HomeNovember 2022Orange County’s Jewish History

Orange County’s Jewish History

Max Mendelson of San Juan Capistrano, c. 1895, Modesta Avila shortly after her arrest, 1889

Mendelson and Modesta

The paths of two minority communities in early Orange County, Hispanic (mostly Mexican) and Jewish, usually didn’t overlap, but it was a bit different in San Juan Capistrano, which had a significant long time Hispanic population, and where Max Mendelson, owner of the Mendelson Mission Inn and the local postmaster, was affectionately known as “Don Marcos.” Mendelson was unwittingly placed in the middle of a conflict between Modesta Avila, a young woman who had lived in the small town all her life, and the Santa Fe Railroad. When the railroad laid tracks across what she thought was her family’s land (apparently the family had secretly sold the land in 1886) she was outraged, and demanded they pay her for the right of way. When they refused, she took matters into her own hands and in early June of 1889 blocked the tracks with two fence posts and a large piece of iron, which would have caused the coming train to derail and caused untold human and property destruction. Mendelson, who as postmaster was waiting for the train to drop off the mail, was told by a young boy of the obstruction, and ran all the ways to the sight, arriving just in time to remove the barriers. When Modesta ran out to stop him, he told her she could have been in big trouble if he hadn’t intervened. He didn’t report the incident, believing Modesta had learned her lesson, but the railroad found out and had her arrested. Mendelson was called as a witness in her trial, as were many others, and Modesta became Orange County’s first convicted felon. She was sentenced to three years at San Quentin State Prison, which many considered to be much too harsh, and sadly died after two years, due to lack of adequate medical care. Today, even though her actions were foolish and potentially dangerous, Modesta Avila is considered an early activist in Orange County history.

Dalia Taft archivist of the Orange County Jewish Historical Society, highlights images from the archives every month. For more information, please visit www.jewishoc.org/history. You can also contact Dalia at daliat@jccoc.org or at (949) 435-3400, ext. 360. The Orange County Jewish Historical Society is a program of the Merage Jewish Community Center and is funded by the Jewish Community Foundation Orange County.

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