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Ramona: Hit and Myth Affair : Not just a tourist attraction, the annual Ramona Pageant in Hemet also embodies one of the richest ironies of Southern California culture.

April 22, 1993|DON SHIRLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

HEMET — Mt. San Jacinto looms on the left. Horses gallop across the rancho. Dozens of American Indians suddenly materialize on the hillside. Several thousand spectators sit in the sunshine, munching hot dogs and sipping soda.

The Ramona Pageant, enacted each spring during 65 of the last 70 years, featuring a cast of 350, is in high gear. But it's more than just another tourist attraction.

It's also the living embodiment of one of the richest ironies of Southern California culture, a paradox that was the subject of a 1988 KCET documentary and has recently become source material for several Southern California artists.

Simply stated, the original intent of the Ramona legend could have been interpreted as "Yankee, Go Home!"--but it was somehow transposed into "Yankee, Come Hither!"

The U.S. settlers were clearly the bad guys, in both Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 novel and the alfresco dramatization. They steal the Indians' land, then drive out the Mexicans. At the pageant, the worst Yankee imperialist, Jim Farrar, is lustily booed as he forces himself on the half-Indian Ramona and murders her heroic "all-Indian" husband , Alessandro.

Yet by making the rancho lifestyle look so inviting and then implying that the Mexicans had left it all behind and retreated to Mexico, the book also served as a cue for white readers to move in and make that lifestyle their own. "Ramona" is widely credited with contributing to its era's land booms.

Indeed, the Ramona Pageant itself was begun in 1923 as a chamber of commerce project (before it was taken over by a nonprofit association). As with most chamber of commerce projects, it can be assumed that the goal was not to drive newcomers away from the Hemet area.

The script for the pageant further enhanced the myth. For example, in its account of the murder of Alessandro by Farrar, Jackson's novel drew on a historical incident in which the injustice was compounded when the perpetrator went free. The only eyewitness, the victim's wife, couldn't testify because she was an Indian.

But this detail is left undramatized in Garnet Holme's script for Hemet. Here, the other U.S. settlers haul Farrar off to the hoosegow, and we're led to assume that he'll be punished. We need not fret about American justice.

Before that, the pageant's glance at the rancho is also rosier than the book's. We don't see the grubby details of sheep-shearing, for example, but we do see a big fiesta. The Mexicans and Indians live in a church-blessed state of harmony. The mistress of the rancho, Senora Moreno, appears to be the only bigot in sight (until the norte - americanos arrive)--and she's fiercely opposed for it.

Many historians now question the accuracy of this. As if in silent commentary, a plaque on a Ramona Bowl wall memorializes a band of Indians who once lived on the site but were decimated by smallpox brought in by the Spanish in the late 1700s, long before the "Ramona" era.

Longtime pageant co-director Maurice Jara smiled when the ironies were brought up in a post-performance interview. "That's not my concern," he said. He added that the show also has been panned as "overly melodramatic, but we don't mind as long as people come to see it."

The pageant has been updated through the years, but primarily to eliminate antique language and to shorten the running time, not because of any thematic revisionism. Asked about the authenticity of the big Indian "christening" scene, for example, Jara replied that while one particular dance in it is thought to be authentic, not much is really known about the old tribal traditions. So the resulting staging may not be the real thing, but this possibility is covered in the script with a line in which an Indian says that "brothers from the East have come" to assist in the ceremony.

Do local Indians participate in the pageant or watch it? Not many, acknowledged Jara, though they're offered free tickets. Sometimes reservation children join the other local kids who play Rock Indians in the show, but "the grown-ups aren't interested."

This doesn't necessarily mean that Indians resent the pageant. Pat Arres, vice chairwoman of the local Soboba band on the closest reservation, said she knew of no negative feelings within her group toward the pageant. She has attended it several times and she confirmed that some of the Indian children participate in it. While she once heard an individual from another reservation grumble that Indians should receive part of the proceeds, she disagreed. "We're not the ones who put it on."

Most of the recent criticism of the Ramona legend has come not from the reservations but from urban artists, such as Theresa Chavez in her play "L.A. Real" (recently presented in Pasadena) or Deborah Small and David Avalos in their video installation "Ramona's Bedroom," which remains on view as part of "La Frontera/The Frontier" at San Diego's Museum of Contemporary Art through May 20.

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