Modesta Avila Was OC’s First Convicted Felon Because She Was a Mexican Woman Activist

The White Lady Was Brown

Now she’s just a ghost story, something to scare the kids with. But in life, Modesta Avila put a scare into Orange County burghers by defying the most powerful corporation in California. Her act of defiance made her Orange County’s first convicted felon and first state prisoner. But today, Modesta Avila is seldom mentioned except as the possible identity of the White Lady—the ghost who, according to local lore, haunts San Juan Capistrano’s Los Rios district.

Linking Avila and the White Lady is natural. The White Lady was first sighted in the 1930s walking the railroad tracks in San Juan Capistrano, and it was on those tracks that Avila took on the Southern Pacific Railroad.

In 1889, Max Mendelson, the Southern Pacific’s agent in San Juan Capistrano, discovered a fence post hammered into the ground between the rails. Attached to the post was a note reading: “This land belongs to me. And if the railroad wants to run here, they will have to pay me ten thousand dollars.” The note was from Avila, whose front door was only 15 feet from the newly laid tracks. Mendelson removed the post, and, he claimed, told Avila that the Southern Pacific already owned the right-of-way. He warned her not to interfere again.

There’s some question about that conversation, because Avila came away from the meeting convinced the railroad would pay her what she’d asked. She traveled to a Santa Ana bank and asked about the quickest way to receive her $10,000 payment. She asked the sheriff to recommend someone to help keep order at a party to celebrate the anticipated payment.

The sheriff’s advice didn’t help. Avila was arrested at the party for disturbing the peace. At her arraignment, she proudly told the judge about the victory she believed she had won over the Southern Pacific.

And, according to historian Lisbeth Haas (who wrote about Avila’s case in Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769-1936), this is what’s key: it was what Avila said—at the bank, at the party, in court—rather than the erecting of that fence post that sealed her fate. She had boasted of besting the powerful railroad and the established order in Orange County. An example had to be made of her.

Southern Pacific Railroad’s control over much of California in the late 19th century is hard to imagine today. The railroad was the state’s largest employer and its largest landowner, owning a quarter of all privately held land in the state. It also owned, or at least temporarily employed, almost every politician in California. And the SP had a well-earned reputation for ruthlessly crushing anyone who opposed it.

But Avila was defying more than just the Southern Pacific. She was also defying the social and political order of Anglo Orange County. Even though she had been born in San Juan Capistrano in 1867, Modesta was a Mexican in the eyes of Orange County’s foursquare Americans. In 19th-century Orange County, there were Americans (whites), Spanish (Latinos considered respectable by the whites), and Mexicans (Latinos the whites found suspect). (The region’s few Native Americans were seen as outside society and beneath consideration.) Following the creation of Orange County in 1880, there was considerable tension between Americans and Mexicans. This tension came to a violent head in Santa Ana in August 1892 with the lynching of Francisco Torres, a Mexican farmworker (though, according to the Los Angeles Times, “Torres is in no way superior to an Indian”) accused of killing his American supervisor. But by 1892, Modesta Avila was already dead.

Four months after putting up that fence post on the tracks, Avila was arrested for “attempted obstruction of a train.” Her first trial ended in a hung jury—remarkable considering the pressure brought to bear against her. Her boyfriend’s employer fired him when he refused to sever his relationship with her. When her attorney argued that Mendelson, the Southern Pacific agent, was an unreliable witness who had a personal animus against Avila, Avila’s own father went to great pains to assure everyone that his family had nothing against Mendelson or his employer.

During her second trial, those who wanted Modesta convicted decided not to rely solely on the law. Rumors began to circulate that the unmarried woman was pregnant, and therefore of low moral character, possibly a whore. These unfounded accusations—Modesta never gave birth, or even showed any signs of being pregnant—can still be found in OC lore. Local antiquarian Jim Sleeper repeats these accusations in his annoyingly precious way, describing Modesta as a “charming dark-eyed beauty . . . who relied more on her beauty than her intelligence to keep food on the table and a roof over her head.”

Such gossip seems to have had the desired effect. Avila was convicted at her second trial. Her attorney’s appeal—she was convicted, he said, “on her reputation and not on her deed”—was rejected by the state Supreme Court.

Avila was sentenced to three years at San Quentin. She died of a fever she contracted in the fetid prison in 1891. She was 24. Today, she’s a ghost story. Back then, her fate served as a cautionary tale, a warning to those who would defy the Southern Pacific, and to Mexicans who would defy the new American order.


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