Watsonville's Pinto Lake has a rich, strange history, from the Portola Expedition to the appearance of the Virgin Mary.
Story and Photos by Ryan Masters
I am standing behind a dense veil of tule reeds on the western shore of Pinto Lake in Watsonville. The air is hot and still and thick with the stench of death.
The body of a 34-year-old woman named Elizabeth Todis is floating like an apparition in the water on the other side of the reeds—just a few feet away. Detectives have gathered on a nearby private dock beneath a shady grove of redwoods. Eventually they will determine that her corpse has been in the lake for a week.
A fisherman spotted the body this morning and called it in. As a crime reporter for the Santa Cruz Sentinel, I was listening to the scanner when dispatch mentioned a “floater” in Pinto Lake. I guess I got lucky. Reporting crime is funny that way—“lucky” often means “really sad and horrifying”.
Decaying, a human being creates an unpleasant chemical reaction, and I’ve been out here long enough for the smell to permeate my hair and skin. I wander up to the dock where the detectives aren’t happy to see me. It’s nothing personal, they simply prefer to manage the release of information—especially if the case is a possible homicide. When they figure out I don’t have my press pass on me, I’m swiftly booted from the crime scene. Which is fine. There won’t be anything more to learn until they retrieve the body and identify it as Elizabeth.
Before I go, I decide to explore the rest of Pinto Lake—see what’s here. I’d always assumed it was just a dumpy little urban reservoir. It is not. As it turns out, it is one of the more interesting bodies of water in Santa Cruz County.
‘Trees of a red color unknown to us.’
In college I took a course called Prehistoric Technology with California archaeologist Jon Erlandson. Among other things, we learned to butcher road-kill with knives of flint-knapped obsidian, leech poisonous tannins from acorns and hunt hay bales with an atlatl.
For my final project, I constructed a boat out of tule reeds in the traditional Ohlone style. After a few weeks of cutting, gathering and binding the reeds together by hand, I took my vessel out to a local body of water, boarded her, and promptly sank to the bottom.
I mention this because tule reed boats like the one I failed to properly build were used on Pinto Lake for centuries by Mutsun-speaking Ohlone to hunt, fish and gather.
Before agricultural techniques were introduced, permanent settlements were highly unusual in California. Yet the wildly abundant Pajaro Valley supported a semi-permanent village of 500 people named Tiuvta. While this community seasonally shifted from site to site, a smaller, more permanent village existed on or very near Pinto Lake.
Pinto Lake formed somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 years ago. Fed by underground springs, it could be depended on year round as a source of fish, game and various ethnobotanical resources. Perhaps this is why, when Gaspar de Portolá made his historic and unprecedented journey through Alta California in 1769, his men pitched camp here.
Pinto Lake must have looked like an Eden to Portolá’s sick, exhausted and demoralized men. A few days earlier, they had completed an epic bushwhack through Big Sur’s brutally steep and extensive Santa Lucia Range. It had nearly killed them. By the time they had emerged on to the shores of Monterey Bay near the Salinas Rivermouth, 16 of the expedition’s 64 members were too ill to walk and had to be carried in litters.
To complicate matters, they had proceeded to mistake the Salinas River for the Carmel River. This miscalculation put the “lost port of Monterey”—a near-mythic place described 177 years earlier by their countryman Sebastián Vizcaíno—north of their position.
But Portolá was no fool. Just to be sure, he had sent scouts as far south as the Carmel Highlands. Yet—despite hiking directly past it not once, but twice—these men failed to recognize Vizcaíno’s “fair and commodious harbor.” Consequently, the expedition had collectively shrugged, turned north and trudged towards the mucky slough-lands surrounding Moss Landing.
The Spanish encountered signs of Native Americans in this treacherous and spooky terrain. Fortunately, the soldiers wore leather tunics made of seven-ply deerskin. These jackets could repel a sharp projectile point from a distance and were fairly effective—until, that is, the natives learned to shoot the Spanish invaders in the face.
On Oct. 8, 1769, the expedition discovered a hastily abandoned, smoldering village on the banks of a wide river. Within it they found a monstrous bird stuffed with straw. With a wingspan of seven and half feet, the condor must have seemed an ominous and grotesque warning. Father Juan Crespí attempted to name the river after some saint or another, but the stuffed condor proved far too powerful a magic. The river retained the name the soldiers gave it: Río del Pájaro or “River of the Bird”.
So, just a league beyond the Pajaro River, the weary expedition camped on the shores of Pinto Lake to rest and recuperate. Magnificent trees, unlike anything yet reported by explorers of the New World, grew on the banks of what the men described as “a little lagoon.”
Lt. Pedro Fages described them as “trees of girth so great that eight men placed side by side with extended arms are unable to embrace them.” The expedition’s engineer, Miguel Costansó, wrote, “They were the largest, highest and straightest trees we had seen up to that time. Some of them four to five yards in diameter.” Yet it was Father Crespí who documented their name: “We gave them that of the color of the wood, palo colorado.
And so it was that redwoods were “discovered” and named by the Portolá expedition on the banks of Pinto Lake. Today a large plaque greets visitors near the entrance of the city park. Printed upon it is a fragment from Father Crespí’s journal:
“We broke camp in the morning and after crossing a river named by the soldiers Río del Pájaro, we headed in a northwesterly direction…because of the condition of the sick men in the litters we halted again after traveling a little more than a league near a little lagoon where there was ample feed and much wild game…the plains and low hills were forested with very high trees of a red color unknown to us…different than cedar, although the wood resembles cedar in color and is very brittle.”
Less than ten years after the Portolá expedition passed through, the first load of redwood would be shipped south from the San Francisco Bay on Father Junipero Serra’s orders, signaling the dawn of the redwood lumber industry. Today, as I wander around Pinto Lake trying escape the smell of human decay in my nostrils, I can count the remaining redwood trees on a single hand.
There is no plaque indicating the Ohlone maintained a permanent settlement at Pinto Lake—despite the fact that precious few such villages existed in pre-contact California. And by the 1790s, mission records indicate the Pajaro Valley Ohlone had been completely “subdued” for the glory and benefit of God.
The Virgin of Pinto Lake
Two hundred thirty-eight years before the Portolá expedition discovered redwoods in 1769, a miracle occurred outside Mexico City that would affect Pinto Lake.
On the morning of Dec. 9, 1531, a Native American peasant named Juan Diego was visited by a humble maiden at Tepeyac Hill—just outside Mexico City. Speaking to him in Nahuatl, the native language of the Aztec empire, the maiden identified herself as the Virgin Mary, and asked Diego to build a church in her honor.
When Diego alerted church officials in Mexico City of the Virgin’s request, the archbishop scoffed at the foolish Indian. The Catholic Church would not recognize some beggar woman’s claim to be the Virgin without proof. The archbishop bade Diego document a miracle or else bother him no more.
The Virgin instructed Diego to gather flowers from the top of Tepeyac Hill. As it was winter, Diego did not expect to find anything blooming—let alone Castilian roses, which were not native to Mexico—yet there the glorious blossoms were. The Virgin carefully arranged the roses in the coarse fabric of Diego’s peasant cloak and sent him back to the archbishop.
When Juan Diego unfurled his cloak at the feet of the archbishop, the roses predictably fell to the floor and lay there. Castilian roses were a nice touch, but the archbishop was generally unimpressed. Then he noticed an indelible image of the Virgin had been miraculously imprinted on the cloak. Now we’re talking, the archbishop said. And lo, a church should be built on Tepeyac Hill.
Today, between 18 and 20 million pilgrims visit that church, making it the most visited sanctuary in Christendom. What’s more, Diego’s cactus-cloth cloak still shows no sign of decay. As for our peasant hero, he was canonized Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin in 2002. Of course, a cynic might point out that this miracle was conveniently timed with the church’s pressing need to convert the entire Aztec Empire to Christianity, but why ruin a miracle?
So what does any of this have to do with Pinto Lake? , Well, four hundred and sixty-two years after she visited Juan Diego on the Tepeyac Hill, the Virgin of Guadalupe reappeared at Pinto Lake. On June 17, 1992, a mother and cannery worker named Anita Contreras Mendoza was wandering along its northern shore. Marital problems troubled her mind. Overcome, Mendoza knelt beside the lake waters to pray for the well-being of her children. As she supplicated herself, the Virgin appeared.
“Tell your people that I am here to receive their prayers. This place is now a sanctuary,” the Virgin said. “Now close thine eyes, my child.”
Mendoza obeyed the apparition. When she reopened them, the Virgin of Guadalupe had vanished, but her image was impressed on the trunk of a nearby oak tree. A modern-day miracle had occurred in, of all places, Watsonville, California.
When word got out, a shrine to the Virgin sprang up at the base of the tree almost overnight. The area’s large Latino community flocked to the site. Over the years, thousands of pilgrims—some from as far away as Oregon and Mexico—came to pay homage to the image and pray for their own children. An official sign was erected near the shrine explaining the site’s significance. The place was legit.
As I stand before this rustic outdoor chapel, I am thinking a couple things: 1) There is nothing on this oak tree that even vaguely resembles the Virgin of Guadalupe; and 2) Maybe I should pray for Elizabeth Todis, whose body was found directly across the lake from this shrine. After all, she was someone’s child.
The altar is filled with wilting flowers, votive candles, figurines, notes and photographs left by visitors, including a number of ghostly, black-and-white sonograms. The psychedelic image of an angel has been nailed to the tree and colorful flags dangle from its branches. It looks as if people have been peeling lengths of bark from its trunk and carting them away as holy souvenirs.
I open a large wooden box set next to the altar. Inside I find a pile of family photos individually wrapped in plastic or encased in Ziploc bags. The stench of mold is overpowering and I reclose the lid.
Many of the votive candles set before the altar burn in a hazardous display of flickering devotion. Most honor the Virgin; others are love candles that command unnamed lovers to “ven a mi,” urge the law to “stay away,” or beseech the heavens for “fast luck.”
The tree itself could use a blessing or two. It appears to be dying. County Park arborists believe it is too close to the water or the heavy pilgrim traffic is compacting its roots or it’s suffering from some type of oak pathogen.
Earlier this year, county officials announced that they would tear down the shrine in February due to the fire hazard and environmental degradation. Yet with summer around the corner, it remains unmolested. The photos continue to molder and the host of votive candles remain aflicker. Apparently one cannot dismantle a holy site as easily as that.
Although only a handful of Marian Apparitions are approved by the Vatican, many more—like Mendoza’s experience at Pinto Lake—have occurred. Shrines like this one sprout like festooned clumps of magic mushrooms in little pockets the world over.
I choose not to pray for Elizabeth Todis at the shrine of the Virgin of Pinto Lake. For whatever reason, I have a feeling her soul is far, far away from this place by now. Or maybe that’s just what I’m hoping.
Perfect in its imperfection
Pinto Lake has 92 surface acres and is 30 feet at its deepest. Largemouth bass dominate the nutrient-rich waters. These northern-strain bass are fat and healthy—they average between two to three pounds. The lake record is 11.5 pounds. Pinto Lake, I am surprised to discover, is a highly respected destination for professional bass fishermen.
Only thing is, the fish might kill you if you eat them.
Pinto Lake is chock full of cyanobacteria. More commonly known as blue-green algae, it releases microcystin and other deadly toxins during its seasonal blooms. It’s been linked to sea otter and bird deaths and is so toxic that boaters must sign waivers acknowledging the danger of contact with it.
Despite this unfortunate trait, Pinto Lake is still full of life. Over 100 species of birds, ranging from sparrows to ospreys, reside or visit here. In March 2012, a pair of bald eagles built a nest here, the first ever recorded doing so. And though the pair abandoned the nest in late April without reproducing, one expert predicted they’d return.
As I stand on the city dock on the south shore of Pinto Lake beside a sign warning me not to swim in the water under any circumstances, I study the algae bloom at the water’s surface. There’s something rapturous and beautiful about it. Like a black widow on your arm.
No one will mistake this “little lagoon” for Lake Tahoe anytime soon—much in the way that no one will mistake its shrine for the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe—but Pinto Lake is perfect in its imperfection.
A few days later the detectives will release what they know about Elizabeth Todis. There is mental illness, addiction, and homelessness in her history. Her last known address is some motel or another in Salinas. But she was also a graduate of UC Santa Cruz…and someone’s daughter, sister, friend.
The tradition of worshipping the Virgin Mary is called Mariology. It has often come, not from official declarations from the Roman Catholic Church, but the writings of saints, popular devotion, and reports of apparitions like the one here at Pinto Lake.
On the trunks of oak trees, on cactus-cloth, even on a burnt tortilla…as I wander back to my car I consider how it is that we find miracles precisely where we seek them.
Ryan Masters is a hiker, surfer, diver, journalist, poet and musician who grew up running wild in the Santa Cruz Mountains and has lived all over the world at one time or another. He lives in Santa Cruz and writes a weekly column, Goat Trails, for Hilltromper.
Atkinson, Fred W. 100 Years in the Pajaro Valley. Register and Pajaronian Press. Watsonville, CA, 1935.
Denis, Alberta Johnston. Spanish Alta California. MacMillan Company. New York, 1927.
Eldredge, Zoeth S. The March of Portola and the Discovery of the Bay of San Francisco. California Promotion Committee, San Francisco, 1909.
Jackson, Robert H. “Disease and Demographic Patterns at Santa Cruz Mission”, Alta California. Journal of California and Great Basin Anthropology. Vol. 5, Nos. 1 and 2, pp. 33-57 (1983).