Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Mother of 'MINE'

An untold story of Almaden Valley, betrayal and the fearless woman behind it all
A NATURAL CONCLUSION: Cathedral Oaks in Almaden Valley is a still-wild piece of the South Bay placed in a new light through "MINE." Photo by Jenny Clendenen

Mother Nature can tell a story like no one else.

Several years back, Almaden Valley denizen Jenny Clendenen enrolled in the SJSU English Department's MFA program so that it would force her to write a book. She needed the deadlines, the accountability and the support of like-minded peers.

Her home turf is the Rancho San Vicente area off McKean Road, a still-wild territory steeped in historical treachery, murder and betrayal related to the quicksilver mines that are rich in opportunity for Clendenen to fuse her passion for nature writing with a penchant for stories about powerful mother figures. "MINE," her new book about the life of Maria Zacarias Bernal de Berreyesa, who was born in 1791 and at age 14 married Jose de los Reyes Berreyesa, weaves all of that together.

Parents of 13 children, Zacarias and her husband owned all the land around Rancho San Vicente 200 years ago, while the various Berreyesas and Bernals together owned much of the rest of the pre-Gold Rush Bay Area. Zacarias lost nine of her 10 sons to Gold Rush violence. Kit Carson murdered her husband, Jose de los Reyes, and her family's land—which they claimed included the quicksilver mine—was taken away.

Clendenen spent decades exploring the Los Alamitos Creek environs and thus already felt inseparable from the very same land, so she became hooked on the story. It wasn't just Zacarias' long, elegant name; it was personal.

"I had this instant sort of electrical thrill go through me," Clendenen said. "Not only does this woman own the land that I've been walking on and feeling connected to for so long, but it was really dramatically important, in the sense of drama and a story that would make riveting reading. It just explained so much about the connection I had felt there, spiritually, to the land, or mystically, so I couldn't wait to dive in."

The result is atmospheric, ethereal and poetic. Although "MINE" explores the life of Zacarias, it is not a biography.

Instead, it's a glorious in situ fusion of past and present, with Clendenen's own memoir-ish narration unfolding in the present day, juxtaposed with the experiences of Zacarias and her family 200 years ago, in the same geographical places.

We get lush and lyrical scenes in Los Alamitos Creek, the Jones Trail above Los Gatos, the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery and even the Fairmont Hotel lobby, effortlessly segueing back and forth across time to the Bear Flag Revolt, the Gold Rush and stolen land grants, all of which destroyed the lives and properties of the Berreyesa and Bernal families. The book is part lyrical nature writing, part San Jose history and part ghost story.

And if the story of Zacarias as the strong woman of the household was never included in the pure vanilla version of California history spoon-fed to us in the fourth grade, "MINE" fills in the gaps.

The book illuminates the more sinister machinations of people such as John C. Fremont and the murderous fallout surrounding the Gold Rush-era takeover of peoples' land in Santa Clara County. Clendenen includes plenty of bibliographic material at the end, documenting the elaborate research she undertook to complete the book.

"I wrote the thing in two years and then it took four or five more years of revising," she said.

Barely even political, "MINE" should resonate most with nature lovers, local historians and dudes raised by their moms.

After reading it, I was driven to make a sojourn down McKean Road and further explore Rancho San Vicente, Rancho Santa Teresa, Los Alamitos Creek and the other territories Clendenen deftly describes in the book. If the ghosts of Zacarias and her family still linger, they will find me.

"MINE" succeeds as a multidimensional hall of mirrors, with San Jose as the glue. The physical landscape of San Jose becomes a mystical, spacetime-shattering protagonist, so to speak.

"That was my goal—to make the land a character," Clendenen said. "And it is a character. It's completely interactive with everything and everyone that happens on it."