Modesta Avila (1867 or 1869 – September 1891) was a Californio ranchera and protester, best known for being the first convicted felon and first state prisoner in Orange County, California. Avila had only received a minor warning in 1889 for placing an obstruction on the tracks to protest against the Santa Fe Railroad being built through her property without adequate compensation, but she continued to taunt the authorities, and was eventually arrested four months later.
Although the jury in her first trial was unable to reach agreement, Avila was convicted after a second trial at Orange County Supreme Court and was sentenced to three years in San Quentin State Prison. Today Avila is considered to be a folk heroine of Latino people of the county, and is suggested as the “White Lady”, a ghost said to haunt the area, reported to have been seen walking along the railroad tracks since the 1930s.
Avila was born in 1867 or 1869 in San Juan Capistrano, in Orange County, California. Little is known about her early life, but by the age of 20 she had inherited land from her mother just to the north of the Capistrano train station and was occupied in chicken rearing. Physically Avila was described as a “dark-eyed beauty” in appearance and an “extremely proud woman”. The authorities would have considered her a Mexican even though she had been born in San Juan Capistrano; Mexicans were unpopular in the county at the time and subject to racism. She had spent 30 days in Los Angeles County Jail in 1888 for “vagrancy” (often a euphemism for prostitution) and this, coupled with the fact that she was reportedly unmarried and pregnant at the time of her second trial, led to a belief that she supplemented her income by working as a prostitute; her obituary in the Santa Ana Standard seemed to add weight to this by referring to her as “a well-known favorite of the Santa Ana boys”.