By Winifred Davidson
Something of a Spanish-Mexican past lingered here when about thirty years ago I set out to make friends for San Diego History Center in Old Town. I was struck by old-timers’ dignity, their straight backs, and elusive questioning inflections.
I had at first one single query: where lay the bones of United States boys fallen at the small battle of San Pasqual? I had arrived late. The historical harvest at San Diego seemed to have been reaped long since. That proper old don, Luis Serrano answered soberly,
“I was not yet born, senora? Maybe it is your invention-the possibility to find now those graves?”
“I think we’ll find them. At least eighteen young men, buried here or nearby on Point Loma, or possibly Hill 80.”
“Luz might know,” said Luis. “Mrs Lucy Wentworth of the iron memory as she claims.”
Afterwards my shoes gathered much historic dust, walking from Don Luis’s porch on Wallace Street to Lucy’s cottage on Conde, picking up hatfuls of notes covering years down from Cabrillo’s landing in 1542; about four hundred years. I had suffered several rebuffs from Lucy before venturing to knock at her thin blue door. Sheltered by her long skirts yipped a frenzied red-haired Chihuahua, a ten or twelve pound defender, Laddie.
“Mrs. Wentworth, about San Pasqual burials”
“I know who you are?” she snapped. “You try to get the history and write it wrong about the old California days? I do not tell the history to all. I myself am writing stories as they happened and who happened them. The names of all. The very places where they lived and walked.”
She banged shut the door and I backed down off the stoop. However, as I must wait minutes for J. D. to come by with the car, I gathered courage and knocked again. Luz and Laddie answered.
“Mrs. Wentworth, they say you speak beautiful Spanish?”
“As my mother, as my very grandmother spoke, I speak it.”
“Would you give me lessons?”
“I doubt you could learn? The Yankee pronunciation is poor. But, yes then, if you like. Down, Laddie! Por favor, pase?“
We sat at a wobbly parlor table, pupil in a weatherworn rocker, teacher in a kitchen straightback. She took from the drawer of an old sewing machine Mantilla’s Libro de Lectura, No. 1, old-fashioned as pantalets. She showed me page 13.
“Let us skip over the Abecedario? You are woman grown and as you say you already think you know a little Spanish, pronounce after me then, fusil.”
“It means gun.”
“Pronounce jaula. It means?”
“As I have said, I do not talk the history. However, do you know the first birds in cages that were seen in Old Town, as we should by rights always call this what some are fancying up to be called Old San Diego?”
“Canaries off the Golden Gate that lost a wheel outside Point Loma in the fifties?”
“If that is the year of it? I was not yet born. As to what caused that wreck I have no memory of hearing. But yes, it was then that everyone had the first little yellow singing birds in San Diego.”
“Do people still talk about that incident? And about the Bishop’s coming?”
“Indeed and of much else long forgotten. What you think you know of that first steamboat to put in here may not be the right of it. It seems she was in trouble, as food was about gone when she put out to sea.”
“That very day or the next. Again it seems the engine broke and she went aground on Zuniga Shoal out there. Pronounce: Soon-yee-gah. Not Zoon as you try it. It is the name of a Spanish officer of great and good repute. Don Jose Zuniga.
“I have read . . .”
“And as you no doubt have read. It stormed hard and the passengers suffered. They left the ship and walked across Point Lorna and Dutch Flats out there and back into Old Town here. They were exhausted and hungry? There were no autos then to zip around in? And no hotels, as you must know.”
“And no shopping centers . . .”
“They found good friends and good food in Old Town, without cost. Don Jose Antonio Estudillo, who built that what is called in error Ramona’s Marriage House, and others, made room in the nice adobe houses. It was a happy thing to remember. When I was born it seems that one of the first things I began to know was about this Golden Gate and the funny names of those gold hunters who waited here with impatience to reach San Francisco and the mines.”
“Did any canaries live?”
“It seems there was a crate of those hungry birds from Panama. Everybody was making jaulas of willow twigs from beside the river. Look again at this page 13, senora. Say the jota on the breath as in Jamul, Jacumba and Jamacha.”
“And as in Hoolian?”
“That Julian is not Spanish. Nor Indian. It takes the name from a gold-mining man, Mike Julian. Speak it neatly.”
“Senora! Do not think Spanish pronunciation is something for fun! As we sit here in the sunshine of the window I am reminded that we are making like a little school. I heard of that teacher who first came who was a sergeant of the army of Spain, as I suppose. He came early and married and had children. My mother knew the family, Vargas. It was a terrible so-called school. For spilling one drop of ink a boy would be flogged till the blood ran. There is writing on page 9 of the Mantilla. With quill pens and soot ink the boys wrote maybe? Will you now pronounce if you can make out the Spanish style of writing?”
“I am quite familiar with script. So, Mrs. Wentworth, perhaps we can start with something practical? How about El Buey on page 12? The ox?”
“Not too fast. You are scarcely ready. More than once in my father’s absence I drove our ox-team.”
“It isn’t easy to believe.”
“But true. Father was off turtling down there on Guadalupe Island and mother and the family lived then at La Playa — as it is now called Quarantine Station, where we had our home. Mother needed supplies from Old Town. We lifted that heavy wooden bow first over Berry’s head and he got to his knees and then we could push it over the other’s face.”
“Nothing of the sort. I carried a long stick walking beside the oxen. Mother rode in the cart with my sister.”
“Oh, a carreta! You drove oxen yoked to a carreta!”
“Indeed. But you speak that double-r poorly. After me, then. Carreta, cart. Cara, face.”
Her words were purely musical. But now she closed the Mantilla. “I doubt if you will ever learn it. It takes the delicate use of the tip of the tongue. Spanish resembles the Chinese in short syllables. In my early youth I knew Chinese ladies in the new part of San Diego and could often guess what they said. Has anyone told you wrong of that Chinese boy thrown in jail and what almost happened to his new wife? I knew all about that anxiety. How Mr. George Marston and others worked to get the Chinese couple safe from slavery and danger of death maybe. And we did!”
“That was pioneer excitement.”
“No doubt you heard it all wrong, as lies circulating would prove. Like now it is talked a great deal about how old is Casa Machado and other houses? And excuses for old houses? Some people brag sometimes that each house is oldest in California and had the important most aristocratic family.”
“I believe Casa Machado was built during the middle ‘thirties. That makes it old and interesting.”
“It is of course among the old ones but oldest it could not be. Casa Carrillo where golf is now played out of it, over there, where my family lived once-my mother thought so, and my grandmother as well thought so-was the oldest Old Town family home, of all. We will now speak only in Spanish and you will say after me the difficult syllables. Ca. Ja. La. Lla.“
To check these “historical” statements, see
(1) Files of Junipero Serra museum for biographical and anecdotal suggestions.
(2) W. E. Smythe, History of San Diego, Chap. 8, for a not perfectly unassailable account of the battle of San Pasqual and aftermath.
(3) H. H. Bancroft, History of California, V, 760 for notes on presidio “school” and Manual Vargas.
(4) Mary Gilman Marston, George White Marston, A Family Chronicle, I, 178: “Two Stories of Pioneer Days,” for accurate account of Chinese excitement.