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Quest for Honor : Victor Sepulveda contends that his ancestors were swindled out of an enormous land grant encompassing much of the county, or even the state. But he does not want to take back the property; he just wants respect, recognition and maybe some money.

March 23, 1994|JIM WASHBURN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA ANA — Victor Sepulveda is a big man with a gentle handshake, a large turquoise ring and a small ponytail. In manner he seems soft-spoken, sincere and thoroughly exasperating.

In 15 years of researching his family history, he has amassed so much information and speculation about the Sepulvedas that when we spoke last Tuesday and in a follow-up call Sunday, his views came out in ungoverned torrents, often unrelated to the question at hand.

Yet the 42-year-old, part-time security guard expects government, both state and federal, to pay attention to him in court one day. It is Sepulveda's contention that more than a century ago his ancestors were swindled out of a land grant that includes at least the 48,800 acres of the historic Rancho San Joaquin, encompassing Newport Beach and much of the other land that became the Irvine Ranch. According to another interpretation Sepulveda applies to ancient documents he says he's unearthed, his family should actually have custody of all of Alta California--this entire state, not to mention Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico.

"The U.S. and the state of California, they have to answer to a lot of things," he insists. "But I'm not looking to oust anybody off the land. I joke about this with a woman who works with me and lives on Balboa. She says, 'You know, Victor, I just got a loan, and if you want to take over this loan, you can have this property.'

"I'm not looking forward to taking back our land. We cannot take people off the Balboa Peninsula." Rather, he says he wants respect, recognition and maybe some money. He also wouldn't mind getting the El Toro Marine base, since it's up for grabs, though he also suggests that land should be ceded to the Juaneno Band of mission Indians, to which he is remotely related.

He first remembers hearing about his family history when he was 4, on drives the family would take through the county to visit grandparents living off Ortega Canyon. Passing the fields where the Sepulveda's rancho had been, "I remember asking my father quite a lot of questions. He would talk about the cattle, the agriculture. He said a lot of things in regard to land that was ours and to land that was taken from us. I remember that--and the fig jam my grandma would make."

He didn't seriously take up tracing his family history until he was 28, following a difficult divorce. "I started looking inward, through meditation, in sorrow and pain. I think that spiritually, if you will, an inner voice started talking to me, saying, 'Well, do you want to know who you are and where you come from?' And I said, 'Most definitely. Surely.' From that time on my life has been what I refer to as a spiritual uplifting."

He began looking up Sepulveda history in local libraries and continued his paper chase when he moved for a time to Sacramento in the mid-'80s, checking the archives of the Bureau of Land Management. On visits back to Orange County, he would often catch buses to Los Angeles to scour libraries there. Further searches led him to query the Library of Congress.

We met in the Santa Ana offices of the advertising agency he has hired to help spread his story. In the seven-page press release they assembled, there is a somewhat ordered tale centering on Don Jose Andres Sepulveda, Victor's great-great-grandfather, who was granted Rancho San Joaquin by the Mexican government in two parcels in 1837 and 1842.

The release goes on to reiterate a fate shared by many other California ranchers: High living on the ranchos buoyed by the Gold Rush's boost to the beef market went crashing into a five-year drought in the 1860s. Ranchers borrowed money at usurious rates--often 5% a month--and had to either sell their property or face foreclosure.

In 1852 Don Jose won a $25,000 purse in a famed horse race with other ranch-holders. A mere 12 years later he had to sell his entire rancho for $18,000. The press release alludes to the land being illegally transferred, and to a charter from Spanish monarchy to the Sepulvedas that should have superseded other laws in preserving their claim.

Fascinating stuff, but in trying to get Sepulveda to elucidate any of these assertions, his arguments came rolling out like something from a fever dream or a labyrinthine Borges tale. Asked numerous times what evidence he would take to the court trials he anticipates, he responded with a flurry of long but often incomplete sentences touching on conspiracy theories, Roman law, destiny, ecclesiastical jurisdiction, "the perfect number seven," the sepulcher of Christ and the Spanish-American War.

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