‘HISTORY IS NUANCED AND OUR STATUE IS NO EXCEPTION’
PORTOLA STATUE GIFTED IN COMMON BOND, NOT CONQUEST
Editor’s note: This is a letter from the Pacifica Historical Society board in response to a petition to remove the statue of Gaspar de Portola in Pacifica.)
Recently, communities throughout the United States have been examining whether some existing statues and monuments are not appropriate and therefore should be removed.
As part of this broad issue, the statue of Gaspar de Portolá (at the intersection of Highway 1 and Crespi Drive near the Pacifica Community Center) has become a focus of attention. A recent July 22nd Pacifica Tribune featured interviews with Danielle Gustavson and Jonathan Cordero about their requests to remove the Portolá statue including a petition.
The Pacifica Historical Society wants people in Pacifica to become more educated about the history of the statue itself, as well as learning about the impact of Spanish colonization on native populations.
History is often nuanced and complicated, and the background story about our statue is no exception. It involves significant state and international connections.
The Portolá statue was a gift from the government of Catalonia Spain, to the “people of California”. It was commissioned by the government of Catalonia as a work of art created by an internationally acclaimed Catalonian sculptor, Josep Subirachs. Portolá was from the Catalonia region in Spain and was an important figure in the history of California.
In the late 1980’s the president of Catalonia donated this statue as a symbol of the bond between Catalonia and California. In a letter dated Aug. 19,1988. to California Gov. George Deukmejian, the President of the Generalitat of Catalonia, Jordi Pujol wrote:
“…to reiterate once more, my desire [is] to give to this present all the symbology of our will to strengthen the links of collaboration between Catalonia and California and, still more so, after the resolutions adopted by both the Legislative Assemblies of Catalonia and California to create a Sister-Agreement between both States.”
When the statue was installed, it was intended as a symbol of the connection between Catalonia and California, not to honor or celebrate Spanish colonization.
The history of the native people is VERY important, but other major ethnicities are also important in our local and state history.
For example, the Mexican heritage in the Bay Area is a result of immigrants from Mexico that arrived in the Anza expedition 7 years after Portolá.
Both the Tribune article and the wording of the petition present information about how Spanish colonization and the California Mission System beginning in the late 18th century devastated the population of Native Americans living in coastal California. It is estimated that in 1834 the native population was only about 20% of what it had been at First Contact. At Mission Delores, where the Aramai Ohlone moved from our local area, the life expectancy after Baptism was an average of less than 5 years!
Captain Gaspar de Portolá had been given orders to establish a presidio and mission at Monterey Bay, which he eventually did. During his first expedition in 1769, however, he did not recognize this wide-open bay as his objective, but continued north for more than another 5 weeks.
Many members of the expedition were very sick from poor nutrition with symptoms of scurvy. Along the way, Indians welcomed them with food and assisted the Spanish explorers along the native trails.
During a few layover days while camping in San Pedro Valley, members of the expedition first sighted San Francisco Bay. Portolá and the expedition then returned to San Diego dispirited for failing to carry out his orders, but knowing he had seen what could become a major harbor.
A few years later Anza would arrive with a large group of settlers to establish a presidio and mission in San Francisco. The Spanish dominated California for more than 40 years, until the land was ceded to Mexico when it became independent from Spain.
The statue does represent a pivotal point in local, state, and national history. The Portolá expedition led to the settlement of San Francisco, which led to immigration of Americans, which led to the discovery gold, which led to statehood, and because we entered the Union as a free state, led to the eventual secession of the Southern states and the American Civil War.
It is unfortunate and ironic that new informational displays about the Ohlone people now being prepared are not already in place near the statue at the Community Center. In addition to this site, more inclusive educational exhibits are planned for other locations in Pacifica and around San Mateo County but have been delayed. Although the statue attracts the attention of visitors, the site does not yet capitalize on the opportunity for visitors to learn a more accurate history that includes those who first lived here.
(Submitted by the Board of Directors of the Pacifica Historical Society. The Bylaws (Article II) of the Pacifica Historical Society describe our Objectives and Functions to include the following: “The PHS is to act as the Official Historian for the City of Pacifica.” (Section 4) … “The PHS will share its historical information with members of the community….” (section 5).