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STORIES Thomas Edison | Gonzalo Guerrero | Cabeza de Vaca | Juan Rivera

A Portrait of Thomas A. Edison

by Eddie Martinez

I first became interested in Thomas Edison as a youngster after seeing the movie “Young Tom Edison” with Mickey Rooney. As I became more familiar with the life of Edison I became curious about his middle name “Alva” which is a Spanish surname.

In the book, “The Thomas A. Edison Album: A Pictorial Biography of Thomas Alva Edison” Lawrence A. Frost writes, “It was at the Milan Presbyterian Church the seventh baby was baptized Thomas Alva; Thomas after his father’s brother, and Alva after Captain Alva Bradley, his father’s best friend.”

Another interesting thing about Edison was that he spoke Spanish. On this Frost writes, “Always industrious in his spare time, Tom had taught himself to read and speak French from a French-English dictionary. Early in 1867 he began to learn Spanish in the same fashion in preparation for going to Brazil.” Frost’s explanation didn’t make any sense to me; if Edison wanted to speak the language of Brazil he would have learned Portuguese and not Spanish.

My interest in Thomas Edison was further stimulated in 1970 when I was working along side other Disney artists painting U. S. historical events for the Hall of Presidents in Walt Disney World, Florida. One of my paintings was of Thomas Edison patiently watching the filament of his incandescent lamp burn for forty-hours.

In 1974, I was once again painting Thomas Edison for Disney. This time it was a large Mural for Disneyland in Anaheim, dedicated to the United States Bi-Centennial Celebration in 1975. The painting was a long mural of famous Americans that included Walt Disney. And once again, I had the enjoyable opportunity to study, draw, and paint Thomas Edison’s likeness.

 

During those years of going over the photographic portraits of Edison, I have looked closely at his facile bone structure and studied the features of his face. From that, Iíve come to my own satisfaction that ethnically Edisonís a Mestizo, which is a mixture of Indigenous and Spanish blood. After leaving Disney, I became so convinced that Edison was a Mexican that I began drawing Thomas Edison on a canvas. The drawing was a series of montages of his Aztec ancestry, him transforming to present-day Edison along with some of his inventions. My wife was surprised when she saw the drawing. She asked me if Edison was a Mexican and I responded that I really didnít know for sure. After thinking about our conversation, I became discouraged and put it away.

 

During the mid-seventies while I was at the Goez Art Studio in East Los Angeles, I was having an interesting Thomas Edison conversation with artists, Robert Arenivar and Joe Gonzalez. Arenivar said matter-of-factly that Edison was Mexican and that in Mexico the school children are taught that Edison was born in Mexico. During our conversation, a friendly individual walked in to the studio and joined in on our conversation. As we discussed Edison, US patents and Mexican inventions, he produced a list of Mexican born inventors that heíd compiled over the years. The list (as I remember) included inventions of the Cotton Gin, the Electrical Dynamo, the Machine Gun, the Color TV, and so on. He then handed me a xerox copy of an article on Thomas Alva Edison stating that Edison was born in Mexico. Since then Iíve never learned the individualís name or ever saw him again. To this day his identity remains a mystery to me. Below is a copy of the article I received at Goez Art Studio in East Los Angeles:

 

EDISON WAS BORN IN MEXICO

By ADOLFO DE LA PEÑA GIL
Published in THE THEOSOPHIST, October 1956, pages 49-54

The key to the fruitful life of Thomas Alva Edison has been admirably put into works by himself. Upon being asked on the occasion of his birth-anniversary in 1924, what his philosophy of life was, he answered:

To work, wresting from Nature its secrets in order to use them for the benefit of mankind; bearing always in mind the best side of things.

Upon the passing in 1931 of this great multi-inventor, articles as well as letters from Edison’s Republic about his early years, claiming that he was born in the State of Zacatecas, having migrated or been taken to the United States of America, where he adopted a new nationality and married. Questions from private letters with some details concerning his ancestors and school-fellows were also published.

In the Encyclopedia Britannica (1955) we read that Edison was born at Milan, Ohio, February 11th, 1847; that he attended a public school during three months; became a railroad newsboy at 12; a telegraph operator at 15. It seems to us that it would be hard for the writer of these notes to produce documental evidence for them.

In 1878, Edison joined the Theosophical Society and became one of its honorary members. His form of application is in the Recording Secretary’s Office at Adyar, and a letter of his exists in the Adyar records acknowledging his diploma of membership which, he mentions, he has placed in his “honor box” where he keep his really valued diplomas. Referring to him, the Master K. H. wrote to Mr. Sinnett that Edison was “a good deal protected by M.” (the Master Morya).(1)

C. Jinaräjadäsa, late President of the Theosophical Society, knew Edison was not born in the United States. Now, as a result of a footnote to my article in THE THEOSOPHIST of April 1953, mentioning Edison’s real birthplace, two friends wrote to the writer asking whether he could obtain additional evidence on the mater. So, when traveling through the State of Zacatecas (May 1955) I tried to get evidence of the Mexican origin of Thomas Alva Edison.

Sombrerete, a mining district belonging to Zacatecas, is situated near the Northern Tropic of Cancer, bordering the State of Durango, at an altitude of 2,000 metres. It is famed for its veins of silver, gold, and lead; there are some twenty of them, “Veta Negra” and Pabellén” being the richest. We are told that the former produce, during three different working periods, more than 80 million dollars. Charles B. Dahlgren, Mining Engineer, in his book Historic Mines of Mexico,(2) when describing the two veins writes that twenty-two others in the same district had rendered up to that year 160 million dollars. “Vega Negra” is considered as having been the riches vein in the world. And it is said that all the silver required for the conquest of the Californias was obtained from Sombrerete.

It was in this region that Don José de la Luz Alva, Edison’s grandfather, lived in the small town of Sombrerete, at the beginning of the last century. The village was founded founded June 6th, 1555; its population today is 6,680 inhabitants, according to the 1950 census. Situated near Pan American high road, 870 kilometers from the city of Mexico, it is connected by railroad to El Paso, Texas, U.S.A.

This was Edison’s birthplace. All data gathered from local traditions, letters from his contemporaries, and family friends who knew his relatives, and fellow-students, agree on this point that Sombrerete is the place of his origin of this “Benefactor of Humanity”. When he was at the summit of his fame as a great inventor, denizens of Sombrerete, filled with admiration and civic pride, put a metal plate with bronze letters near the entrance door of Edison’s house, with walls seventy centimeters thick, had four small inner corridors surrounding a square patio, the façade being decorated at its top by a long Doric cornice. The plate reads:

EN ESTA CASA NACIO

TOMAS ALVA EDISON

EL 18 DE FEBRERO DE 1848

“In this house Tomás Alva Edison was born, February 18, 1848.”

The house is now inhabited by Mr. Jesús Ramírez Alvarez, and it was by his kindness that we were able to get the following private information:

From a letter dated 1878:

I inform you that Tomás Alva has just invented a talking machine, having done admirable progress in physics. Several are the electrical crafts invented and constructed by him. On my behalf please congratulate Don Luz and German. I am glad to learn of these successes of Tomás who was born in the same home as Chebo.

Don José de la Luz Alva was the grandfather of Tomás, as already mentioned. In another private letter in possession of Mr. Ramírez we read:

He (Don José) was administrator of the “Diligencia” [State-coach] and, I was told, lived many years in the city. As regards German, I understand that he was a cousin who received and moved at the slowest pace the mules after the arrival of the Diligencia to the city from Gutierrez Depot. This was a public service which ended about 1912 or 1913.

The father of the inventor was Mr. Samuel Alva Ixtlixóchitl; this second name is altogether Aztec, the name Alva being abundant in the State of Zacatecas. There were in that time three Alva families: Alva Edison, Alva Arias, Alva Santini.

El Sol, a Durango newspaper, published an article in its issue dated February 1, 1952, under the title, “More about Tomás Alva Edison’s Origin”:

Mr. Guillermo H. Ramirez: With reference to your article in the El Sol I may inform you as follows. During 1899 when I was a student at the High School for teachers, in the city of Zacatecas, one of my most revered masters, Don José Guadalupe Pounce, used to tell us: “In this hall teaching was received by Edison; he was known to us only as Tomás Alva, his father being a mining engineer who came from Pachuca (another mining district) and whose name was not only Alva, but Alva Ixtlixóchitl.” Was he really Tomás Alva Edison or another? There may be no exaggeration at all on the plate you refer to, as it dose not say that the Tomás Alva born in Sombrerete was the inventor of the incandescent lamp, the photograph, etc. The man of the plate may or may not be the inventor, but if it is a fact that he received enough preparation at the School where he studied Don Angel Ruiseco, the constructor of a steam-boiler and steam-motor, as well as another . . . who built a belfry-clock . . . Yours truly, Francisco Flores.

On the 14th of February 1952 Mr. Melchor D. Gaballero wrote a letter to Mr. Jesús Ramírez:

Dear friend: Herewith enclosed you will find clippings from El Sol, Durango, concerning Tomás Alva Edison’s origin. I was talking with Mr. Flores and he insists that his teacher personally told him that Edison was his school-fellow. So Mr. Flores is quite sure that Edison was Mexican, but being perhaps convenient to his aims, he preferred to be known as a U.S. citizen. Anyhow, the truth as to his origin does not appear in encyclopaedias [encyclopedias], nor books or interviews, as it is only known here . . .

Again, another letter from Mr. Gaballero to Mr. Flores shows a clear statement that Alva Edison was not “American”; that it was only to suit his interest that he allowed himself to be know as such; and that he left this country to go to the North when he was about twenty years old.

In another private letter shown to me by Mr. Ramírez this paragraph occurs:

As I explained to you before, there is no birth-record mainly because no civil officers to record births were then in existence, births being registered in the parish or local Church records, which are now lost. There is a doubt as to whether Alva Edison was a Catholic; however . . . he was, having been baptized by Father Bonifacio Balvanera, or Lanfleverde, the act being recorded in the parish book No. 132, page 56, or book No. 56, page 132; he dose not remember exactly which.

In a biographical pamphlet entitled Edison by Rosanof, published in 1933 at Santiago (Chile), a footnote states that “Edison pronounced the English language very defectively, so that it is impossible to translate his ‘argot’ [cant or slang]”.

There is a reader for the primary schools at Zacatecas, printed in 1918, by Federico Gómez de Orozco, entitled: Alma de la Patria (Fatherland’s Soul); on its page 147, with reference to the evolution of public street illumination, there is the following observation:

Nowadays almost only this kind of light (electric) is seen all through the main cities; and something most satisfactory to you, perhaps, is that the electric lamp was invented by a man born in this country (Mexico) and afterwards naturalized as a citizen of the United States of America, and whose name is Tomás Alva Edison, inventor of the phonograph and many other useful things.

The Mexican Law of Civil Status, as part of the Reform Laws, was signed by President Benito Juárez on the 28th of July 1859, (eleven years after Edison’s birth). Civil Status Courts were started then in the Republic in order to record and legalize the tree prominent events in human life-birth, marriage and death-so that the natives could exercise their rights at the tribunals. Formerly these records were kept only at the parish church. As a result of this innovation the practice began in several of our States to take from the Church offices all books of birth-records, and file them at the civil municipal courts, thus enabling the legal authorization of deeds from evidence afforded by the parish books which recorded births, ect., before the promulgation of the new law.

In such a manner the birth records were taken from the parish at Sombrerete, carried to the civil court, and there burnt fifty years afterwards, at the beginning of the last revolution in Mexico which overthrew Porfirio Diaz and his regime. It was on the 10th of May 1910 that the insurgents, upon taking possession of Sombrerete, set on fire the whole of the archives of the Presidencia Municipal.

Finally, Mr. Ramírez showed me another private letter which read:

I have learnt, without confirmation, that some time between 1926 and 1927, notices were published in newspapers in this region regarding Edison’s wish to communicate with his remote relatives living in Mexico. I was told that he received so many letters as to make him desist in his purpose. . . .

Thus, the popular tradition supported by people who knew Edison’s relatives and school-fellows; many private reports and letters; the unanimous civic impulse at Sombrerete to place a commemorative plate as his birth home; the defective lead us to accept Edison’s Mexican origin notwithstanding the fact that documental evidence, based on legal or parish papers of the time, cannot be obtained because the Church records were destroyed.

ADOLFO DE LA PEÑA GIL

________________________________________________________________________

1 The Mahatma Letters, page 169. See also the last chapter of Old Diary Leaves, by H. S. Olcott, First Series; The Golden Book of the Theosophical Society, edited by C. Jinaräjadäsa, pages 25, 28, 29; and The Early Teachings of the Masters, edited by C. Jinaräjadäsa, page 167.

2 Published in New York, 1883, and translated into Spanish by Sociedad Mexicana de Minería, (printed 1884).