants to run here, they will have to pay me ten thousand dollars.” Shortly after performing this act of protest, Modesta was arrested for the obstruction of the railroad and would face three years of incarceration at San Quentin Prison.

Although I am frustrated by the injustice Modesta faced, I am very honored to now share her story with others. During the month of July 2020, I had the opportunity to visit and photograph Modesta’s house as a way to document her memory. Along with my parents and two younger sisters, I traveled from Santa Ana to San Juan Capistrano, California. My parents, who have lived in Santa Ana for over 40 years, were intrigued by Modesta’s poignant story, yet they questioned why no one ever spoke about her in the community. Upon arriving, my first inclination was to observe the space and walk around the area before shooting any photographs. The entrance exhibits a memorial wall that frames the trunks of the evergreen trees that wrap around Los Rios. This adorned stone wall lies near a neighborhood of native hummingbird sage, honeysuckles and prickly cactus with vibrant ruby red tunas. Centered in the middle of the memorial is a plaque with Modesta’s black and white mugshot from San Quentin Prison when she was arrested for the obstruction of the railroad. Following the memorial is a dirt path that leads toward Modesta’s home, now known as the Hummingbird Cafe or Combs House. Built in 1865, the Combs House was moved to Los Rios Street in 1878 when Forster City, south of San Clemente, failed and was later abandoned. The name pays homage to its original owner, Jack Combs, who served as an early town constable and lived on the property.

Located on 26711 Verdugo Street, Modesta Avila’s house quickly stands out as the only historical site right next to the train tracks and Metrolink station. Her house now serves as a tourist attraction that serves Greek and American food. Photo Credit: Cecilia Lopez

After researching Modesta for months, it was fascinating to visit her home, yet troubling to be there knowing how her story would ultimately end. While walking past her brown wooden house, I paused to reimagine how this space once looked. I felt that it was crucial to fully immerse myself in the environment to visualize how Modesta’s mid 19th century home might’ve looked, as well as the other living conditions that surrounded her. Despite not being able to enter the interior of her home, I was able to explore the house quite well and witness how the train tracks were literally right outside her front porch. The whistles of the train rang in my ears while the aged wooden planks of Modesta’s house creaked and echoed like the sounds of distant cries. It felt hauntingly surreal to take each step into what felt like another realm, where Modesta was standing right beside me.

The Los Rios Street District is the oldest and continually occupied residential street in California. Californian plants, such as cactus and succulents surround the area to provide a variant of diverse colors and wildlife. Photo Credit: Cecilia Lopez

I hope that my photographs allow the viewer to place themselves in the shoes of Modesta, as well as question the institutions or forces of power and privilege that push members of our society out to the margins. After recognizing how Modesta’s story had been sexualized, criminalized or simply forgotten, I made it my personal and visual objective to shoot as much detail as possible, thus providing multiple alternative perspectives. Unfortunately, many people in Santa Ana and the surrounding community are still unaware of Modesta’s narrative due to the lack of archived information and history that has documented her memory. Historians such as Richard Brock and his work, Modesta Again: Setting the Record Straight have countered Modesta’s narrative by criminalizing and sexualizing her . While the responsibility of a historian involves telling a more “accurate” sense of the past from an unbiased position—this is not the case. The history taught in standard US classrooms is dominated by an idealistic Westernized perspective told by the white cisgender male perspective. The counter narrative provided by Modesta reciprocates the equal oppressive and damaging behavior expressed in court that did not grant her a fair trial or the opportunity to voice her story as its authentic truth. And here I am, a nineteen year old in 2021 re-presenting history for all of us to learn more about the truths of Modesta Avila’s life.

Cecilia López is a photographer, research coordinator and literacy tutor. She is an advocate for human trafficking survivors; her creative work intersects social justice themes with photographic documentation. She is a second year undergraduate student at the University of California, Berkeley majoring in Sociology with a focus on Chicanx Studies and Digital Humanities. Currently, she is a research contributor for the 2020-2021 USLDH Mellon-Funded Grant: Modesta Avila Obstructing Development Since 1889, an archival project that documents the life of Modesta Avila, under the direction of Sarah Rafael García.  

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