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Locals Trace Roots Back to Early Days in San Diego

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Aired 5/26/09

Mexico's legacy in San Diego can be seen everywhere - from street names to cuisine to the Chicano movement. We'll talk with San Diegans who can trace their family roots back to the earliest days of San Diego's European settlement.

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.
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Above: San Diego's DNA: Mexican-American Stories, a 30-minute documentary exploring the region's history through the stories and personal artifacts of seven remarkable San Diegans.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How far back can you trace your family's roots in San Diego? Personally, I moved here from the East coast and most of the people I know in San Diego have either come from someplace else or are first generation natives of San Diego.

So, when we talk about the old families of this region, we have to travel back into a past that not many of us are familiar with.

Tonight, KPBS television airs a documentary called San Diego's DNA, Mexican American history. It smrors the stories of Spanish land owners from the time when California was the part of the Mexico. We hear. Settlers here in San Diego. And trace the development of San Diego from a Spanish explorer's outpost to the great American city of today. Joining me to discuss San Diego's DNA are some of the people who contributed to the documentary. I'd like to welcome Iris Engstrand, professor of history at the University of San Diego. Good morning, Iris.

IRIS ENGSTRAND: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Abel Silvas descendent of the Machada family who lived there San Diego in the early 1800s, the family, is part of Old Town San Diego State Park. And welcome, Abel.

ABEL SILVAS: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Shelley Hayes Caron, owner of the, in Carlsbad, which has was once part of a vast Mexican land grand. And has been in her family ever since. That you for coming in.

SHELLEY HAYES CARON: Good morning, Maureen.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you. All the people, out there, listening, I want to ask them, how far can you trace your family's roots in San Diego? Wield like to hear your stories of the family members who lived here in the 17 or 1800s, the number to call to tell us about your family's history in San Diego 1-888-895-5727, that's 1-888-895-KPBS.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Iris, let me start with you. You're the historian here. When would you say the modern history of San Diego began? When was the start of the City of San Diego?

IRIS ENGSTRAND: It depends whether you start with the American city, which would have been after the Mexican war, essentially in 1850s, but the Pueblo of San Diego, the roots of the Pueblo are about 1821, prior to that the Spaniards came in 1769. But what we kind of think of as San Diego is probably, we call the early American period, but the important residents that we're talking about today lived in what became quickly known as Old Town on account of they started calling the place by the water, new town. And so the Pueblo of San Diego, within a very short time, became known as Old Town. And although during the Mexican period, it should not be called that, because it was the new Pueblo, and I would say, that's kind of transition period, where the City of San Diego begins.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I'm wondering, if you could take us back in time a little bit, to the first Europeans to arrive in San Diego. Juan Cabrillo, when did he come here and why did he come here?

IRIS ENGSTRAND: Well, well, it's Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. And he came in 1542.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: 1542?

IRIS ENGSTRAND: 1542. In fact, at the maritime museum, right this very moment as we speak, we're attempting to construct a replica of his ship. And he was sent by the Spanish government from actually at that time El Salvador. But really from new Spain or Mexico, to look for adequate ports, to look for gold, and then to look for a possible northwest passage. Of course, he found no gold or northwest passage, and although he did find a wonderful port here, that he named San Miguel, which has and become sgaiing. But unfortunately, he got into a little bit of trouble in, either fell, was pushed or had a skirmish with the Indians and broke his arm or his shoulder, or something, and gangrene set in and he died. So he was buried, on one of the offshore islands that we think is ranging between Catalina and San Miguel in January of 1543.

But then his group made it back to Mexico, and said, you know, there's not really too much there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What did he find beyond the port?

IRIS ENGSTRAND: Well, he found quite friendly Indians. He found that they exchanged gifts, that they were really quite, you know, hospitable. And they were pretty much amazed obviously, to see a Spanish style ship coming and some of the representations we have of him landing in his armor, I don't think he was really landing in his armor. It was in September of 1542, but, apparently, they made every attempt to maintain friendly relations.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So, we have to move up in time quite dramatically to start talking about the mission era, in San Diego.

When did the missionaries arrive?

IRIS ENGSTRAND: Well, I should mention this guy who comes in 1602 and does name it San Diego de Alcala. But then another long time passed in until 1769 when portal, as the military leader and father who Serra. As the Franciscan missionary came in July of 1769 and founded the mission, which they did name, San Diego de Alcala, after the port named by this guy.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And I wonder, what sparksd the arrival of the missionaries.

IRIS ENGSTRAND: Well, by this time, they decided there was really not a big economic value to San Diego, so they left it to the missionaries to convert the Indians to the Christian faith.

Which was a goal of the Spaniards. And at this time, the missionaries again were here on a friendly mission, and the air of conquest was really over by the end of the 16th century. So it was to convert the natives to the Catholic faith. Which of course had its disadvantages as well as advantages and unfortunately, there was some, you know, consequences, of dwet by disease and things like that. So, it was, what we'll call certainly a mixed blessing for the natives, the native Kumaya, who were here to welcome them, we'll say.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Some native Americans got sick and some native Americans were forcibly sort of converted. So it was as you you say a very mixed legacy there. Now, eventually the town that would become San Diego was built, and as you say, when it was built, it was nls call Old Town built that's what we call it today. Who lived there?

IRIS ENGSTRAND: The Presidio soldiers and they moved down from the Presidio which was on Presidio hill and the Serra museums, was built in 199 although some people confuse it with the mission. But the mission was founded actually right there on that hill, but was not a satisfactory location and was relocated into Mission Valley. But the soldiers trying to cultivate some land, obviously on a million, it's not too easy. So they moved down on to the flat area which is our Old Town today and a little bit into Mission Valley.

So for example, the Sylvia's family, the ma Chad das and my colleagues here that are on this program, will let you you know how these families, are the core, in fact, when I started studying California history, at if University of Southern California, my professor said, you know, if you really want to understand everyone that was in California at that time, stick to the Spanish and Mexican period. Because these families are core families who really, they descend from the Presidio soldiers and they're the ones that are, are today's Mexican American or Mexican legacy families that we still have with us.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And iris, just one general question before we talk about this representatives of this specific families we have with us today, what was life like for early European settlers in San Diego?

IRIS ENGSTRAND: Well, fortunately, Spain's geography is fairly similar to California geography. And they received large grants of land. I mean, really large. You know, four scare leagues, 17,000 acres.

And, so the European settlers raced cattle, and they planted wheat and barly and some of the crops they, they did teach the Indians some skills, blacksmithing and things like that. But cattle really ruled in California.

And, again, there was trade with Spain, sometimes there were smug lers who came from Great Britian and some other countries and we had trade with South America, the Bandini family for example, came from Peru. The hide dental low traders came. Richard Henry Dana. So there was a lot of international trade going on, at this very early period. A little bit with Hawaii. It was almost on the sea route to California. They would swing by Hawaii, pick up some more trade goods and come on in to San Diego.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We're getting a little preview of a KPBS television program that heirs tonight called San Diego's DNA, Mexican American history. Joining me to discuss that I've just been speaking with Iris Engstrong. She's professor of history. I want to get in the actual descendent of early settlers here in San Diego. We're also asking for your calls. If you are a member of a family who has a long history in San Diego, give us a call and tell us about it, 1-888-895-5727. 1-888-895-KPBS. And Abel Silva, descendent of the Silva Machada family. And you trace your families history back to Old Town, so tell us about Casa Machada vast in old too.

ABEL SILVAS: Actually, I trace back to the Ice Age, to at least 10,000 years minimum. 10,000 years because my family was the native Americans when the Spaniards arrived and married each other. I'm a mess stees so, I come from both sides. The adobe is the actual adobe that have built in the early 1820s, or late 20s, and the way I explain it to people. First we were native Americans. And then we became Spaniards, then we became Mexicans and then we became United States of Americans and we never moved from our house.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You stayed in one place that whole time. That's very good. Now, what was, was there any problem with inter marriage back in the early days when the Spanish just arrived and they were getting a foothold here in San Diego?

ABEL SILVAS: Actually, that was encouraged by the priests to show that the settlement was growing in wealth. There was some, a lot of problems with the, the local tribe's, as far as those inter relations, but you would find artifacts back in those days that showed bicultural regs, like an arrowhead. You would find one made of glass or porcelain. They found that at the family site. One of the adobes there. That shows European material in native American technology, which shows that connection.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Exactly right. Tell us a little bit more if you would about the Casa Machada Silvas home. Who founded it and who lived there?

ABEL SILVAS: Well, it was given to the soldier, Silvas forks foys hvs being in the military. The Spanish Mexican period, military, and he married Julianna Machada. There's a famous story about this house. It's called the Casa bandera, the house of the flag. And this is where Maria Silvas saw the United States Marines coming to San Diego to put up the U.S. flag and Maria grabbed a butcher knife and cut the rope and, grabbed the Mexican flag and hid it under her dress and casually walked to her house, this particular adobe and hid it in this house. That's why it became the house of the flag. As time went by, people were coming to the San Diego, and they didn't, for a short period of time they didn't have time to hunt or gather berries or whatever, so the family provided food for the people, which became the first commercial restaurant of San Diego.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's amazing. So people would come there to get, not necessarily prepared food, but, staples?

ABEL SILVAS: Absolutely.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's interesting. Let me move on if I may to Shelly haze core reason. Because Shelly, you live in your ancestors adobe, the ma reason adobe. It's one of the last in fact adobes in San Diego County. When was your home built?

SHELLEY HAYES CARON: Well, they applied for the land grants in 1839 and it was finished in '42. So we use the '42 date.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And tell us about the people on who lived there.

SHELLEY HAYES CARON: Well, the adobe was part of the Agua Hedionda Lagoon, a 13,311 acre Rancho. And they did range cattle, and there were orchards and vineyardists, and the family members were involved in the politics of really San Diego. So, they had adobes in Old Town and they had this Rancho. And the location of my adobe is in the Buena Vista Creek Valley, and it's part of a cultural corridor, native Americans occupied this land for thousands of years, prior to the mission owning it.

And this, the Buena Vista Creek here, was the dividing line between the San Diego mission and the San Luis Rey mission.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Tell us what your house looks like.

SHELLEY HAYES CARON: It, the original adobe is an L shaped. It's an unusual formation. And when my grandfather restored the house in 1947 he added on two winks, a utility area and a large sol low, which is a large family room. With, we have 5 fireplaces and no heat. Just by the fireplace. And, we have a tile roof. And they did, in that time period also, which was unusual, to have a tile roof, probably, getting the tiles from the missioners someplace when it was constructed.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wonder, is it a difficult house to live in, considering that it's so old? She will she will well, I think it's the house of perpetual repair. We always have to do upkeep. Adobes require lot of care, because when they added on the other part of the house, they used stabilized adobe. The house is completely constructed of adobe. And it's very cool in the summer. And it, once it's heated, it's warm in the winter.

But, it, it's, I've lived there most of my life, so I don't know anything different.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Preview of KPBS TV show that traces the development of San Diego from a Spanish explorer's outpost to the American city of today. I'd like to re introduce my guests. Iris Engstrom is professor. Shelley Hayes Caron. Is owner of the historic ma reason adobe in Carlsbad. And Abel Silvas is descendent. Who lived in San Diego since the early 1800s, the family adobe Casa Machada is Silvas is part of the Old Town San Diego State park and we are inviting your phone calls. If you'd like to ask a question about old time San Diego or if you'd like to tell us about your family's roots in San Diego, give us a call at 1-888-895-5727. That's 1-888-895-KPBS.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And let's take a phone call. We have Linda on the line, in Valley Center. Good morning, Linda.

LINDA: Good morning. I just would like, I'm calling mainly because I felt that, the professor actually minimized the impact on local native people, that it was not just bittersweet. I mean, it was totally devastating. And I know Abe, I actually know him and I've seen him perform many times. He might be able to address that. But I, I mean, the land was, I mean, literally stolen or taken from native people. And think that sort have been left out of this conversation, and I would just like you you all to maybe address that a little bit.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We'd be happy to, Linda. Thank you very much for the phone call. And, Iris, your response?

IRIS ENGSTRAND: Well, this is an ongoing controversy see, obviously, the native Americans, were the owners of the land and this is a period from, you know, the conquest of, the European Crusades all the way through here when the Spaniards assuming rightly or wrongly, that they had the right of of conquest, which we all challenge at the present time. There really should not have been such a concept. But they felt in their hearts, you'll say, the missionaries, especially, that they were doing something good. As I mentioned, it didn't turn out to be such.

And they felt that, there were the native Americans, that if they weren't, like their souls wrnlt saved they would end up not going to heaven. They thought they were doing a good thing. But obviously when you talk take someone else's land and even though the Spanish law was that they held the land in trust for the Indians and the missions were a temporary in institution, actually, in the laws only lasting ten years, they never decided that it was, the ten years were up, for some reason. The missionaries would insist that, you know, they need a little longer, but finally, the Mexican government really in the 1830s said okay, enough is enough. This land should be given back to the Indians.

But, then, all sorts of things happened, and there was a lot of, what we'll say, maneuverings by the Mexicans who were here at that point, saying, well, the Indians can have part of the land but we'll take the other part. And you might even just say, they were fleeced out of their land and then relegated to some really terrible conditions. So the whole result of the mission system was devastating to the Indians, the only way to look at it is what would have happened if they might have been, you know, settled by the English or French or Dutch or whoever. But the purp peen concept European concept was there's just a few of them and a lot of us, we'll just take it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Abel, I wonder how you resolve this dark histories for native Americans here in San Diego. With, the both sides of your heritage.

ABEL SILVAS: Well, it's not resolved. To this day, we're still fighting the Feds, we're still fighting the church. We just settled out of a lawsuit with mission San Juan Capistrano for them building a barbeque pit on top of our 34 hundred plus people that are buried there. I like to talk about three chronological reference points here in San Diego county. First in 1775, the mission uprising, where thousands of Kumaya, local tribe's attacked the mission. And that's not resolved as far as the Kumaya people and the mission of San Diego. Then you have the 1846, the battle of San Pasquel, which is an interesting time because this was where the California was and the native Americans fought for the land, in that time period which also brought other native Americans on the other side from the U.S. Side from kit Carson, including Sacagawea's son, Juan Batista who was a scout for them.

And the other one is 1851 Antonio guard tax re volt. This was interesting because it was during the United States period of California, and it was tax aition without representation. And that with the tree of grad lup pea gald go. Native Americans were supposed to keep their land and culture, which became the land claims of 18 5 2 that we're still fighting in today's courts. So it's unresolved and I wish I had the answer for all those.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: So all of this twists into sort of an inseparable coil of history, that we have to deal with, as modern day San Diego begans. And one of the things, that, I think Abe, if I can address this to you, that about cast sha Mack Silvas and in Old Town and so force forth. How was yourself histories recorded and passed down.

ABEL SILVAS: Well, it was roardd through the missionaries, they're the ones who Baptized it, they recorded our parents name, village names, where we came from. But those are in Spanish. So, today we're finding out the historians back then did not read Spanish, so there's a lot of information in Spanish that needs to be brought out. Today's historical sites, for instance, Presidio park is the oldest European site in the West coast of United States. I understand now that San Diego historical society has just closed the Serra museum so we're not getting visitors up there. Old Town state park and Old Town city, budget cuts is closing a lot of our museums. So we're losing a lot of informational places that will teach us this, and, bring those gaps together.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: We have a number of people who want to join our conversation. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727.

And Michelle is on the line from Spring Valley. Good morning, Michelle.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Are you there? How can we help you?

NEW SPEAKER: Well, my husband's family can can be traced back to Francisco, born in seen low a Mexico. And my question is, how do you figure out where they came from in Spain? Where would those records be? And, also, one of his relatives was married at the Presidio, he was a leather jacket soldier. And where would those records be? Marriage records?

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Good question, Michelle and I'm going to ask Iris, our historian.

IRIS ENGSTRAND: Well, first of all, you would try in Mexico in the a achieve yo Henry last son which is in Mexico City, which has all sorts of records. But then, actually, going to Spain, in the archives of the Indies, in Seville, has millions, literally millions of documents. And under the section called Guadalajara, which was our audience or sort of the court over California, has maintained its amazing, I've done research in Spain and Mexico, and as well as at the Bancroft library here in California and the Huntington library. There are literally thousands of documents and the Rancho ex speed yen taste that confirmed the land grants or didn't confirm them, have witnesses and testimonies by a lot of these families.

And some are translated but I think as Abel said, some of the translations are pretty difficult and they're not exactly accurate. But if you read Spanish, that's the best way to go. And then names like Sepulveda comes from a certain region in Spain and you can trace it back, dough minute Guses from cast teal or Cortez is from stream Dora. So you would have to, you could be able to find out just about where these people came from in Spain.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Shelly, I'm wondering, how has your family history been passed down? Were there journals or letters that you can trace back to the early 1800s? He will

SHELLEY HAYES CARON: Yes, we can go beyond that, we have mission records, we have a lot of primary source, because, the family members, migrate great, third great grandfather was the first mayor in San Diego.

And being politically involved, she had a lot of documentation and my great great grandfather, Judge Benjamin Hayes was a chronicler of history and archivist, and he turned over his collection to the Bancroft and it's on at the Berkeley library and he wrote other things like immigrant notes and those are things that are referred to even today, by historians and researchers. He really wrote a lot. So, I'm very fortunate, that things have been written, their oral interviews, with older members, and the family. And descendents that give us a window into history also.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And isn't there a family tradition in your family, that the character of sorrow was based on one of your ancestors?

SHELLEY HAYES CARON: Well, in Benjamin Hayes' writing they refer to sorrow. But it was a man by the name of Solomon Pico. And John sue Mack cullly who wrote that legend of Capistrano changed the name of the here re. But he used Benjamin's diaries for his story lines. And the actual Pico shot Benjamin haste through the head on the courthouse steps in Los Angeles so it was an assassination attempt that was roard by the newspaper. And, in the dye Rees.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: That's fascinating. Let me take a call, Cyril is in El Cajon. Good morning, Cyril.

CYRIL: Hi. My comment is on a much lighter note. My wife's side of her family are affiliated with a restaurant in the Logan Heights area of San Diego. And I thought about calling in and sharing this with you, because of comments about how communities sort of can be gathered around and find foods and restaurants are really important, and it's last mal. On Logan Avenue. And again it's very recent, compared to the extensive historical issues that you're dealing with today. But I just wanted to make that comment. It's a very popular area and it's very important to the community and then it just reflects the interest that people have, in how they affiliate with one or two key businesses, in small neighbor hoods like that. That's it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Cyril, for that. And there were head shakes around the table when you were mentioning that.

ABEL SILVAS: Good beans.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You know, speaking of tables, you have a table in your home, Shelly, don't you that's been there for quite sometime, and has some marks on the under side of it that are quite historic. Tell us about that.

SHELLEY HAYES CARON: Well, my great grandmother who married Chauncy Hayes. They had 14 children and she passed the time by smoking a pipe, and she would light her pipe by striking the match on the bottom of the marble table. So we do school tours to tell our family stories and the children get to look down beneath the table to see the match strikes.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Good morning, Brenda.

NEW SPEAKER: Good morning, I just finished a teaching a Spanish mission unit to my daughter's 4th grade class. That's really great that this is on today. I appreciate the acknowledgement that you're making of the conflicts between the California and the Catholic church and Indians. I think it's great you're addressing that. One of the things I think is interesting, in some of the curriculums that kids get taught, they don't mention California history and I'm wondering what you can suggest. It seems like when you visit the missions, there's a lot of disorganization between the different missions, and I'm just wondering what we can do as citizens to really keep California history in the for front, especially since California was being formed, at about the same time that the U.S. was being formed.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you, for that. It does seem sometimes that all American history is East coast history, doesn't it. Iris?

IRIS ENGSTRAND: Yes, in fact, even in the college, I will teach California history, and they'll maybe know two things, father Sara and John Sutter, but they know all about the pilgrims and Jamestown. And I think it's always been my goal to get more California history, even taught in the, on the East coast and maybe they could become aware of our different history.

But talking about the missions, each mission is under a separate kind of organization, some are parish churches, some are led by a particular order, Franciscans or another order. So each mission is more or less in charge of its own history. The center for archival research is at Santa Barbara. But it would be nice if we could get a more standard curriculum and portray the missions as a, kind of a controversial part of California history.

And I think, with this program and other programs like it, we'll finally kind of get to the truth.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I wonder very quickly in wrapping up, what you would like our listen are ares and viewers of this documentary tonight to take away from the stories of the early European settlers here in San Diego. Let me go to you Shelly first.

SHELLEY HAYES CARON: Well, I think preservation of our sites, of our native American sites, our cultural sites, in the valley where I live, we're fighting to save a sacred waterfall and a cultural corridor in the ba na Vista creek valley. And we are broad based to raise awareness, and to continue, a view, for children, of what the past is.

So there's not the chasm that they can see and result to this, and that's what is saving particular places is all about.

We're losing our culture. And have a deficit.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And Abel, you have the last word.

ABEL SILVAS: Mission Indians, we built all the missions, and think about this, like the musical chairs, seing gaition, and that's what mission Indian you are. And as far as looking for your genealogy, all the people are related here. So you you research one family and you're related to that family. That's my view.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I want to let everybody know, that it's on KPBS tonight. San Diego's DNA, Mexican American history. It's on at 9, on KPBS television. Thank you, so much. Iris egg stron and Shelly haste ka reason. And Abel Silvas. Thank you, for talking to us this morning. You're listening to These Days on KPBS.

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