The “Outlaw” Pomponio & The Historical Art of David Gremard Romero

A few months ago I received a fascinating email from San Francisco artist David Gremard Romero. He wanted to know more about the Coastside “outlaw” Indian Pomponio–because he wanted to paint him. In the meantime, David continued his research and the painting that he imagined is now a reality, part of a show of his latest work at the Bucheon Gallery, 389 Grove St, San Francisco. (415.863.2891…email [email protected]) David’s show opens on Friday, July 27, 7-10 p.m.

(“La Caida” 2008. Pastel and Gold Leaf on Paper. 56×38 inches)
June, ….I would like to do more on the Pomponio theme, though. He is a background figure, so I am sending you a picture of the whole painting and also a detail of just the Pomponio figure. It’s a large pastel. The figures are almost life size. It is called “La Caida.’ It is a self-portrait.

I am the figure in the middle, bending over with the red cape. I am wearing the mask of St. Thomas Moor Killer, or Matamoros, who was believed to help the Spanish when they fought the Indians, and on my leg is painted Father Junipero Serra carrying Carmel Mission in his arms, with the rest of the missions scattered as Tattoos across my body. I mean to suggest that I am embodying the idea or spirit of both Junipero Serra, a man I believe tried genuinely to do good but who had an ambivalent effect on California history to say the least, and the malign idea of a Saint who kills Indians, both of which were brought to California and are integral to our history.

The man on the floor is a figure who appears in many of my paintings. It is unclear if he has been knocked out by the Serra/St Thomas figure, while also being aided by him.

The woman is the Aztec goddess of Mercy, Tlazolteotl. Her symbol was her black mouth. Her name literally means “Filth Eater.” In Aztec culture, you had one opportunity to confess your sins in your life, and when you did so, Tlazolteotl ate them and released you from their burden. I was thinking of her as being sort of the referee.

And in the background, to the far right, you see Pomponio, another ambivalent figure, but one whom I prefer to think of as a resistance fighter.

I read in another source that at the end of his life, Pomponio was brought in chains to the Presidio, and at night he cut off his heels to escape his shackles. They caught him by following the trail of his blood. I have also read that this is probably a later myth, but it is a powerful image, and since in much of my work I think of history as being a sort of myth, it applies well; on his shorts you can see him squatting down and cutting off his heels.

From the wound spring both blood and water, symbols of life, death, and also renewal. His boots are crocodiles–in Mesoamerican myth, the crocodile was thought to be the base of the world. This thus transforms him into an axis mundi, the world tree and the center of existence, which he is, as our ancestor (whether, in some genetic sense, if one were Native American, or Spiritually, as a forebear in this same land we now inhabit).

In the middle, on his legs, is painted a skull from which Pomponio emerges again, and again cutting his heel. From the mouth also emerges a world tree, which is also a path marked by his bloody footprints, leading to Chicomizoc, the Aztec place of birth and beginnings, and which is often thought to have been a place somewhere in the United States.

I often equate the bloody acts of our ancestors as a sort of sacrifice, however unwilling on the part of the victims, from which sprang the world we now inhabit, and which would have been impossible without that initial bloody scene. Along the path are scenes of conquistadors and massacre.

The last figure is Tezcatlipoca, the Aztec god of Change through Violent Conflict. The whole piece has been inspired by Mexican Lucha Libre. In my paintings contemporary individuals wear wrestlers costumes inspired by Pre-Colombian Gods, and by the historical figures so important to Mexican and California history, and they wrestle and act out these struggles which still have ramifications in our own day.

Anyway, those are some of my thoughts on the painting. I hope you like it, and I would love to hear your thoughts.

David Gremard Romero

Addendum to–Coastside Cave Sheltered The Outlaw Pomponio

PV.jpg (Photo: Pablo Vasquez, son of Tiburcio, original grantee to the Corral de Tierra, the land grand stretching from Miramar to Half Moon Bay, often told the story of Pomponio.)

At about the time Pomponio was jailed and executed (1824), California began changing hands from Spanish to Mexican rule.

An atmosphere of bitter resentment against the vast wealth of te mission system had forced a solution–and some 10 years after Pomponio’s death, a directive from Mexico ordered the break-up of the missions. Perhaps the martyred Pomponio played a small role in bringing about the change.

Under the new order, the Mexicans parceled out grants of land to “men of good Spanish ancestry.” One of the beneficiaries was Tiburcio Vasquez, the former superintendent of Mission Dolores’ livestock. He applied for and received the southern portion of the Corral de Tierra, a land grant so named because the surrounding geographical featured formed a natural enclosure for cattle.

Tiburcio Vasquez is considered the founding father of “Spanishtown”–an earlier name for Half Moon Bay.

The Vasquez rancho stretched from Miramar to Pilarcitos Creek in Half Moon Bay, where Tiburcio’s son, Pablo, constructed a frame house that stands to this day.

The respected Pablo Vasquez–an expert equestrian and avid billiard player–who walked about with a collapsible cue stick–became a Coastside celebrity.

He had grown up at Mission Dolores and knew all the legends about Pomponio. But as is the case with legends, there was a mixture of historical accuracy and romance.

When asked about Pomponio, Pablo pointed toward a valley behind Half Moon Bay, which he said had been named after the famous outlaw Indian.

Pablo then launched into a story he loved to tell. While the padres slept soundly, he said, Pomponio and his gang repeatedly raided Mission Dolores, helping themselves to the horses in the corral. In an attempt to stop the annoying thievery, the fathers tied a bell to the neck of a mare in each corral. They believed this “alarm system” would prevent future robberies.

Of course, Pomponio quickly adapted to their clever alarm system. He outwitted the fathers by quietly approaching the corrals on tip toe while one of his gang captured the “bell mare” (tinkling the bell to reassure the padres that all was well). The bandits then filed out of the rear of the corral with a string of horses.

The following morning the shocked padres looked for their horses but all they found was the warning bell.

Pablo Vasquez became a Coastside legend in his own time–but there were no creeks or beaches or roads named in his memory. That was reserved for Pomponio, the renegade Indian who brought terror to the hearts of the mission fathers.

A Coastside Cave Sheltered The Outlaw Pomponio: Part V: Conclusion


The end came in the form of a woman scorned. A beautiful Indian girl claimed Pomponio and two of his friends had kidnapped her, leaving her to guard the horses while they visited the native quarters at Mission Dolores. Most likely she resented being abandoned by Pomponio while he caroused. She knew his habits well enough–so goes the story–to lead the soldiers to Pomponio’s secret cave.

Perhaps Pomponio heard the soliders coming–or had been forewarned–but when the hunters reached the cave, he had vanished. His departure must have been hurried as a small cache of primitive weapoons, including a sword, was left behind.

With the pressure building on Pomponio, his life of flight was fast coming to a close. He was captured in what is now Marin County, jailed and executed by a firing squad in 1824.

A Coastside Cave Sheltered The Outlaw Pomponio: Part IV

The frustrated soldiers waited in vain for the rebels to strike but the attack never came. Infuriated, they frantically renewed their hunt and Pomponio withdrew to the safety of the cave at the headwaters of Pomponio Creek, south of San Gregorio.

The crafty Pomponio must have felt secure knowing that the soldiers wearing standard issue uniforms and heavy boots were not prepared for the rugged terrain. This remote part of the Coastside was uncharted–and did not lend itself to an orderly field of battle.

His pursuers would lose their footing, slip and fall as they tried to climb the precarious layers of rock that led up to Pomponio’s hidden lair. In the unlikely event they did reach the cave, Pomponio and his men would be waiting for them, armed with weapons stolen on their raids.

(The Coastside was so isolated that not until 1850 did the famous Johnston brothers from Ohio distinguish themselves by being among the first to navigate wagons over the Coastside’s mountainous barriers. They used an ingenious rope system to gingerly lower their wheeled vehicles down the steep slope.)

But Pomponio’s luck was running out. Perhaps his youthful illusion of immortality led him to become sloppy. It was only a matter of time before his bravado would bring him down.

…To Be Continued….

A Coastside Cave Sheltered The Outlaw Pomponio: Part III

Indians2.jpg(Photo: Indians at mission in San Jose)*

Pomponio’s pursuers, Spanish or Mexican soldiers, must have believed that the fugitive Indian was dead, perhaps killed by grizzly bears or mountain lions that roamed the hills near Half Moon Bay. Visibly relieved, they pushed Pomponio out of their minds. He was forgotten and good riddance.

The soldiers had ceased looking for him when, one day they received a disturbing report of a raid on a Pacifica ranch. It sounded suspiciously like the work of the notorious Pomponio. Their worst fears were realized when eyewitnesses confirmed it was Pomponio and his gang, who had swooped down on the ranch and seized horses and supplies.

Once again the crafty Pomponio had slipped away.

Although Pomponio was ordinarily secretive–his success had made him careless. He started to confide in people whose loyalty he could not be certain of. A few traitorous Indians who had pretended to be sympathetic were actually employed as listening posts for the authorities.

When one of these deceitful fellows learned of Pomponio’s plans to raid a ranch near San Jose, he alerted the missionaries who set in motion a trap for the wanted outlaw. But in another twist, Pomponio, using his own spies, learned of the betrayal and altered his strategy by forgoing the raid.

*Photo: San Mateo County History Museum. Please visit the new galleries at the museum in the historic Redwood City Courthouse.

…To Be Continued…

A Coastside Cave Sheltered The Outlaw Pomponio: Part II

Indians.jpg(Photo: Indians at the mission in San Francisco)*

Other Indians, who had escaped, were attracted to Pomponio, joining his band of rebellious dissidents.

The ragtag “army’s” immediate problem was getting food and weapons.

Having lived at the missions, they knew where the supplies were located–and in short order became highly successful at plundering for their needs.

Insuring the success of his hit-and-run techniques, Pomponio enlisted the aid of sympathetic Indians at missions he intended to raid. From these sympathizers he could shape a strategy as to when and where to strike.

Pomponio and his gang were soon accused of every crime ranging from robbery to murder to rape–and the young rebel was feared at every mission in California.

But the authorities could not find the elusive Pomponio. Reports never seemed to pinpoint his whereabouts as he moved from hideout to hideout.

He was becoming a hero among his own people, safe from betrayal.

Then followed a long stretch of time when nothing was heard of Pomponio. The robberies had come to an end–and the trail was cold.

*Photo: San Mateo County History Museum. Please visit the museum located in the historic Redwood City Courthouse.

…To Be Continued…

A Coastside Cave Sheltered The Outlaw Pomponio: Part I

More than 170 years ago the renegade Indian leader Pomponio stayed one jump ahead of his pursuers by hiding out in a dark, rocky cave on the remote Coastside.

The wily Pomponio led his band of outlaws to the headwaters of what is now Pomponio creek, south of Half Moon Bay and San Gregorio–where they eluded capture by the soldiers who hunted them.

What had driven the notorious Pomponio to seek refuge on the isolated Coastside?

This was a twilight hour in California’s history–and there was a sense of uncertainty in the air. The Spanish Mission rule was coming to an end and the land was soon to be governed by Mexico.

The local Indians did not fare well under Spanish rule. Many were forcibly relocated to Mission Dolores in San Francisco, their numbers decimated by the endless cycle of death from influenza, measles and syphilis–diseases that were epidemic. The horrible deaths that slashed their numbers, combined with humiliation and loss of honor, provided all the ingredients for an Indian “revolt.”

Certainly Pomponio was angry and sought revenge. He had been raised in the Mission system. The files at the San Mateo County History Museum in Redwood City reveal the padres at Mission Dolores had changed his native name from Lupugeyun to Pomponio–apparently in honor of Pomponious, an obscure 6th century bishop.

With freedom on his mind, all Pomponio could think of was devising a plan to escape, including survival once outside the Mission. One day, as the legend goes, with the stars in perfect alignment, Pomponio successfully fled his “prison”.

The young firebrand was now a fugitive. To the demoralized and disease-ridden Indians in the missions. Pomponio was becoming a hero.

…To Be Continued…