by Richard L. Carrico

The Journal of San Diego History
San Diego History Center Quarterly
Summer 2019, Volume 65, Number 2

In thinking about commemoration of the Spanish settlement of what is now San Diego two hundred and fifty years ago I am reminded of the Buddhist parable regarding an elephant and the description of the beast offered up by several blind men. Because each of the blind men touches a different part of the elephant (trunk, side, ear) each describes what he believes to be true (snake, wall, fan). In their subjective reality, and without a more complete picture, they are all correct yet none of them approach the truth—at least not the whole truth. In some versions of the parable the blind men fall upon each other in hopes of persuading the others of their intellectual folly.

In our case the elephant in the room is The Commemoration and the blind men are…well, they are us. In other words, commemorations are complex, multi-faceted creatures for which there may or may not be a basis for absolute truth and in which there is certainly ambiguity. In a given commemoration we see—or feel might be a better word—what we know (or more correctly, what we believe) to be true. The question at hand for all commemorations is whether one is grasping the leg, or the trunk, or perhaps the tail.

Commemoration should not be confused with celebration, although some commemorations may indeed contain celebrations. The vast spectrum of commemorations worldwide includes those of the Armenian Genocide, Tiananmen Square, the Jewish Holocaust, and the Vietnam War. Certainly, the annual commemoration of the Armenian Genocide is not a celebration but rather a time to remember the horrors of the event and the survival of the Armenian people. The various events and commemorations associated with the Jewish Holocaust and the end of the Vietnam War are similarly imbued with honoring the victims but also with marking strides towards a better sense of humanity. Abraham Lincoln accurately conveyed what a commemoration can accomplish: “The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Commemoration of the Spanish settlement of San Diego can and should be a time to acknowledge multiple cultures and nations—an opportunity for the better angels to alight. Within the larger context of a commemoration it is possible to celebrate our diversity—a true diversity, not one used to sell an automobile or a political candidate. The concept of diversity, which is too often a buzz word, is strongly rooted and actualized in San Diego in our people, our languages, and our cultures.

When the first colonists arrived here from Mexico and Baja California, they themselves were already a mixture of ethnicities from Spain, Mexico, Baja California, and even Cuba, often intermixed with indigenous people from a variety of tribes. Diversity is apparent in the indigenous people of San Diego County who spoke four different languages comprised of several dialects. While at first glance quite similar, the Kumeyaay (for whom I shall use the term Ipai/Tipai), Luiseño, Cahuilla, and Cupeño people were unique within their own cultures. This uniqueness stems from their ancient cultural origins, their languages, and a place on the landscape that has developed over thousands of years of residence.

A strong voice within commemoration should sing out the persistence of the indigenous people and the fact that wherever we are in San Diego County we are on their traditional lands. We use native words for places on that land and look to the same skies that they knew so well. In other regions of the United States entire tribes and languages have disappeared or remain only a faint shadow on the land. In San Diego, that is far from the case. The Ipai, Tipai, Luiseño, Cahuilla, and Cupeño people have not only persisted—many groups have prospered, and in spite of adverse conditions, which indeed began 250 years ago, the various tribes have become a rich part of our cultural tapestry.
For example, our landscape is dotted with indigenous place names such as Guatay, Jamul, Pala, and even Matlahuay (“holes in the land”) which has been ill-translated into “La Jolla.” We drive the Kumeyaay Highway when we travel east from our beautiful coast to the Cuyamaca Mountains atop an ancient native trail. When we attend a powwow or tribal gathering the air is filled with the sweet aroma of white sage and Bird Songs just as it would have been thousands of years ago. This continuance of tribal ritual and rite allows us all, if we wish to, to travel back in time.

Although not always situated on their traditional village or residential sites, the nineteen reservations in San Diego County are the most of any county in the United States. The very presence of San Diego’s indigenous people within a portion of their homeland is a testament not to the success or failure of either Spanish colonization or the policies of the Americans who followed, but to native people themselves. How should the story of the clash between European and native cultures be portrayed, and what is the enduring legacy that should be told?

I personally and professionally prefer that the story and the legacy be one of persistence and power, not of victimization. Victimization is a heavy yoke that should be borne carefully and always with a vivid vision of throwing off that burden. Is it more productive to say that a given people have been victimized or to proclaim that those same people persevered and persisted? Better to wallow in what was or to proudly create what will be? This is not to say that the indigenous people, or at least many of them, did not suffer greatly at the hands of European colonization. Nor is it to deny that fibers of that colonization still run through the very makeup of current laws and culture. Commemoration, however, offers an opportunity to continue the aspirations of the indigenous Ancestors who wanted to be seen as what they were—as equals, as masters of their own destiny.

There is, justifiably, much being made of teaching the “truth” or the “real” history of the region. Certainly, the fourth grade curriculum could greatly benefit from a more critical examination of the mission period and beyond. Local museums and cultural centers can provide visuals and narratives that are more inclusive and that tell a deeper, richer story of our collective past. Caution, however, must be applied to yanking the historical pendulum too far one way or the other in hope of redressing erroneous past narratives.

It is not beneficial or intellectually honest to replace existing colonial half-truths and myths with unsubstantiated indigenous narratives and myths. For example, sadly there were rapes of native women in San Diego in the mission era. That fact stands on its own. That the women were assaulted by Catholic priests is highly unlikely—the perpetrators were Spanish soldiers; we even know the names of three of the rapists. Let those particular truths ring out if one wishes to do so and make those vile acts part of the commemorative story but do not conflate the acts of some soldiers with those of any priest.

The very fact that the sestercentennial commemoration has, in some instances, led to interactions between indigenous people and their organizations, descendants of Spanish settlers, historians, and anthropologists reflects what some would call the decolonization of historical narrative. Plainly said, decolonization as it is used in North America in relation to indigenous people means to critically reexamine historical narratives and assumptions about European colonization and post-colonial settlement. The new installations and displays at the Serra Museum reflect an honest attempt to provide a more accurate, and therefore “decolonized,” portrayal of the history of the San Diego River and its people. Certainly attitudes towards listening to the voices of indigenous people and incorporating their story as persons with agency rather than as “others” has made great strides since the bicentennial in 1969.

There is a tendency in decolonizing California history to lump all of the indigenous people together and all of the Spanish missions together. This false aggregation leads to an incomplete understanding of both the indigenous and non-indigenous cultures, their leaders, and the historical outcomes. For example, the effects of missionization and colonization on the native people of San Diego vary vastly from those at Mission San Luis Rey, or Sonoma, or La Purísima. One facet of what should be commemorated is the acknowledgement of what is meant and what it means to be an indigenous California person in the context of a specific geographic region. Such specificity provides a deeper and richer history of the people.

Another element of decolonizing history is to re-read historical narratives in cultural context and to better understand what was actually being reported. When the Spaniards labeled the local Ipai/Tipai as liars and as deceitful persons, rather than only seeing slander in their mistaken perception, perhaps we should acknowledge that indigenous people strategically, and with agency, misled and deceived the Spanish intruders. Perhaps viewing Tipai raiders’ seizure of Spanish cloth and other items as the appropriation of European goods from visitors who had not fulfilled cultural norms of trade and barter is more accurate than labelling the Tipai as “thieves.” The sacking of Mission San Diego in 1775 offers plenty of space for an indigenous and colonial story to be told—both sides can and should be given agency.

Further, if they wish, both sides can commemorate the 1775 attack in their own ways. The Tipai specifically might mark the act of sending warriors from eighteen villages to sack the mission and rid the land of Father Luis Jayme. Meanwhile, descendants of Spanish colonists might pay tribute to those Spaniards who weathered the attack and rebuilt the mission. Both are certainly valid narratives, and both provide agency to the storyteller.

Illustration by contemporary artist Gene Locklear of Tipai Kumeyaay attacking Father Jayme at Mission San Diego, November 1775.

On a more general scale, commemoration can serve to acknowledge and celebrate the various Ipai/Tipai patriots and resistance leaders who fought for their traditional lands. Men like Naguassjo of Kosaii (Cosoy) and Tabac of Pa’mu who died in the Presidio prison, Francisco and Carlos, leaders of the 1775 sacking of Mission San Diego, and Nazario who poisoned Panto, a priest who had mistreated him. Yet, perhaps we should also applaud those indigenous persons who, following their own destinies and in pursuit of agency, love, or religious conversion, sought to accommodate the colonists. Persons such as Sinusin, a fifteen-year-old Tipai young woman from Apusquel, a village near Chula Vista. Sinusin married a Spanish soldier and lived much of her life at the San Diego Presidio, giving birth to what would become the next generation of San Diego’s mixed-race population. When her first husband died, she married another soldier, this one a man from Cuba with African ancestry, further mixing the gene pool. Many years later her grandchildren lived in what is now Old Town when it became an American community.

When admiring our distinctly mission-style architecture and landmarks, perhaps we can also pay homage to the native people who did the physical labor to build those enduring monuments. Native sweat and blood went into building the San Diego Presidio, the various renditions of Mission San Diego, Mission San Luis Rey, the short-lived Derby Dike, the Mission Dam in Mission Trails Regional Park, and even the venerable Victorian Hotel del Coronado. In the back country and at several places open to the public, ancient native art can be found on rock faces. Celebrate that art and the indigenous artists who mixed the pigments and made the sometime mysterious paintings hundreds of years before Spaniards set foot in San Diego.

For certain celebrate San Diego’s vibrant wine industry that began at Mission San Diego in the late 1770s but toast the Ipai/Tipai planters, pruners, pickers, and stompers who supplied the labor in the mission vineyards. One of San Diego’s first exports to a thirsty viceroy in Mexico City was a barrel of wine that undoubtedly owed its manufacture to indigenous hands. In the post-colonial era immigrants from Spain, Italy, and France toiled in their San Diego County vineyards alongside indigenous people from Escondido, Jamul, Ramona, Vista, and Warner Springs.

We are a big enough and mature enough community that virtually every ethnic and cultural group can find a place for itself at the knotted and weathered Commemorative Table. It is a table that has a seat for all of the languages that can be heard whispering across our land and for each and every nation—indigenous or European—that has claimed that land. Conversations held and songs sung at the table can, and should, tell of hardship and heartache or of birth and death (of people and of institutions), of rebellion and resistance, and of failure and fortitude. Where all of these songs and stories with their varied heroes and villains intersect is who we are today, what we are today, and what we will be tomorrow. It would be wonderful if decades from now at some other commemoration those who follow in our sometimes unsteady footsteps remark that back in the year 2019 the better angels paid us a visit.