The perfect bite: social reform, literature and a recovered silent movie

Chefs and foodies  speak of the elements on the plate coming together in the perfect bite! Although my tastes aren’t that refined, I recently enjoyed an equivalent experience when a particular slice of history presented itself to me in a unique blend of artistic components.

I first learned of the “Ramona” story  while accompanying my grandparents to the longest running outdoor play in the United States, the “Ramona Pageant.”

Ramona Pageant, San Jacinto

There are numerous “Ramona” streets and landmarks near my home. I went to high school on Ramona Street and my yoga class meets on the grounds where the old house referred to as the “birthplace of Ramona” used to sit–every day reminders.

It is believed that author, Helen Hunt Jackson, wrote much of her beloved “Ramona” doing research in the vicinity of the San Gabriel Mission, the site chosen for Ramona’s parents to wed. San Diego, another Mission city, holds claim as Ramona’s wedding place.

San Gabriel Mission

You may not be at all familiar with this book, but had you been living in 1884 when it was first published, its reach would have been inescapable.

California tourism was greatly encouraged by its overwhelming popularity, and as travelers arrived by rail, they flocked to see the locations and landmarks referenced in the story.

Ramona_San Gabriel

A contemporary and friend of Emily Dickinson and regarded by Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of America’s greatest poets,  Jackson was an accomplished writer prior to her most successful book, but she suffered a number of very personal and painful losses, and eventually traveled west to Colorado.

In Colorado she took on an advocacy role for Native Americans and developed a passionate pursuit of American Indian rights, in particular the Mission Indians of Southern California. 

“Ramona” tells the story of a mixed-race Scots-Native American girl who suffers racial discrimination and hardship, painting a vivid picture of unrest in Southern California after the Mexican-American War.

Was there a “real” Ramona? It gets a little tricky here, but it is believed that Jackson was certainly influenced by the Native American people she knew and her ardent passion for Indian reform.

The public regarded the book as primarily a love story, and on its own merit didn’t bring the public closer to reform measures, however, the author continued to be a very well-respected activist and reformer until her death in 1885.


The book, now free to the reading public as part of Project Gutenberg, has had more than 300 printings, been adapted four times as a film, and as previously noted, is very popular with Ramona scholars.

And speaking of those films…

In 2010 American silent film scholars finally came across the only copy of the 1928 silent movie “Ramona,” starring Dolores Del Rio and Warner Baxter, missing and presumed lost for decades.

Where has it been?

It is generally accepted that it was at least initially captured by Nazis during World War II and then taken from the Nazis by the Soviet Union. A Czechoslovakian film archivist found it in 1950 and the film remained in the Czech Republic until a recent team of American silent film scholars obtained it and brought it back to the United States.

In early June a good friend and I had the privilege of sitting in the historic San Gabriel Mission Playhouse,  just steps from where the original “Ramona house” once stood, enjoying this fantastic old silent movie accompanied by theater organist Bob Salisbury on the Playhouse Mighty 1924 Wurlitzer Pipe Organ.

There you have it.

Historical fiction, Southern California landmarks,  Mission era history, early California tourism, Native American rights activism, a stolen silent movie returned, and an absolutely fascinating woman, Helen Hunt Jackson.

The perfect bite!

You’re welcome to take a little walk around my neighborhood and perhaps soak up just a little bit more of the “Ramona” flavor if you’re interested. You’ll see by this video that I’m not alone in my enthusiasm and interest.

Wouldn’t this dedicated author and activist who feared her book didn’t make the impact she had hoped it would be amazed that 131 years later her work and dedication is still considered important?

There is so much more I could tell you about her, but perhaps one day you’ll find your own reasons to pick up a copy of “Ramona,” and you’ll be interested in learning more about Jackson, too.

Let me know if you do!