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Monday, March 19, 2012

March 19, 2012: Old Town State Historic Park

[This week, I’ll be blogging about some of the many interesting sites and spaces of public memory and community in San Diego. This is the first in the series.]

The historic re-creation that both reflects a divided history yet also captures and exemplifies a shared city.

In many ways, San Diego serves as an embodiment of the forgotten history of Mexican American homelands and dispossessions that I chronicled in this post. Founded in the mid-18th century by Father Junipero Serra as the site of California’s first Mission, the city served as a center for the state’s growing Hispanic American population for nearly a century; Father Serra’s dual goals of conquest and conversion make clear that the history of Spanish arrival and settlement in the Americas, and particularly their relationship to the area’s native peoples (as documented so thoroughly by Bartolomé de las Casas), is no less conflicted than that of the English in Massachusetts (for example). But it was in any case a long and rich history, and one found nowhere more fully than in the San Diego blocks, homes, and community surrounding that first mission.

Then came the Mexican American War, and more exactly the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended it; as I wrote in that prior post, despite the treaty’s attempts to guarantee certain land ownership for Mexican Americans, it generally instead served as one factor among many that led to increasing dispossession of the Mexican American landowners in favor of Anglo arrivals, squatters, gold rushers, and settlers. The dates on virtually every historic house and site in San Diego’s Old Town State Historic Park—a historic re-creation that spans six pedestrian-only blocks full of interesting and evocative spaces and details—tell the story: houses and establishments that belonged to Mexican American families and proprietors in the 1840s frequently had Anglo inhabitants and names by the 1850s. The Silvas-McCoy House is a particularly clear example: prior to 1851 the home belonged to Maria Eugenia Silvas, whose family had been in the region since the 1770s; by a decade later it was owned by James McCoy, an Irish immigrant who became the new town’s sheriff and state senator.

Yet the truth is that the transition (like all historical shifts) was rarely as clear-cut or as absolute as that, and in fact the details of many of the Old Town houses and sites reveal Mexican American residents and establishments remaining present and active into at least the late 19th century, and thus an area and community that was significantly multi-cultural (and –lingual) for many decades. Or, to be more exact, an area that is, like San Diego itself, still significantly multi-cultural and –lingual, both in the people who live in and around Old Town, and in the Historic Park’s own identity and public memory. Walking through there a week ago, I was deeply impressed by both the many different cultures and communities re-created (including not only Mexican and Anglo but also Chinese and Native American) and the consistent attempt to reflect their interconnections and interdependences. The history of San Diego cannot be told or understood without all those presences, individually but even more collectively, and Old Town State Historic Park fully illustrates that central fact.

Next San Diego site tomorrow,


3/19 Memory Day nominee: William Jennings Bryan, who came down on the wrong side of the law and of history in the Scopes “Monkey” trial, but whose most significant legacy is a long career of speeches, political campaigns, public service, and advocacy on behalf of the American people (hence his nickname “The Great Commoner”).

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