Mission Santa Cruz
August 30, 2017

Historical Reconciliation in Santa Cruz

By Daniela Werlin-Martínez

Warning: This post contains content, including graphic historical imagery and discussion of violence, which may be disturbing to some readers.

Living in picturesque Santa Cruz, we likely often detatch ourselves from our city’s bloody history of racism, displacement, and slavery. With fascism propagating around the country, it’s clear that American society has a hard time reckoning with history, and Santa Cruz is not immune. The recent surge of affluent Silicon Valley workers moving into Santa Cruz and pushing out People of Color and poorer communities is just a modern symptom of a centuries-old pattern of racism and displacement.

Understanding and acknowledging this history is vital in the struggle to defend the city’s future in the era of rapid growth and climate change.

The Indigenous Past: A Better Land Relationship

Before Europeans set foot on this land, what is now California was home to over a hundred different Native American communities who spoke different languages. People have lived on this land for at least 15,000 years, while the Spanish—whose language names our city—arrived less than 500 years ago. In Santa Cruz proper, we stand on Amah Mutsun land. Before colonization, people worked with the land and altered it in symbiosis with the rest of nature; despite this stewardship, Europeans saw the land as “untouched."

Growing up in Santa Cruz, most people are taught about the Ohlone people. However, “Ohlone” is wide-ranging term that refers to people of eight different language groups. The language spoken around modern city limits was a dialect known as Awaswas. Further south, where Mission San Juan Bautista is, the language spoken was called Mutsun. Today, the Amah Mutsun people consist of descendants from both areas. These descendants continue to live in a matriarchal society, with no hierarchy in regard to nature or species, casting aside the colonial notion of human exceptionalism. The Amah Mutsun believe that the Creator blessed them with this land and made them responsible for protecting it, as well as collecting and sharing its natural information. When the Spanish came, that job of the Amah Mutsun people became much harder.

We need to recognize the bodies that lie beneath us, the discrimination at our cultural core, and our history of determining who has the right to “ownership” of this land.

The First Colonizers

Santa Cruz is the home to the seventeenth Mission along El Camino Real. Father Junípero Serra, recently canonized as Saint Serra by Pope Francis, first established the California Missions in modern San Diego in 1769. On Aug. 28 of 1791, nearly 25 years later, Father Fermín Francisco de Lasuén raised a cross near the shores of what has become Main Beach, current home of the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk. This cross would mark the founding of Mission de la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz (Mission of Joy of Santa Cruz). Eventually, after the secularization of the mission, two earthquakes—one in 1840 and another in 1857—knocked the bell tower and the mission building down completely. What sits on mission grounds today is a reconstruction of the original site.

The goal of the Spanish missionaries was to turn people sin razón (‘without reason’) into laborers; they accomplished this by disrupting the previous order of Indigenous life. As the mission claimed more and more land for farming, people indigenous to the area were less able to hunt and gather for subsistence. When they settled here, Franciscans brought European plants and animals, invasive to the native environment, and introduced monocrop agriculture that destroyed much of the land’s biodiversity.

At the Santa Cruz Mission, the Spanish forced the Awaswas-speaking people into slavery. While the practice was technically outlawed in Spain by the time the mission existed, Indigenous people of what we now call “California” were forced to work for the Franciscan missionaries without compensation, and once they were baptised, they were tied to the mission for life. It is important to understand that in order to successfully transform the Natives into working hands, the Spaniards had to erase thousands of years of history, language, and cultural tradition. Of the dozens of differing Ohlone groups, today the only namesakes of the people who were here first belong to three unincorporated areas in Santa Cruz County: Aptos, Soquel, and Zayante. When Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1810, the Mexican government secularized all of California’s missions, and soon thereafter it granted the former mission land to retired soldiers and their families. Indigenous “Californians” were to continue working land they once inhabited, now “owned” by settler communities.

The Birth of a Nation

By the mid-19th century, the notion of “manifest destiny” was taking hold in the recently-formed United States. This philosophy claimed all the land from the Atlantic to the Pacific for an American government, often conflated with ideas of white superiority and European ‘civilization’ of uncharted territories and peoples. At the end of the Mexican-American war in 1848, the United States annexed California as a territory. Not long before the treaty was signed, Anglo American James W. Marshall struck gold in the California mountains. This discovery would bring over 80,000 settlers to California in 1849. The new influx of Americans hit the Indigenous population hard, causing further famine, disease, mistreatment, and ultimately, continued genocide.

In an email exchange, local historian Sandy Lydon described how the new population of Protestant Anglo-Americans forced Californios from their homes in Santa Cruz, across the river to Branciforte, which was, at the time, separate from Santa Cruz. These new immigrant settlers were often violent toward the former settlers, frequently lynching people accused of crimes. The blanket term Californio, when used today, usually refers to the “Mexicans” (Spanish and Indigenous) who spoke Spanish. While they were often wealthy landowners, some were still subject to Anglo persecution.

Santa Cruz Lynching

The racism and ostracization of this era is exemplified in the 1877 lynching of Francisco Arias and José Chamales. On the morning of May 3 of that year, the two men were found hanging from the Water Street Bridge—less than a half of a mile from Mission Santa Cruz. Folks took pictures and the Santa Cruz Sentinel wrote an article about the lynching. The men had been accused of killing Henry de Forrest, who had been working in Santa Cruz for many years, saving up to move his family to California with him. There was no trial, and Arias and Chamales were dragged out of jail, tied up, and brought to the Water Street Bridge by a lynch mob that had formed as soon as they were arrested. The attendees sold photos as well as pieces of rope to those who had missed the event.

The lynching regained notoriety in 2019 when high school student Eleanor Mendoza attempted to get the city of Santa Cruz to place a plaque of remembrance where it happened. The City Council has shown interest in the requested plaque. Such a gesture would one step toward reconciliation with a dark part of our history.

Above: Map of Santa Cruz Chinatowns, adapted from Chinese Gold: The Chinese in the Monterey Bay Region by local historian Sandy Lydon.

Santa Cruz’s Chinatowns

A growing Chinese immigrant population in the late 19th century would also find that only a certain population was allowed to prosper in Santa Cruz. Unbeknownst to many city residents and visitors, Santa Cruz has, over the years, been home to four Chinatowns. The expansion-driven city of Santa Cruz expelled the first (1860-1872), located on what we now call Pacific Avenue, then known as Willow Street and identified as the new center for commerce in the area. It’s a common tale that resonates today: rent went up and the working class immigrants, in this case the Chinese, had to leave. The second Chinatown was located on the block where the post office now stands. This was the strongest Chinatown, and in 1894, was destroyed by a fire. Local authorities never discovered the cause of the fire. Following this event, the Chinese community split. Some moved to the Birkenseer Chinatown near present-day San Lorenzo Park Plaza, home to Mobo Sushi, Trader Joe’s, and CVS Pharmacy. Others moved to the Blackburn Chinatown, just west of Depot Park and the Scott Kennedy Field. Both Chinatowns were named after people who claimed to own the land.

Within the City of Santa Cruz, most of the Chinese population worked in the homes of white landowners, or in industrial plants or agricultural fields, or owned laundromats or other small businesses. If one were to ask almost any Santa Cruz resident, they would say that immigrants are more than welcome here. But in the city of Santa Cruz, Chinese people make up just over three percent of the population. Meanwhile, about 70 miles north of us in San Francisco, Chinese people comprise more than 20 percent of the entire population.

The Chinese population was always a target of discrimination and persecution. In 1880, the city of Santa Cruz adopted the ordinance that “no person upon any sidewalk shall carry a basket or baskets, bag or bags, suspended from or attached to poles across or upon the shoulders,” clearly targeting the Chinese merchants who walked before Santa Cruz residences in the early morning hours. The ordinance also marked the beginning of a virulent anti-Chinese movement. Vigilantes looking to “thin” Santa Cruz of its immigrant population were responsible for driving many Chinese residents out of the city, with anti-Chinese groups meeting on a regular basis. Chinese businesses and workers were boycotted. In 1886, the Loma Prieta Lumber Company fired all of its Chinese employees due to mounting pressure from the anti-Chinese movement. That same year, Santa Cruz outlawed public laundries, driving even more of the population out. At the height of Santa Cruz’s persecution of the Chinese, the federal government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which halted Chinese immigration to the United States. Twenty years later, the combined persecution and political and economic discrimination had nearly eliminated Santa Cruz’s Chinese population. White and settler communities in Santa Cruz had successfully othered the Chinese people, refusing them land ownership or economic freedom, and that legacy of anti-Chinese sentiment still carries on, in some quarters, to this day.

Japanese in Monterey Bay

To fill the shoes of the kicked-out Chinese workers, a new population of Japanese immigrants came to the central coast of California in the late 1800s. The community had its own Japanese Association Hall where events were planned and meetings were held. From the beginning, in 1897, the Japanese population dominated the abalone industry. What seemed like a fear of Japanese competition drove the governing bodies of the Monterey Bay area to place tight restrictions on abalone fishing. The cause was said to be environmental preservation, but the Japanses divers had proved time and time again the care that they had in maintaining a balanced ecosystem. Throughout the 1920s, second generation Japanese-Americans, called Nisei, grew up in a segregated California. In Santa Cruz county, local officials wrote real estate deeds which contained language such as; “Property not to be sold, transferred, leased, rented or mortgaged to any other than [the] Caucasion race, except servants” or “no property transferred to other than Caucasians.”

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7 of 1941, the United States government forced Japanese-Americans out of their homes and into concentration camps throughout the country. There is no question that this relocation process had more to do with 20th century racism and xenophobia than national security. “The Japanese in the Monterey Bay Region had nothing to do with the attack on Pearl Harbor,” writes Lydon in his book The Japanese in the Monterey Bay Region, noting that no one of Japanese ancestry was ever charged during the panic. That being said, on April 27, 1942, the federal government rounded up 1,160 Japanese-Americans from Santa Cruz County and took them to the Salinas Temporary Detention Camp, where they would wait to be transferred to a different camp in Arizona. In the Salinas camp, the housing was overcrowded, flushing toilets didn’t exist, and privacy was practically unknown. By the war’s end, the Japanese-Americans who returned to their community found that others had taken all that they had left behind. Not only were their belongings and property gone, so were their jobs in the fishing industry.

African/Black Diaspora in Santa Cruz

African Americans have been present in Santa Cruz through every era of its history, but because of their small population, their stories can be harder to access than those of other marginalized populations. Santa Cruz, unlike some other parts of California, was not host to mass beatings, riots, or lynchings of Black communities. Even so, African American people have certainly experienced racism in Santa Cruz County. The historical lack of African/Black communities here, some historians argue, is born out of tangible economic and social prejudices.

African Americans first came into the region mainly as sailors or trappers during the 17th and 18th centuries, but Black families did not begin to settle in the area in larger numbers until the Gold Rush, and later, after the abolition of slavery in the mid 19th century. Some notable Black people to have lived in the region include activist and NAACP founding member Ida B. Wells, who stayed with family on River Street for a time, and former slave London Nelson, who donated his life earnings to “the children of Santa Cruz” upon his death. Nelson is buried in Evergreen Cemetery and is the namesake for the incorrectly-labeled Louden Nelson Community Center on Center Street. While racial integration happened quickly in the post-war period, it is crucial to note that anti-Blackness still thrives in Santa Cruz today, and an increased number of organizations and activists continue to tackle that problem.

Kkk Sc

The Rise of a New Klan

After the release of the film Birth of a Nation in the early 20th century, a new Ku Klux Klan (KKK) emerged around the country. In 1922, the Klan came to Santa Cruz and surrounding areas. It primarily targeted all those not considered the purest of white (Protestant Yankee) and those who had most recently immigrated to the United States. At the time, this mostly meant Roman Catholics. Because there were few Black or Jewish people in this area, the Klan focused its heat on Catholic and Japanese people. Santa Cruz already had a rampant anti-immigrant sentiment and the post World War I era KKK easily tapped into it.

Filipinos Come to Santa Cruz

While their history in this area is often overlooked, Filipinos established a presence in Santa Cruz starting in the 1920s and ‘30s. The Filipino population eventually grew to around 2,500 people, mostly responsible for maintaining the fertile coastal lands. After the United States government passed the 1924 Japanese Immigration Act, and later took the whole community of Japanese people from their homes, farmers used Filipino and Mexican bracero workers to fill the demand for labor. Many were able to make their homes in Santa Cruz, but this was more often difficult due to destructive anti-Filipino discrimination. The new arrivals were not allowed to stay in hotels or swim in local pools, and among other marginalizing factors, they were also blocked from living in many neighborhoods. White residents in Santa Cruz frequently used slurs toward Filipinos, refusing to acknowledge their humanity. Because they were not welcome anywhere else, Filipino immigrants were forced to live in dilapidated apartments—sometimes with a dozen people sharing one room. The disparity between housing rights for white folks and People of Color, especially those who grow our food and nurture our land, continue at harrowing rates to this day.

A Slow Reconciliation

As a city that claims a progressive perspective, it is crucial that Santa Cruz residents carry an understanding of the complex and often brutal history that scars this place. We stand on Amah Mutsun land. Though there is growing recognition of those who first stood here, embodied in the recent removal of the Mission Bell at the University of California Santa Cruz campus, there is also systemic and palpable repetition of the displacement and degradation first enacted upon those indigenous to this land. This is evident in the skyrocketing cost to live in Santa Cruz, paired with stagnant wages that victimize the poor —often disproportionately Indigenous folk and People of Color. Today, a large population of Mexican and Latin American immigrants often face the worst of the area’s oppressive legacy.

This blog cannot possibly provide a fully comprehensive history of the city of Santa Cruz, nor does it include the many stories of resilience sure to be found throughout the tenures of oppressed populations. It does, however, seek to provide a general timeline of displacement and a starting point toward understanding the land on which the Romero Institute sits—and our responsibilities as occupants. We need to recognize the bodies that lie beneath us, the discrimination at our cultural core, and our history of determining who has the right to “ownership” of this land. In order to pursue equity for the future, we must first acknowledge historical injustice in our past.

To learn more about this history, we recommend the following resources:

Local Historian Sandy Lydon's Website

Santa Cruz Public Library: California History section

Santa Cruz Public Library’s Tenure of African American History