The Kumeyaay Indians of northern Baja and Southern Alta California—in the area of San Diego Bay—first encountered Europeans on September 28, 1542. Most of the natives ran away, frightened (smart?), at the sight of the strange people and their boat. Those who remained intoned through signs that news had come to the coast from inland that other men like the Spaniards who landed by sea had already reached them. When Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s men remained onshore for fishing, within time the Kumeyaay began shooting arrows at the intruders.
In Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo’s diary, he writes that he landed on the California coast in the Santa Barbara Channel and met Pimungan Indians. A señora, chieftain of many pueblos in the Pimungan’s matriarchal culture, stayed aboard Cabrillo’s ship for three nights. Through signs, the Spaniards learned from her that in the land’s interior there were many more pueblos and much maize. The native woman had heard reports of other bearded and cloth-clathed men, likely from Hernando de Alarcón’s expedition up the Colorado River Delta. These “heathen” offered Cabrillo and his men their tamales, which the Spaniards called “a good food.” These same people, the Blessed Father Fray Junípero Serra, founder of California’s first Spanish Missions, would later call gentiles, lazy, uncivilized, to whom he brought God, measles, syphilis, guns, and coarse cloth. The Pimungans brought to Cabrillo fresh water, fish, and wood. In return the Spanish Captain gave to them clay beads.
Sixty years later, on November 11, 1602, Sebastian Vizcaíno sailed into what he would name San Diego Bay, for the feast of Saint Didacus was nigh. The men built a hut and the Carmelite friars sang mass. The Kumeyaay again paid a visit, geared for war. Vizcaíno reported encountering an old woman who approached, tears streaming her cheeks. Perhaps she foresaw the continued arrival of these pale men and their big ships, and the destruction of her culture. Perhaps she had been told of the white men who had come sixty years earlier. Maybe she had even been there, just a little girl, when Cabrillo offered his clay beads like a god.
In 1992 the United States Postal Service issued a twenty-nine cent stamp in honor of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.
A portion of California Highway One is called the Cabrillo Highway, and runs between Santa Cruz and Watsonville. A girl I had met at school in my sophomore year of college turned out to be from the Santa Cruz Mountains, near my hometown on the shores of the Monterey Bay, where the Spaniards had established their colonial capital, where today their settlements are the cities of Monterey and Santa Cruz, and I offered this girl a ride home for winter break. First we stopped at my family’s cabin in Squaw Valley, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where we curled together on the floor in front of the fireplace, watching South Park. I was too shy to do much more than kiss her. After a week back home, with her calling me, and me making mad dashes past the redwoods up Cabrillo Highway from Monterey to the Santa Cruz Mountains, I got her back at my parents’ home surrounded by oaks while the folks were out of town. There we stripped naked and touched each other the way naked people do. We could have been native Californians, and in a sense we were: we’d both been born there. One night afterwards, when I kissed her, she said, We should really stop. I said, What’s wrong? The fog was thick. She said, I’ve gotten used to kissing you, and I have a boyfriend, you know. This was, as they say, news to me. The house got too hot. When that boyfriend called, that very night, and she turned away from me, her ear to the phone, I snuck out of that sweaty house and rushed Cabrillo Highway all the way home at ninety plus. I haven’t been in the Santa Cruz Mountains since.
Jamie Iredell lives in Atlanta and teaches at Savannah College of Art and Design. He is the author of two books.