By Winifred Davidson
More historical gossip of and in pioneer San Diego, entitled Broadcloth Pantaloons, this is a continuation of Mrs. Davidson’s sketch in the January 1958 issue of the Quarterly.
My new Spanish teacher, Mrs. Lucy Brown Wentworth, quickly opened her thin front door. “Buenos dias, as all and everyone used to say in Old Town where little English was heard spoken in my childhood. Your mister did not wish me a good today.”
“Please forgive him. He had to hurry.”
“Tuvo prisa. Pronounce after me.”
Visiting among the older homes and places of business in Old San Diego, I was trying to collect for the Historical Society authentic bits of local lore. Thursdays J.D. would drop me off on his way to open to the public the big gray doors of Junipero Serra Museum. At noon he would set out to try to find me at Lily Whaley’s or Susa Parsons’ or Don Luis Serrano’s, and return me to Point Loma. I lingered longest with Mrs. Wentworth, in spite of her prefacing nearly every remark with a protest against “talking the history with everybody.”
“You arrive late, as usual,” she said, opening the little Mantilla, Libro de Lectura No. 1, older than Old Town itself.
“But well practised,” said I. “Ja. Je. Ji. Jo. Ju. I improve? No?”
Her tiny Chihuahuan guardian interposed a yip.
“Down, Laddie! Well said, señora, but not of course in true snapped off syllables style of my mother who learned us the correct formal way as it had been heard in the Spanish Court.”
“Your mother learned from your grandmother? Who could not have been one Catalina? Or could she?”
“Catalina. Matalina. I do not recall clearly. I spoke respectfully of her as Abuela. My mother and her mother came with Grandfather. She was a tailoress natural born. That old lady they said without patterns who made the finest pants for officers and even Spanish-like tunics. Like this as my mother said.”
Lucy placed imaginary broadcloth on the bare sitting room boards, signifying by a wide gesture a wide spot on the dirt floor of a dark cell in the old San Diego presidial enclosure.
“Like this, I suppose. With quien sabes and a straight eye she could cut and sew by hand whole suits very handsome for soldiers and whoever.”
“By hand? It is hard to believe.”
“I suppose she had a pair of Spanish shears and one or two good steel needles and linen thread from Spain itself.”
So, in spite of determination to share her knowledge of the past with none but an editor or “book printer,” she created for me an unforgettable San Diego — a California — beginning. An October date in 1825. The arrival at the Presidio of those bright new Mexican overlords, Governor José Maria Echeandia and assistants, the young lieutenants Romualdo Pacheco and Agustin Zamorano, and their followers, military and civil, men, women and children. Among them Lucy’s grandfather, Ramon de Vilar.
“I think she said they came riding up the hill quick and fast. It was dusty on the road, more a trail than road. The governor an older man, my mother remembered, but fine looking and fancy dressed, very neat. And that Agustin! We knew his grandchildren the Zamoranos, living in the time of my childhood over near San Ysidro on the way to Tijuana. It seems he brought a little printing press to print hand bills on, here to San Diego?”
“I have read about it. The Zamorano press was preserved for a long time in working order. Up north somewhere.”
“To print little cards, and maybe short laws that the governor made up for San Diego that had never needed a law before. And he printed invitations to the first formal parties at the Presidio. But no Indian received one, however. Still, without pants or clothes whatever Indians would invite themselves to those stylish society parties as they had always done so.”
“Did your mother attend? I can almost see you there, all of you, all speaking only Spanish!”
“I was not yet born in the times of Echeandia. I had long to go before. But it’s like I remember. This iron memory they say I have. Abuela must have described to my mother who described to me. I can almost see that Romualdo so brave, and the trouble of his young heart in love. My grandfather was an officer in charge of prisoners brought here from Mexico and he dressed up as well as the best, to show Spanish San Diegans in that time that Mexico had begun to be the power in California.”
“Do you suppose there is any of that everlasting Spanish broadcloth lying around in some old trunk?”
“After more than a hundred years? It is true that good cloth lasted longer sometimes than those who wore it. A man had one good suit of black broadcloth that went into the grave with him. We will now begin again to speak only Spanish and I will ask the questions myself.”
But there was one last item. How time passed for those women and girls who came to live at San Diego Presidio when Mexico took over government. What about water to wash with?
“It was pioneer living. The air maybe was cleaner and the Indian women managed the washing. Spanish spoken women and girls and everybody had maybe a happy disposition, and contented themselves with practising fancy dance steps and the words of new songs that came from away off somewhere, like Boston maybe when a new ship came in … Now, after me, speak it first very slow, listening to yourself how you deliver this truly exquisite speech. In Spanish there is animation in the face and hands, not as in English the face pulled long.”
“I can’t help thinking of the hardships your mother and grandmother knew here.”
“Like my mother and even like my grandmother, as a child I used to be free to go into all the rooms and houses and places where
people slept and ate and listened to the stories. Even they could not speak it, that old Spanish, too fast for my ears. I even sat with Indian old women in their rancherias and learned what they seemed to think of the changes that were brought in to their old home. It seems it had formerly been very happy, that old California life.”
“But wild, no doubt, and few comforts?”
“To the old Indians, people like my grandmother and others, sleeping on the dirt floors, eating only one or two kinds of food, wearing the same dress, seemed rich.”
“Lucy … Teacher, do you know what San Diego family owned the first pressing iron? Whose broadcloth pants were pressed? Or did they stand in the round?”
“Later I will think about the planchas, flatirons. Do you know the Spanish word ligo?”
“Like meaning to purify from evil? Like the padres purified the new Casa de Bandini in 1829, wasn’t it?”
“Speak the word and all similar without seeming to swallow a cold frog, but also with air entering in a refined way.”
She closed that old comic, the Mantilla reader, and spoke a little of Indian abuses. Cruelty, she said, was an Old Town disgrace long after the modern city San Diego had become a good nice decent American community with three miles of pavement. “Naked Indians were forbidden to walk the daylight streets because now there was that high society . . .”
“No me diga!”
“Not even then had it passed from Old Town that hard way of punishing. If an Indian had a drink and wanted to play hell the constable tied him to that gun, El Jupiter, over there in the Plaza as you can see it today and gave him lashes with blood running down it.”
“I’ll never pass that gun again without remembering your dreadful news about it.”
An impatient honking at the dirt curb on Conde Street silenced us.
“Your mister is here,” said Lucy after a moment. “The Spanish was not too well spoken I am truly sorry to say. We will begin earlier next week. It is an old California custom to start the day early. It saves time.”
Time, in my days with Lucy and others in Old Town, was months that seemed like weeks, days like hours. All conversations came around to the births, marriages, and partings including deaths, importances for us today had they been better recorded.
J. D. asked politely about the historical garnering project.
“Mostly odds and ends, unassorted facts and historical fancies, interesting but unsubstantial.”
“Ask her about Indian times here. Serra Palm stands at the site of Indian Cosoy. Ask her about Cosoy.”
“It means Dry It. The river dried up there I suppose.”
To check “historical” statements, see
H. H. Bancroft, Hist. of Cal. II, 788. Biographical notes on Gov. J. M. Echeandia.
Alfred Robinson, Life in California. Description of exorcising ceremony in Casa de Bandini.
Junipero Serra Museum files: R. Pacheco, Zamorano press, Indian rancherias, El Jupiter gun, Serra Palm.