Monday, August 19, 2019

La Matanza

A vaquero at work in 1830s California.
Q: Where did La Matanza St. in San Juan Capistrano get its name? Doesn’t it mean slaughter or massacre?

From the 1820s to the 1860s – when our local economy was still based on cattle – the matanza was the annual time, from July through September, when steers that had reached the age of three were slaughtered with long sharp knives for their hides and tallow. (Cows were generally spared, for breeding.)

Vaqueros called navajadores began by going out on horseback in threes and finding the steers. Hundreds or even thousands might ultimately be slaughtered. In the Mission era, the steers were herded to a specific flat open spot – also called la matanza – a good distance from the mission or pueblo, where the slaughter process would be more orderly and less wasteful. (After secularization, the navajadores were sometimes more prone to just slaughter the steers where they found them, take the valuable hides, and leave the bodies to rot.)

Once the cattle were dead, peladores would remove the hides. Then, tasajoras (butchers) would gather the fat for tallow and cut any meat that was to be saved. Waste material was often burned afterward. (There really wasn't a large market for beef here until the Gold Rush hit in 1849.)

Like any agricultural harvest, the coming of the matanza was cause for celebration. Fiestas were held (presumably with a lot of beef on the menu), new dresses were debuted, and so forth.

The first references I see to La Matanza Street in San Juan Capistrano are around 1939, which is not a surprise. (See my article on Verdugo St.) I’m not sure whether the actual matanza location for the San Juan mission has any relationship to the street with that name.

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