Is Gaspar de Portola an historical figure who should be included in California history? Is he a heroic figure who should be honored? Portola and the expedition he led certainly were important in shaping what is now California, but are Portola’s contributions worthy of honoring in statuary and of placing him on a pedestal? Residents of San Mateo County and Pacifica answered that question prior to the 1988 placement of the statue of Portola, and some continue to invest in the historical narrative that legitimates his honoring.
Prior to 1988 the County of San Mateo and the City of Pacifica chose to make the “discovery” of the San Francisco Bay by Gaspar de Portola a significant part of its heritage. At the time, the real implications of discovery and its relationship to conquest were concealed in the fantasy heritage of California crafted by mostly White scholars, local historians, and boosters to serve their interests. Over time the identity of San Mateo County and Pacifica became bound up with the discovery as evidenced by its relationship with Portola’s home town in Spain. In 1970 members of the San Mateo County Historical Society and the Pacifica Tribune visited the birthplace of Portola.
The conventional narrative of discovery, however, ignored the disastrous consequences of conquest. The removal of Native peoples from their ancestral homelands by the Franciscan missionaries and Spanish military paved the way for the development of the pueblos and ranchos that defined Spanish California. Excluded from the discovery myth and from the heritage of Pacifica was any critical interrogation of the act of discovery or its relationship to the larger process of colonization.
Discovery is not the innocent act of seeing something for the first time. In the Spanish colonial context discovery was part of the process of the presumed right of Christian Europeans to take possession of lands from so-called pagan and savage peoples. Discovery is inseparable from conquest.
Other omissions in earlier historical accounts should raise questions about the bias in and motivation for the content of the narratives. The Portola Expedition’s purported “success” in establishing an overland route for the future colonization of California depended greatly upon assistance from Native peoples. The expedition followed Native trails, used Native guides, benefitted from Native foods, and expedition members survived because of Native peoples’ care for the ill. Few if any of the historical articles in the San Mateo Times about Portola even mention Native peoples in any meaningful way.
Not that I personally care for statues, but where is the statue that acknowledges the Native peoples who likely saved the lives of expedition members? Where is the monument of the original peoples who cared for this land for thousands of years? These absences are telling of the biases of the original storytellers who, in their privileged position, determined who gets to be included and what gets to be valued.
The historical narrative that legitimates the elevation of Gaspar de Portola to a place of honor in Pacifica’s heritage conspicuously omits Native contributions to local history and, more importantly, neglects to account for the impact of Spanish colonization of Native peoples. This accounting of history resonates with California’s fantasy heritage that portrays the California missions as communes where sacrificial missionaries worked in harmony with Natives who gratefully accepted Christianity and European culture. Portola was not simply an explorer—he was a conqueror of Indigenous peoples.
If, however, the “discovery” of the San Francisco Bay was critical to the development of California, then we must recall that the California we now know was made possible by the removal of Native peoples from their ancestral homelands to the missions where they and their culture were nearly eradicated. There’s nothing to honor here.
The historically biased and conventional narrative that supported the heroification of Portola would likely not be sufficient today to elevate Portola to a position of honor. At least, I would hope not. San Mateo County’s recent rewording of the “discovery” site on Sweeney Ridge to “first recorded European sighting” begins to acknowledge the bias in conventional accounts. If we would not honor Portola today, then why would we want to continue to do so in light of what we now know. Monuments should be erected on the basis of a fair and just narrative and should express the aspirations of the community—the narrative that legitimated the Portola statue was not fair and just, nor does it symbolize the Pacifica we aspire to be today.
Please remove the Portola statue from the pedestal and place it in a context in which Portola is portrayed as an historical figure, not as a hero.
(Jonathan Cordero is the founder and chairperson of the Association of Ramaytush Ohlone and is a Professor of Sociology at California Lutheran University. He is also a historian and one of the living descendants of Pacifica’s only original inhabitants, the Aramai.)