By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
Bell’s accuracy is further put into question in On the Old West Coast: Being Further Reminisces of a Ranger, published in 1930, about a decade after Bell’s death but dictated in the early 1900s. On the matter of Flores, he wrote, “One ought to write true history or not history at all,” and bragged that las Manillas’ mayhem was now “dignified in history as the Juan Flores Revolution” but didn’t mention his role in propagating that angle. He described Barton as an “uncouth, illiterate man” and made the outrageous claim that las Manillas only formed because Barton’s supposed Indian mistress was Fontes' sister!
Nevertheless, the specter of Mexicans and revolution fascinated chroniclers. Bancroft, in his 1887 Popular Tribunals, maintained that las Manillas “threatened the extermination of the Americans, and a war of races seemed about to be inaugurated.” Stephenson called his chapter on Flores in Caminos Viejos “The Juan Flores Uprising” and, in a 1931 Los Angeles Times Magazine essay, claimed that Flores and his boys “declared they would drive the gringos out of California” despite there being no record of such a statement in any primary source.
Where Stephenson and his ilk invoked the Flores “revolution” to strike fear into white Americans, the progressive historian Carey McWilliams took it as an act of resistance. In his 1949 North From Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of the United States, McWilliams included Flores’ name alongside a grab bag of other California Mexican “villains” and maintained their historical infamy was a result of the real racism experienced by Mexicans in California. “The subordination of Mexicans in the social structure of California cannot be understood apart from this early-day pattern of violence and intimidation,” McWilliams wrote, noting many of the bandits “were well-organized for guerrilla fighting.”
Leonard Pitt’s 1966 book, The Decline of the Californios: A Social History of the Spanish-Speaking Californians, 1846-1890, went further: Flores was a proto-Chicano activist. Pitt argued that men like Flores were merely “disaffected youth” who turned to crime because of their families’ losses after the Gold Rush; indeed, many of las Manillas came from such backgrounds. But Pitt included no citation to his claim that the concurrent War of the Reform in Mexico “gave a glimmer of legitimacy to guerrilla actions and convinced some men to join Flores for vaguely political motives.” Pitt twisted Kraszewski ’s account so that the Pole had heard las Manillas “shriek anti-gringo curses” and “grim references to 500 confederate Mexicans lurking in the hills for the start of a massive invasion of the southland.”
This theme was picked up by Rodolfo Acuña, whose Occupied America remains the bible of Chicano studies. Acuña was a colleague of Pitt at San Fernando Valley College (now known as Cal State Northridge) and repeated the anti-gringo rebellion meme in his 1972 study, stating, “Writers of the time freely labeled Flores’ activities as the ‘Juan Flores Revolution,’” but cited only Bell. He didn’t bother with such professionalism in writing, “The Flores revolt split Mexicans in two: the ricos [land-owning Californios] backed the Euroamericans in suppressing the rebels, and los de abajo [poor Mexicans] supported Flores.” He also mocked El Clamor Público and those Californians who joined in pursuing las Manillas: “Many Mexicanos did not share the enthusiasm of El Clamor Público and the ricos and condemned their participation in suppressing the Flores-Daniel rebellion.” The proof? An unpublished student doctoral dissertation.
The allure of Flores as belonging to a long line of Californian revolutionaries fighting off brutal Americans spread across Chicano studies. References to Flores are replete in this discipline’s texts. “It is clear,” wrote Robert J. Rosenbaum in the 1981 release Mexicano Resistance in the Southwest: The Sacred Right of Self-Preservation, “that the thought unifying all of Flores’ riders was the desire to strike out against the Anglo American regime in one way or another.” In 1982’s The Los Angeles Barrio, 1850-1890: A Social History by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Flores “generated heroic legends symbolizing the daily struggles of the Spanish-speaking.” To Earl Shorris in his 2001 release, Latinos: A Biography of the People, Flores “reflected the Mexican political tradition begun by [War of Independence heroes] Hidalgo and Morelos.”
The tradition continues. UC Riverside professor Armando Navarro wrote in his 2004 release, Mexicano Political Experience in Occupied Aztlan: Struggles and Change, that Flores “demonstrated potential for creating an insurgent social movement.”
In No One Is Illegal: Fighting Racism and State Violence on the U.S.-Mexico Border, authors Justin Akers Chacón, Julian Cardona and the noted Los Angeles social historian Mike Davis say of Flores, “Traditionally characterized as mere desperadoes, [they] were, in fact, social bandits or even guerrilla chieftains.”
Only one scholar has ever publicly repudiated such thinking about Flores. San Francisco attorney John Boessenecker also dabbles as a historian on the West, having authored multiple books and the introduction to a reissuing of Reminisces of a Ranger. He provides one of the most thorough retellings of Flores in the 1999 book Gold Dust & Gunsmoke: Tales of Gold Rush Outlaws, Gunfighters, Lawmen, and Vigilantes, complete with citations and criticism of the anti-Mexican vigilante atmosphere that pervaded Los Angeles during the 1850s. But he blasted Chicano scholars for their rose-colored perception of Flores and others. “Such assertions distort the truth,” wrote Boessenecker. “While it cannot be denied that many Hispanic outlaws had been mistreated by Anglos . . . it is unscholarly and irresponsible to label them as heroes today simply because a minority of Californians saw them as such a century ago.