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A Legacy of Genocide: The San Salvador

What do you see when you look out across San Diego and see the San Salvador being reconstructed? Do you see the first wave of white settlers?
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What do you see when you look out across San Diego and see the San Salvador being reconstructed?

Do you see the first wave of wave upon wave of white settlers who systematically dispossessed California’s indigenous people of their lands?

Do you see the beginnings of a process that reduced the indigenous population of California from 250,000 in 1800 to less than 20,000 in the matter of a century?

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Oil painting of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. He was painted about 1,500 times.

Do you see the face of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo grinning maniacally back at you? Do you see the faces of him and his men joining up with Hernan Cortes in the ethnic cleansing of Mexico?

RELATED: Steve Newcomb's column, "The San Salvador Project: Ignoring Genocide"

Do you see Cabrillo and the men who Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the conquistador and chronicler of the Mexican conquest, wrote about when he famously stated, “We came here to serve God. And to get rich”?

Do you see the faces of miners who came here not to serve God, but simply to get rich? Do you see the flames in indigenous villages started by miners in acts where, as Robert F. Heizer described in The Destruction of California Indians, “It was not uncommon for small groups of villages to be attacked by immigrants…and virtually wiped out overnight”?

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Oil painting of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo. He was painted about 1,500 times.

Do you hear the clink of gold and feel the excitement of loot in the words of Board of Port Commissioners Chairman Scott Peters when he declares, “One mission of the Port is to activate the waterfront and this will bring millions to the waterfront”?

Do you select “a slice of San Diego’s heritage and history” that fits your agenda while ignoring the facts like Kevin Faulconer did with this reconstruction and that he’s doing with his statements about Barrio Logan?

Do you see the bloody swords of men who ruthlessly slaughtered 1,000 Aztec nobles participating in religious celebrations at the main temple in Tenochtitlan?

Do you hear the words of 16th century priest and historian Bernardino de Sahagun who described the scene in the temple, “The first Spaniards to start fighting suddenly attacked those who were playing the music for the singers and dancers. They chopped off their hands and their heads so that they fell down dead. Then all the other Spaniards began to cut off heads, arms, and legs and to disembowel the Indians…Those who reached the exits were slain by the Spaniards guarding them…Now that nearly all were fallen and dead, the Spaniards went searching for those who had hidden among the dead, killing all those they found alive”?

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Bernardino de Sahagún

Do you see the armor still dented by Aztec war clubs from the Siege of Tenochtitlan which left 240,000 Aztecs dead? Do you sense a bloodthirst not yet slated?

Or, do you see a group of mostly white San Diegans reconstructing a ship that was originally built by African and Native Guatemalan slave labor?

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Do you see, in the reconstruction of the San Salvador, a symbol of genocide?

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“The Conquest of Tenochtitlán” from the Conquest of México series. Unknown artists.


I am writing this article on February 12, 2014 on the dubious anniversary of the Acoma Massacre where in 1599 five hundred Acoma people were massacred for defending their home from the Spanish in New Mexico. Another five hundred were sentenced to a variety of punishments by the Spanish colonial government under the conquistador, Don Juan de Oñate, including slavery and the amputation of one foot.

And the people remember.

In 1998, before the 400th anniversary of the first Spanish settlement in the American West, a group of Indigenous people sawed the bronze foot off a statute of Oñate in Española, New Mexico. The group sent a snapshot of the foot and sent a message to media outlets saying, “We took the liberty of removing Oñate’s right foot on behalf of our brothers and sisters of Acoma Pueblo. We see no glory in celebrating Oñate’s fourth centennial, and we do not want our faces rubbed in it.”

RELATED: 5 More Monuments Guaranteed to Drive Natives Nuts

As a privileged white member of settler culture living on occupied Kumeyaay land (otherwise known as San Diego), as a student of history, and finally, as a human being, I’m deeply troubled by the reconstruction of the San Salvador. We should realize the terrible symbolism inherent in reconstructing one of the machines so essential to a legacy of genocide.

Bernal Díaz del Castillo

I understand that some see the San Salvador as a symbol of diversity based on the relatively friendly encounter between Cabrillo and the Kumeyaay in 1542. One friendly encounter, however, does not forgive a man or his legacy. One brief encounter cannot erase the memory of the Spanish mission system that sought to destroy indigenous culture. One brief encounter cannot erase the memory of the massacre sites that dot a map of California.

We must also not forget that, according to Iris Engstrand and Harry Kelsey, rumors of Spanish brutality from the Coronado expedition had reached the Kumeyaay before the arrival of Cabrillo. Friendliness is always easier, of course, when you have heard that your “new friends” may attempt to wipe out your village.

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Contemporary painting of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés.

We would not build a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest—the Confederate general and first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan—in Encanto just because at one time, Forrest was friendly with his slaves. We would not build a monument to Stephen W. Kearny—the general of occupying American forces in San Diego during the Mexican-American—in Barrio Logan just because he worked diplomatically with Californios.

Do you see how the San Salvador ignores a legacy of genocide?

Just like the indigenous people who amputated Oñate’s statue’s bronze foot, I see no glory in celebrating this legacy.

I recently moved to San Diego from Milwaukee, Wisconsin where I was a public defender. I am looking for life outside of law. My first passion is poetry and I am interested in the way the land speaks through the poet. If you can’t find me drinking too much coffee in Cafe Calabria, I’ll be on a rock somewhere in Joshua Tree.

This piece originally appeared on the San Diego Free Press website on February 14, 2014.