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

Dressed in a smart blue suit and a stern gaze, Jesus Benayas strode to a podium at Cabrillo National Monument. Behind him was a breathtaking view of the San Diego skyline. Boats were bobbing in the bay below.

A few meters away, a 14-foot limestone statue of Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo towered over Benayas and about 40 other people from several tons.

They had gathered on a warm Friday afternoon to commemorate the 480th anniversary of the Cabrillo landings on behalf of the Spanish Crown near this site. He was the first European to set foot in what is now California.

Cabrillo National Park Supt. Andrea Compton began the event by announcing, “Our fellowship and many nations come together to celebrate,” and then called out to the dignitaries in attendance – politicians, consuls general, members of the US military. Everyone rose for the national anthems of the United States, Mexico, Portugal and Spain while the countries’ flags waved.

Benayas didn’t have time for diplomatic niceties.

A man holds a plaque at the back of a vehicle

From the trunk of his car at Cabrillo National Monument, Jesus Benayas displays a plaque that was removed from display this year near 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 dedicated to celebrating Spanish culture.

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

In 2015, a Canadian researcher discovered that Cabrillo had testified in a court case long ago that he was born in Spain. Most scholars now accept that Cabrillo was Spaniard.

Benayas began to speak, explaining in a calm, sharp tone the history of Cabrillo National Monument and the effort to validate its namesake’s lineage.

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

“He,” said Benayas, “found Nothing.”

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

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

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

The once cheerful mood of the crowd turned sour. legs twitched. lips pursed. The Spanish Consul General from Los Angeles folded his arms and then rubbed his forehead. The Portuguese Consul General from San Francisco tapped his phone.

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

There would be more applause for a speech by Clarence Thomas moderated by an abortion rights group than what Benayas received.

People stayed away from him afterwards, even if they whispered behind his back. Undeterred, he went to members of the Spanish Air Force and Army, who were dressed in their dress uniforms.

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

Park rangers placed it at the base of Cabrillo’s statue, just steps from a 1957 plaque calling Cabrillo a “Portuguese navigator” and another donated by the Portuguese Navy in 1988, which said the same thing.

But this June, Supt. Compton sent back the plaque from the Casa de España – a full 60 pounds of it – with a letter of thanks and an explanation that it was no longer necessary as a new exhibition mentioned that there was “evidence” of Cabrillo’s Spanish roots give.

Agaves now stand where the plaque of the Casa de España once stood. Yet the plaques claiming Cabrillo as Portuguese remain.

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

“Cabrillo” is one of a number of names from California’s Spanish era — Coronado, Serra, Pico, Portola — that have long dominated the landscape.

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

In 1913 President Wilson designated the Cabrillo National Monument. According to the National Park Service, about 684,000 people visited the park last year. In 2015, the Maritime Museum of San Diego 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 brief that the details are mostly forgotten. After landing in San Diego, Cabrillo’s expedition sailed up the California coast for four months to Point Reyes and then back to the Channel Islands, where he died of an injury.

When I stopped by for the anniversary celebration, tourists seem more interested in the panoramic views of the Pacific Ocean and hiking trails than the musty visitor center with ramshackle mannequins in faux colonial costumes and an empty movie theater showing short films about Cabrillo.

For Portuguese Americans in the United States, and particularly in California, Cabrillo remains a hero. The Portuguese government donated a statue of him which was erected at Point Loma in 1949 and replaced in 1988 with a weatherproof replica which still stands today.

Cabrillo Day banquets — September 28, the date of his landing in San Diego — are still held in the Central Valley, long the base of California’s Portuguese community.

“I was raised to believe he was Portuguese,” said Joanne Cabral. The 81-year-old is the daughter of a Portuguese immigrant who worked in San Diego’s fishing industry. She and a Portuguese-American actor who had long played Cabrillo in town laid a wreath in front of the statue after Benaya’s speech. “And that’s how it looks.”

“We will fight to the end,” said Mike McCoy, a Sacramento resident and 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 in fact Portuguese, but 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 have when they’re about to fuck you up.

“He found us,” he said.

But Cabral, McCoy, and their fellow Cabrillians — as Cabrillo fans call themselves — are fighting against the changing tides of history.

Patty Camacho is director of the Cabrillo Festival, which has been on hold since 2019 due to the pandemic. After Benayas’ fiery words, she offered some forgiving words and continued her charitable approach when I asked her how she was feeling.

“History develops. We’re learning,” she said. “We respect the past, we respect the present and we respect what is to come.”

“The evidence is the evidence,” said 49-year-old Pedro Romon Diaz. The secretary of the Casa de España stared at the Cabrillo statue, which bore the Portuguese version of the discoverer’s name – João Rodrigues Cabrilho – on its base and back. “They wrote the name in Portuguese, but the park is called Cabrillo. Funny, no?”

“People who believe in something for a very long time are reluctant to give up their belief,” 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 criticize the Portuguese, but I hope they accept that. There were things about the American Revolution that we thought were true, but we now know they are not.”

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

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

In a statement, a spokesman for the National Parks Service confirmed Cabrillo’s affidavit that he was born in Spain, but said, “We remain committed to complying with laws and guidelines regarding the permanent placement of memorials and plaques.”

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

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

“I don’t do it as a Spaniard. I’m doing this as an American,” Benayas said as he closed the trunk. A pin with the Spanish and American flags was emblazoned on his suit lapel. “We must learn our actual history, not the imaginary one.

“I didn’t even bother with the Portuguese plaques,” he added. “Now I do. You were stupid to give us back our plaque. A double slap in the face. Now I am upset.” Column: Cabrillo landed in California 480 years ago. People have fought over him ever since

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