A Legacy of Genocide: the San Salvador

by on February 18, 2014 · 9 comments

in California, Culture, History, Ocean Beach, San Diego

422px-ROHM_D225_Noche_triste_aztecs_rise_against_the_conquistadorsBy Will Falk / San Diego Free Press

What do you see when you look out across San Diego and see the San Salvador being reconstructed?

Do you see the first wave of wave upon wave of white settlers who systematically dispossessed California’s indigenous people of their lands?

Do you see the beginnings of a process that reduced the indigenous population of California from 250,000 in 1800 to less than 20,000 in the matter of a century?

Do you see the face of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo grinning maniacally back at you? Do you see the faces of him and his men joining up with Hernan Cortes in the ethnic cleansing of Mexico?

Do you see Cabrillo and the men who Bernal Diaz del Castillo, the conquistador and chronicler of the Mexican conquest, wrote about when he famously stated, “We came here to serve God. And to get rich”?

Do you see the faces of miners who came here not to serve God, but simply to get rich? Do you see the flames in indigenous villages started by miners in acts where, as Robert F. Heizer described in The Destruction of the California Indians, “It was not uncommon for small groups of villages to be attacked by immigrants…and virtually wiped out overnight”?

Do you hear the clink of gold and feel the excitement of loot in the words of Board of Port Commissioners Chairman Scott Peters when he declares, “One mission of the Port is to activate the waterfront and this will bring millions to the waterfront”?

Do you select “a slice of San Diego’s heritage and history” that fits your agenda while ignoring the facts like Kevin Faulconer did with this reconstruction and that he’s doing with his statements about Barrio Logan?

Do you see the bloody swords of men who ruthlessly slaughtered 1000 Aztec nobles participating in religious celebrations at the main temple in Tenochtitlan?

Do you hear the words of 16th century priest and historian Bernardino de Sahagun who described the scene in the temple, “The first Spaniards to start fighting suddenly attacked those who were playing the music for the singers and dancers. They chopped off their hands and their heads so that they fell down dead. Then all the other Spaniards began to cut off heads, arms, and legs and to disembowel the Indians…Those who reached the exits were slain by the Spaniards guarding them…Now that nearly all were fallen and dead, the Spaniards went searching for those who had hidden among the dead, killing all those they found alive”?

Do you see the armor still dented by Aztec war clubs from the Siege of Tenochtitlan which left 240,000 Aztecs dead? Do you sense a bloodthirst not yet slated?

Or, do you see a group of mostly white San Diegans reconstructing a ship that was originally built by African and Native Guatemalan slave labor?

Do you see, in the reconstruction of the San Salvador, a symbol of genocide?


I am writing this article on February 12, 2014 on the dubious anniversary of the Acoma Massacre where in 1599 five hundred Acoma people were massacred for defending their home from the Spanish in New Mexico. Another five hundred were sentenced to a variety of punishments by the Spanish colonial government under the conquistador, Don Juan de Oñate, including slavery and the amputation of one foot.

And the people remember.

In 1998, before the 400th anniversary of the first Spanish settlement in the American West, a group of Indigenous people sawed the bronze foot off a statute of Oñate in Española, New Mexico. The group sent a snapshot of the foot and sent a message to media outlets saying, “We took the liberty of removing Oñate’s right foot on behalf of our brothers and sisters of Acoma Pueblo. We see no glory in celebrating Oñate’s fourth centennial, and we do not want our faces rubbed in it.”

As a privileged white member of settler culture living on occupied Kumeyaay land (otherwise known as San Diego), as a student of history, and finally, as a human being, I’m deeply troubled by the reconstruction of the San Salvador. We should realize the terrible symbolism inherent in reconstructing one of the machines so essential to a legacy of genocide.

I understand that some see the San Salvador as a symbol of diversity based on the relatively friendly encounter between Cabrillo and the Kumeyaay in 1542. One friendly encounter, however, does not forgive a man or his legacy. One brief encounter cannot erase the memory of the Spanish mission system that sought to destroy indigenous culture. One brief encounter cannot erase the memory of the massacre sites that dot a map of California.

We must also not forget that, according to Iris Engstrand and Harry Kelsey, rumors of Spanish brutality from the Coronado expedition had reached the Kumeyaay before the arrival of Cabrillo. Friendliness is always easier, of course, when you have heard that your “new friends” may attempt to wipe out your village.

We would not build a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest – the Confederate general and first Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan – in Encanto just because at one time, Forrest was friendly with his slaves. We would not build a monument to Stephen W. Kearny – the general of occupying American forces in San Diego during the Mexican-American – in Barrio Logan just because he worked diplomatically with Californios.

Do you see how the San Salvador ignores a legacy of genocide?

Just like the indigenous people who amputated Oñate’s statue’s bronze foot, I see no glory in celebrating this legacy.

I recently moved to San Diego from Milwaukee, WI where I was a public defender. I am looking for life outside of law. My first passion is poetry and I am interested in the way the land speaks through the poet. If you can’t find me drinking too much coffee in Cafe Calabria, I’ll be on a rock somewhere in Joshua Tree.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Corie February 19, 2014 at 11:12 am

Dear Will Falk,
Have you visited the construction site of the San Salvadore? Have you talked with the shipbuilders or the head of the Maritime Museum to get their perspectives on why this reconstruction is taking place?

History is history. Would you rather we forget that any sort of massacre and conquest ever happened? Or would you rather it be brought to the public eye so that a debate of how California and all of America was populated and can continue?

If you have not visited the construction site, I would highly recommend you do so. It is not a one-sided celebration of victory, but rather a dialogue — the telling of a story that changed the world.


gristmiller February 19, 2014 at 4:20 pm

Thank you!!


George Above the Cliffs February 19, 2014 at 7:29 pm

Dear Will:
Are you ignoring the massacres going on in Brazil? The native inhabitants of the Amazon are being wiped out by adventurers, illegal mining operations, illegal logging operations, drug operations, and the military. Shouldn’t we boycott Brazil? Do you drink Brazilian coffee? Shame. You are hashing over old history of which you know next to nothing and you are ignoring genocide going on today.


Will Falk February 19, 2014 at 9:25 pm

When indigenous peoples have had their lands stolen, their people slaughtered, and been confined onto concentration camps what kind of dialogue is possible?

George: You have no idea what kind of coffee I drink. And, you or I buying coffee one way or the other is not going to stop the genocide in Brazil any more than the anti-Nazi boycotts in Europe and America in the 1930s would have stopped Hitler.

Your analogy would only be comparable to the San Salvador if I was going into indigenous Brazilian lands and building a replica of the helicopters timber executives use to fly over Brazilian forests.

I’m not ignoring genocide anywhere. I’m calling it out in our back yard.


George Above the Cliffs February 20, 2014 at 6:15 pm

Oh, and Will are you equally condemning the native American tribes that attempted to exterminate their neighbors? The Chow, the Turtle, Sioux, Oneida, Apache, etc. all conquered and slaughtered nearby tribes. Warriors were honored among the tribes and the high priests that sacrificed hundreds of thousands were glorified. There’s a good reason many of the tribes retreated to cliff dwellings. Will you condemn any of the monuments to native American ancestry because of their past?


John February 20, 2014 at 3:46 pm

@Will – I think you can draw a connection between just about anything in modern US civilization and some form abuse, whether it is genocide, slavery, land snatching, foreign policy, etc. We are all a part of it to some degree (we all live here, right?).

I wholeheartedly agree that celebrating a ship that signifies the onslaught of a new world at the cost of the existing one without admitting to the entire ugly history is wrong. Nothing can change the past, and nothing can right the wrong.

But education, tribute, and respect are the best things I can think of to meet in the middle with the San Salvador. Possibly start a petition to place historically accurate placards onsite to explain. Or maybe you can get somebody like Shepard Fairey to create a campaign to raise awareness?

Morals, policies, laws, and civilization have progressed since the days of colonialism, albeit maybe not to the level that some of us expect. But now, thankfully, we frequently condemn institutions and actions that, unfortunately and mostly in the past built the modern world.


Dredd February 24, 2014 at 10:59 am

A sad state of affairs that can happen anywhere, given the same ingredients that Will Falk exposes in this piece.


gristmiller February 24, 2014 at 3:50 pm

Education, tribute and respect…well put!


OB Patriot February 28, 2014 at 10:45 pm

The Indians lost and the Europeans won. Get over it! Nice job using the KKK, genocide and Manifest Destiny to denigrate Kevin Falconer. Real classy!


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