by Maria Ruiz
Ernesto kicked the wet sand. A cold breeze ruffled his collar and fog collected on his hair and eyebrows. He looked out toward the dark, cold and uninviting Pacific Ocean as it lapped along the beach on a cold June morning in Santa Barbara. Why would a big American company want this lonely, cold beach?
Finding no answer, Ernesto headed back home to ponder the question. The beachfront property had been in his family for years. When the first white people had come to Santa Barbara, there had been a lot of the old Spanish property sold for new homes. Ernesto’s family had held onto theirs for as long as they could. He didn’t know why, just that they did. Ernesto thought about all the lean years, how his family had gone to bed hungry so many times and wondered why no one had offered him money when he needed it. Now his family was grown and gone and he had enough to feed himself.
When he had been a boy, the family owned land as far as one could see. All the old Spanish land grants were stored in a big trunk in his father’s front room. Some of the land was farmed, but most was used for grazing the straggly herds of stringy cattle that his father owned. One day he had returned from school to find the household running about, crying. His father sat in the big chair holding a handful of the grants. When Ernesto asked, “What’s the matter?” His mother cried “Someone from Washington sent your father a bill, asking for money.”
“What bill, what money, why?” Ernesto asked.
His father, rising from the big chair responded, “Some tom-fool thinks that I should pay something called a ‘property tax’ on my land. I don’t need to pay, it’s mine. I have all the deeds. They didn’t come from any government in Washington. They came from the King of Spain. Everyone knows that a King is higher than a President.” With that, his father disappeared down the hall.
For the next few months, Ernesto watched as men came to the house or rode tractors and horses across the land. His father, increasingly angry stormed out at each new arrival. One day he said “Today we move into town. We don’t need this big house and all the work. Your mother is tired and needs rest.” They each packed a suitcase and walked to town, to a small house on Carrillo St.
The family’s fortunes had turned into nothing more than a trunk with dry paper deeds. The only property they retained was a long strip of beach, which neither the government in Washington or the family felt was of any value. Through the years, members of the family passed away one by one, leaving Ernesto as the sole survivor. He was a drunken shell of a man with a house full of kids. By now, most of his children had left home and he just had three left to feed and one of those was to be married in the spring. He had long ago forgotten the beach property.
He saw the mail carrier walk down the street carrying his pouch. Letters never came to Ernesto and he was surprised to see the postman turn onto his walkway. He held out a large envelope, turned and continued his rounds. Ernesto, troubled opened the envelope. Inside, a long paper informed his that someone was interested in purchasing the beach. It took Ernesto a few minutes to understand. Why would anyone want a damp piece of sand?
When he informed his son, a contractor, of the letter, it caused a flurry of interest with all his kids. Over the years, only three of his children had bothered to make the small property tax payments and now even that burden would be removed. The contractor’s wife, Maria took it upon herself to call a meeting of all the children. One daughter lived up in the Bay Area with her husband and son. Another lived in the middle of the country in Kansas with her army officer husband and four kids. These three had been the ones to make the tax payments every year. All the other sons and daughters lived in Santa Barbara and could show up whenever they were called.
It took about a month for the family to gather. Meanwhile, the original offer of five thousand dollars had been upped to eighteen thousand. A fortune danced in every eye.
Maria called the meeting to order, as orderly as a room full of jealous, warring California Spanish family could be. None of them would ever consider themselves as anything other than California Spanish, as the family had been living in what was now California since the Spanish had come north and settled the coast.
Some wanted to hold out for maybe as much as twenty five thousand dollars. Others wanted to cash out now and take their formerly forgotten riches and make an end to it. Some argued that the children who moved away had forfeited their share while Maria reminded them that they had been paying the taxes every year. Ernesto just sat quietly, watching his children and remembering his childhood in the big house.
Finally Maria spoke up. “Let’s just take the eighteen thousand now, quickly before they find out about the sand flies.”
So it was decided and each son or daughter took their two thousand dollar treasure and were content. In due time, a large resort was built on the beach and the sand flies were gone.
Check out more of Maria’s travel and history articles here in KRL.