Column: Cabrillo landed in California 480 years ago. People have been fighting over him ever since

Wearing an elegant blue suit and a stern gaze, Jesus Benayas stepped onto the podium of the Cabrillo National Monument. Behind him was a breathtaking view of the San Diego skyline. Below, the boats floated in the bay.

A few meters away, a 14-foot multiton limestone statue of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo loomed over Benayas and about 40 other people.

They had gathered on a hot Friday afternoon to commemorate the 480th anniversary of Cabrillo’s landing, right here, on behalf of the Spanish crown. He became the first European to set foot in what is now California.

The Supt. of Cabrillo National Park Andrea Compton had started the event by proclaiming: “Our community and many nations come together to celebrate”, then shouting the dignitaries – politicians, consul general, members of the American military – present. Everyone stood up for the national anthems of the United States, Mexico, Portugal and Spain as the flags of the countries flew.

Benayas had no time for diplomatic subtleties.

A man holding a license plate on the back of a vehicle

From the trunk of his car at the Cabrillo National Monument, Jesus Benayas displays a plaque that was removed from its display this year next to a statue of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The retired electrical engineer is president of Casa de España, a local non-profit organization dedicated to celebrating Spanish culture.

His group had long been selling paella from a booth at the Cabrillo Festival, San Diego’s premier celebration of all things Cabrillo. The explorer was a point of pride for the Portuguese community of the city, which had welcomed him as one of their own, despite a centuries-old controversy over his legacy.

In 2015, a Canadian researcher found that in a lengthy lawsuit, Cabrillo had ascertained that he was born in Spain. Most scholars now accept that Cabrillo was Spanish.

Benayas began to speak, exposing the history of the Cabrillo National Monument and efforts to verify the ancestry of its namesake in a calm, pointed tone.

The 79-year-old, who moved to San Diego County from Spain when he was 18, didn’t stop and didn’t even raise his voice when jets and helicopters roared at him. He described how an American historian dug into Portuguese national archives in the 1950s to find concrete evidence that Cabrillo was born in that country.

“Hey,” Benayas said, “found it nothing. “

An American flag frames the statue of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo at the Cabrillo National Monument.

An American flag frames the statue of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo at the Cabrillo National Monument.

(Nelvin C. Cepeda / San Diego Union-Tribune)

The once cheerful mood of the crowd has soured. The legs twitched. Puckered lips. The Spanish consul general of Los Angeles crossed his arms, then rubbed his forehead. The Portuguese consul general of San Francisco intercepted his phone.

Benayas concluded by saying that Cabrillo National Monument and the National Park Service should “correct their historical errors”.

There would be more applause for a Clarence Thomas speech hosted by an abortion rights group than the one received by Benayas.

People stayed away from him afterwards, even though they whispered behind his back. Undaunted, he went out with the members of the Spanish Air Force and Army dressed in their uniforms.

In 2018, Casa de España spent around $ 1,500 to cast a bronze plaque indicating that Cabrillo was born in the Spanish province of Córdoba.

Park rangers placed him at the base of the Cabrillo statue, a few steps from a 1957 plaque that considered Cabrillo a “Portuguese navigator” and another donated by the Portuguese Navy in 1988 that claimed the same.

But this June, Supt. Compton sent back the Casa de España plaque – all 60 pounds – with a thank you note and an explanation that was no longer needed, as a new exhibit mentioned that there was “evidence” of Cabrillo’s Spanish roots.

There are now agave plants where the Casa de España plaque once stood. Yet the license plates claiming Cabrillo as Portuguese remain.

“If we want to talk about decades of lies, we can talk about it,” Benayas told me. “That’s the whole truth.”

“Cabrillo” belongs to a list of names from the Spanish era of California – Coronado, Serra, Pico, Portola – that have long dominated the landscape.

Hundreds of streets, highways, neighborhoods, schools, museums, beaches and parks bear the Cabrillo name. San Diego has marked its landing since at least the 1890s with festivals that have reenacted the feat many times over.

In 1913, President Wilson designated Cabrillo National Monument. About 684,000 people visited last year, according to the National Park Service. In 2015, the San Diego Maritime Museum unveiled a $ 6.2 million life-size replica of Cabrillo’s ship, the San Salvador.

But its history is so old, and its visit so short, that the details are mostly forgotten. After landing in San Diego, Cabrillo’s expedition spent four months traveling up the California coast to Point Reyes, then returning to the Channel Islands, where he died of an injury.

When I stopped for the anniversary celebration, tourists seemed more interested in the scenic Pacific views and hiking trails than the moldy visitor center with worn mannequins dressed in faux colonial-era costumes and an empty cinema showing short films about Cabrillo .

For the Portuguese Americans in the United States and particularly in California, Cabrillo remains a hero. The Portuguese government donated a statue of him that was installed in Point Loma in 1949, replacing it in 1988 with a weatherproof replica that stands today.

Cabrillo Day banquets – September 28, the date of his landing in San Diego – still take place in Central Valley, long the base of the Portuguese community of California.

“I grew up believing he was Portuguese,” said Joanne Cabral. The 81-year-old she is the daughter of a Portuguese immigrant who worked in the San Diego fishing industry. She and a Portuguese American actor who had long played Cabrillo in the city placed a wreath in front of the statue after Benayas’s speech. “And so it is.”

“We will fight to the end,” said Mike McCoy, a resident of Sacramento, president of the Cabrillo Civic Clubs of California, the state’s oldest Portuguese American group. He mumbled something about new evidence that would show Cabrillo was actually Portuguese, but he didn’t elaborate.

When I asked why it was so important to fight over a long-dead sailor, McCoy gave me the kind of smile uncles make when they’re about to disguise you.

“He found out about us,” he said.

But Cabral, McCoy and their fellow Cabrillians – as Cabrillo fans call themselves – are battling the shifting tides of history.

Patty Camacho is the head of the Cabrillo Festival, suspended from 2019 due to the pandemic. She offered some conciliatory words after Benayas’ fiery words and continued her charitable approach when I asked her how she felt.

“The story evolves. We learn, “she said.” We respect the past, we respect the present and we respect what is to come. “

“The evidence is the evidence,” said Pedro Romon Diaz, 49. The secretary of the Casa de España stared at the statue of Cabrillo, which at the base and back bore the Portuguese version of the explorer’s name – João Rodrigues Cabrilho. “They put the name in Portuguese, but the park is called Cabrillo. Funny, right? “

“People who believe in something for a long time are reluctant to give up their faith,” said Philip Hinshaw, an 87-year Navy veteran, treasurer of the Casa de España and a member of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. “I don’t want to be critical of the Portuguese, but I hope they accept. There were things about the American Revolution that we thought were true, but now we know they are not. “

As I was leaving, Benayas said he wanted to show me something.

Before the event, he had delivered a yellow folder. Among its contents: his complete remarks for the commemoration of that day, the minutes of a September meeting that the Casa de España held with Compton and its bosses at the National Park Service urging them to put the plaque and letters back that the group had sent Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego) and US Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland are asking for help in clearing any mention of Cabrillo as Portuguese from the national park.

In a statement, a National Parks Service spokesperson acknowledged Cabrillo’s sworn testimony that he was born in Spain, but said, “We remain committed to following the law and policy with respect to the permanent placement of memorial works and plaques.”

Benayas and I went to the parking lot, where he opened the trunk of his Nissan Murano. Inside, wedged in a box, was the plaque of the Casa de España.

The group refuses to install it at its Balboa Park headquarters or anywhere other than the Cabrillo National Monument.

“I don’t do it as a Spaniard. I’m doing it like an American, “Benayas said as he closed the trunk. A pin with the Spanish and American flags gleamed on the lapel of his suit.” We need to learn our real history, not our fictional one.

“I didn’t even care about the Portuguese license plates,” he added. “Now I do. They were fools who gave us back our license plate. A double slap in the face. announced. “