Op-Ed: Some Reflections on the Disputed Courthouse Plaques - from a Student of Santa Barbara History
Updated: Jul 20
By Frank Ochoa
I have read Newsmakers’ coverage regarding the controversy related to the plaques at the courthouse placed there by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1927 and 1938.
The fact that the plaques did not become controversial until 2020 may be indicative of the lack of impact they have had on the public. I worked in the Courthouse for decades and don't recall ever observing anyone studying those plaques off to the side of the walkway. Some historical context: The plaques are racially insensitive and beyond that, clearly incorrect. The plaques commemorate 1) the assertion that the 1927 plaque was near the location where the "Gov. Gaspar de Portola his officers and soldiers and Fray Juan Crespi passed through Santa Barbara in August 1769, and; 2) the assertion that the 1938 plaque was near the location where "the first white women and children of the thirty families who marched through California with the colonization expedition of Juan Bautista de Anza" camped in May 1776 on their trek north. Those expeditions did occur. Under the flag of Spain, those groups were part of the escalating competition with Russia and England to determine which European power would obtain the first permanent foothold in what is now the coastal center of California. At the same time, our forefathers were fomenting rebellion against England in our Revolutionary conflict.
The de Anza party passed through Santa Barbara after the battle of Lexington and Concord and before the signing of our Declaration of Independence.
Of the 60 or so members of the Portola expedition approximately one-fourth were natives from northern Mexico. They were surely in porter, luggage carrier or translator roles, but the group was not all "white." Among the group were Jose Francisco Ortega and Pablo Antonio Cota, who 13 years later commanded the first contingent of Spanish soldiers to establish a Presidio in Santa Barbara.
By parenthetical note, they also are Sons of the American Revolution because Spain was at war with England at the same time we were in Revolution against the British. England's war against Spain while simultaneously being at war with its colonists greatly aided our war of Independence by creating a two-front war for the British. And the Spanish fought battles against the British in the continent of North America. They provided us with food supplies, munitions, uniforms and funding for our major battles. And what of the de Anza colonist expedition in 1776? Of the approximately 240 men, women and children on the journey, only two priests were born on the Spanish peninsula. A third priest was French.The rest were Criolo (born in the Americas), Mestizo (Mixed European and Native heritage), Native American, or Mulatto (mixed African and Native and/or European).
A U.S. National Park Service publication describes the motivation of those colonists: "The lives of these families stood to be greatly improved in Alta California, where they would
have the opportunity to own land and transcend the racial caste system of New Spain.
Made up of people of African, European, and indigenous descent, they would become the multiracial society that formed the cites that we know today."
To describe the de Anza settlers as "the first white women and children" to venture north
from Mexico is clearly wrong. But it was 1938. And 1927 when the DAR denoted de Portola's contingent as "white men". We might not have known better then.
At a time of overdue national reckoning about race, however, it would be a mistake to conflate the meaning of these plaques to the history and culture of Santa Barbara and California with the significance of, for example, statuary celebrating the Confederacy in a city of the American South. Stipulating the raw and painful reaction the word “white” may engender as used on the plaques, the history behind them is far more complex and nuanced than the fight to preserve slavery that is commemorated in monuments to the Confederacy.
The Santa Barbara County Courthouse is a National Historic landmark and a California State Historic Landmark. I would counsel that the context of rich and layered history of which these plaques represent an intriguing data point (not to mention the legal authority to change, remove, or modify them) be carefully researched before any action is taken, whether or not it is warranted.
A reexamination of our history should not require the destruction or banishment of its artifacts.
Attorney and arbitrator/mediator Frank Ochoa is a retired Superior Court Judge. He teaches Latino Civil Rights at UCSB.
Images: Frank Ochoa; Plaque commemorating the de Portola expedition; Plaque commemorating the de Anza expedition.