Maythee Rojas of Women’s Studies used her skills as a scholar to help bring proper recognition to the only woman ever hung in the state of California.
Rojas, who joined the university as an assistant professor in 2001, is a literary scholar interested in the role of Latinas in society. It was as part of her research that she first became aware of the sad fate of Josefa Loaiza.
It began on July 4, 1851. It was a festive night in Downieville, a northern California Gold Rush town. Fredrick Cannon, a miner participating in the community’s patriotic festivities passed a shack where Loaiza, a young bar maid he fancied lived with her husband. It was a cheap shelter with a door that used weak leather hinges. Cannon broke the door down, went in and then came out again. No one is sure what happened, but speculation is that he may have assaulted her. The next day when Cannon passed Loaiza’s shack, her husband demanded payment to fix the broken down door. A verbal altercation ensued and Loaiza joined it. Insults were traded during a conversation held mostly in Spanish which none of the Anglo miners understood. Loaiza dared the man to insult her in her own home and retreated inside. Cannon followed her and she stabbed him through the heart with a knife. He stumbled out and died a few minutes later.
“Everybody was aghast,” said Rojas. “How could a Mexican, a Mexican woman, have killed one of their own? Although there was a great deal of sexual frustration given the fact that women were so scarce, the racism toward the Mexican community coupled with the drinking from the night before made Loaiza’s actions unacceptable.”
Within a few hours, a kangaroo court convicted her of murder and sentenced her to hang in front of a crowd.
“She climbed the scaffold and spoke to the crowd,” recalled Rojas. “She said if she had it to do over again, she would, because her honor was at stake. Then she placed the rope over her neck with her own hands.”
The most exciting part of Rojas’ research came when she persuaded the Downieville museum to change its records and call the doomed woman by her right name, Josefa Loaiza, and not the Juanita of legend.
“They pass out all new information now,” she said. “My next goal is to get the city of Downieville to change its official plaque about the hanging that rests on the same saloon where Josefa worked with her husband. I want her role in the town’s history to be recorded correctly.”
As a literary scholar, Rojas’ research focused on what men wrote about Loaiza where she shows up in some miners’ diaries and journals.
“Because the state was celebrating its first year in the Union, the town was filled with reporters covering the Fourth of July celebration so I found plenty of newspaper clippings,” she said. “They gave me insight into how these men imagined this woman. Even as she stood before them as a real person, they created an entirely different image of her. They saw her as a harlot who deserved her fate because as a Mexican it was in her character to kill.”
One of Rojas’ most satisfying sources was a Chilean newspaper, which she feels was probably only skimmed by previous scholars because it was written in Spanish. In it, she found out that Loaiza’s husband later filed a lawsuit from Mexico against the state of California (he lost.) When a U.S. citizen had a claim against Mexico or a Mexican citizen against the U.S., they were heard by a claims commission that investigated and published an annual report. Loaiza’s husband was chased out of Downieville before returning to Mexico. “But I found a copy of the commission’s transcripts in the California State Library’s legal section in Sacramento,” she said. “They identify Josefa as a wife and reveal her last name. These transcripts form an invaluable record. Specifically, Josefa has only been known by her first name. Many accounts don’t even get that right and call her Juanita. These new findings give her back an identity. They undo her objectification and grant her recognition.”
Rojas is pleased with her research into the lonely fate of Josefa Loaiza. It is not only a scholarly gold mine (not many others have researched her) but it has been a rewarding experience personally.
“I felt I could help to vindicate an unjustly executed woman,” she said. “She was not a lustful Latina. She was a brave woman who stood up to sexual harassment even if it meant her life. We need to know more about the unsung women of history. She did something brave during a time when lynching was the norm. She knew she could suffer that consequence yet she stuck to her honor. Even if it was rash, by standing up and doing something, she was as brave as her attacker was cowardly.”