By Fred Swegles

As milestones go, 2019 is a blockbuster—the 250th anniversary of the founding of San Diego in July 1769.

Modern-day California begins then and there.

Not only that, but 2019 is the 500th anniversary of Conquistador Hernán Cortés’ invasion of Mexico in 1519.

If it weren’t for Spain’s subjugation of Montezuma’s powerful Mexica empire:

  • Franciscan friar Junipero Serra couldn’t have been sent northward 250 years later, tasked with civilizing California.
  • San Juan Capistrano wouldn’t exist as we know it. No Serra, no Spanish mission in 1776.
  • San Clemente wouldn’t exist as a so-called “Spanish village by the sea.”
  • Seaman Richard Henry Dana, for whom the Dana Point Headland is named, would’ve had no reason to row ashore there to load hides from San Juan Capistrano ranches during the 1834-36 merchant voyage that Dana documented in a literary masterpiece, Two Years Before the Mast.
  • Capistrano’s world-famous swallows would live in obscurity.
  • San Clemente wouldn’t have a 65-year summer fiesta tradition known as La Cristianita, based on California’s first Christian baptism in 1769.
  • Might we all be speaking Russian? Part of Spain’s reason for establishing a chain of California missions and forts was to gain a foothold and prevent a possible Russian presence.

Much of what California became begins with Serra in 1769 and, in turn, with Cortés’ 1519 endeavor to enrich himself while imposing Spanish religion and culture on lands that became mainland Mexico.

Until Serra’s first permanent Spanish settlement at San Diego, a society of hunters/gatherers had peopled the lands to be known as California.

The Golden State has evolved into the world’s fifth-biggest economy, a worldwide cultural and technological trendsetter.

 

A monument in Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, honors Saint Junipero Serra as a “tireless apostle and missionary.” Photo: Fred Swegles
A monument in Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, honors Saint Junipero Serra as a “tireless apostle and missionary.” Photo: Fred Swegles

WHERE IT BEGAN

A July 16 event at San Diego’s Presidio Park will commemorate the day in 1769 when Serra established California’s first mission there. Thus began Serra’s stated quest—with all its inherent consequences—to save native Californians’ souls by bringing them Christianity.

Serra later relocated the original mission to a valley about seven miles inland, where it remains an active church and visitor attraction.

Today, the Mission San Diego de Alcala site includes a room where Serra may have resided when visiting San Diego, which was but one of nine missions he established between 1769 and his death in 1784.

Presidio Park exhibits foundational remains from early structures. A statue honors the native Kumeyaay people. Serra Museum colorfully retraces San Diego’s history.

 

PERSPECTIVES ABOUND

Some Californians on July 16 will perhaps raise a glass to toast California’s wine industry, which began with Serra’s introduction of grapes to provide wine to an eventual 21 missions.

Some Californians may mourn the fate of San Diego’s first people, the Kumeyaay, and of California’s other natives, who initially greeted Europeans with curiosity and technological wonder.

Many indigenous people would assimilate into Spanish ways, becoming mission Indians and Catholic converts to one degree or another. Others would run afoul of European ways or resist and be punished. Many would succumb to European diseases. By 1855, a native California population initially estimated at 310,000 was down to around 50,000, Serra biographer Steven Hackel wrote.

Over time, surviving natives were absorbed, often painfully, into the civilized idiosyncrasies of Spain, then Mexico, then the United States.

San Diego’s 5 p.m. July 16 ceremonies will honor the Kumeyaay and a multicultural history—250 years of San Diego achievements.

As noted at sandiego250.com, San Diego today “is the eighth-largest city in the nation known for its beautiful beaches, active lifestyle and diverse, vibrant communities,” including the Kumeyaay, who “continue to be part of the region’s cultural fabric.”

A new Kumeyaay flag will be displayed alongside U.S., Mexican and Spanish flags spanning San Diego’s history.

 

MEXICO REMEMBERS, TOO

In 2018, children in the Mexican seaport village of San Blas, Nayarit, sang, danced and chanted “Fray Junipero” at festivities marking the 250th anniversary of Serra’s shipboard departure from there to Baja California—March 12, 1768.

On March 28, 1769, as Hackel related, the missionary set out from Loreto, Baja California, on a laborious 700-mile overland journey by mule to San Diego, arriving on June 29.

The city of Tepic, Nayarit, in the mountains above San Blas, remembers Serra with a statue and a replica of a humble dwelling that had housed him there in 1767-68 while he formulated plans to lead Californians to salvation. Murals of Serra line the walls of a historic Tepic chapel dedicated in 1784, the year Serra died at California’s Carmel Mission.

One of Tepic’s most popular hotels today is the Hotel Fray Junipero Serra, known locally as The Fray.

Children in San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico, danced on March 12 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Fray Junipero Serra's departure from there for California. Photo: Fred Swegles
Children in San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico, danced on March 12 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Fray Junipero Serra’s departure from there for California. Photo: Fred Swegles

SAN JUAN’S HERITAGE

Some 1,200 miles northwest, Mission San Juan Capistrano is an active church and visitor attraction. Tourists learn about history and can enter Serra Chapel, where Father Serra, now Saint Serra, officiated. Mission exhibits describe Serra’s legacy, early mission life and San Juan’s first people.

A block away, the Blas Aguilar Adobe dates back to 1794. Exhibits there offer an Acjachemen Nation perspective on how European ways altered the lives of natives who had coexisted with their natural environment for thousands of years.

Two weeks before California’s 250th anniversary, Mission San Juan Capistrano will conduct a yearly ceremonial ringing of its four bells at noon on July 1, the Feast Day of Saint Serra. Every day, the mission rings a single bell, seven times, at 9 a.m.

Mission San Juan was the seventh of nine California missions started by Serra. Its 250th anniversary will come in 2026.

 

SAN CLEMENTE’S NICHE

In San Clemente, a historical marker on display at Casa Romantica Cultural Center and Gardens commemorates California’s first Christian baptism. Spanish friars baptized two native children on July 22, 1769, in Camp Pendleton’s Cristianitos Canyon, which has its own commemorative cross and historic marker.

From 1954-62 and 1976-88, San Clemente produced an annual outdoor pageant dramatizing the baptisms. Fiesta La Cristianita, featuring a parade and a carnival, was an annual tradition from 1954-88. The fiesta has since evolved into a day-long music festival on Avenida Del Mar, this year set for Aug. 11.

 

HISTORIC DANA POINT

Serra’s subtle footprint in Dana Point history is reflected by a Richard Henry Dana statue and a replica of his ship, the Pilgrim. Visitors and school groups at the Ocean Institute can board the Pilgrim to learn about Dana’s adventures and 1830s seafaring. The Pilgrim also participates in an annual Tall Ships Festival.

 

A MEXICO EPILOGUE

In Mexico, various communities are observing the 500th anniversary of Cortés’ 1519-1521 conquest. Academic discourses reflect upon the brutal clash of cultures.

The focus is on consequences, lessons learned and the ultimate result—today’s land of the Mestizo—a multicultural Mexico.

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