Portuguese navigator and conquistador Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo led the first European exploration of the Pacific coast of what is today the United States. He sailed into U.S. history September 28, 1542 when he entered San Diego Bay and claimed it for the Spanish crown.
Mexico also takes great pride in Cabrillo’s achievements. Ensenada celebrates his discovery of Ensenada Bay (Bahia de Todos Santos) on September 17, 1542, 11 days earlier.
Although Cabrillo served the Spanish crown all his life, it is widely accepted that he was born in Portugal.
In 1939, the government of Portugal commissioned Lisbon sculptor Alvaro de Bree to carve a 14 foot tall, heroic 7-ton statue of Cabrillo as a gift to California for the 1939-40 Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco. It arrived too late for inclusion, and the then governor of California gifted the statue to Oakland, with its sizeable Portuguese population.
However, defying the governor’s decree, the statue was requisitioned, some would say “kidnapped” or “stolen” by politicians and businessmen from San Diego forcefully led by city developer and state senator Ed Fletcher. They asserted that the Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma, established in 1913 by President Woodrow Wilson, was where the Statue rightfully belonged.
With the coming of WWII, and restrictions on public access to Point Loma, Cabrillo’s imposing statue was instead installed on the grounds of the Naval Training Center. After the war the statue was finally moved to the Cabrillo National Monument in 1949.
And so for over 65 years a 14,000-pound pale sandstone carving of Cabrillo has been gazing out from his pedestal over San Diego Bay and the Pacific. But unbeknownst to most visitors, it hasn’t always been the same statue. Weathered and worn by visitation, the original gift from Portugal was warehoused and replaced by a sturdier sandstone replica in 1988.
Eventually, other proud city businessmen and politicians made representations for the moving of the statue once again… this time to Ensenada. And largely due to Nicolas Saad, owner of the San Nicolas Hotel, and president of Ensenada’s Cabrillo Festival Committee, the U.S. Department of the Interior granted a 20-year loan of the original statue to the city of Ensenada that today envelops the bay that Cabrillo discovered on September 17, 1542.
The repaired, stabilized, and more weather-resistant statue was unveiled in Ensenada in 2013, where it can now be seen in the beautiful and relaxing gardens of the former Hotel Riviera del Pacifico near the cruise ship dock.
The strikingly white and well-manicured edifice of the Riviera, inspired by Hearst Castle, once a casino and hangout for the Hollywood and sporting elite, now the thriving cultural and event heart of Ensenada, is an easy place to visit. There is abundant free parking all around. The buildings and gardens are a fascinating testimony to Baja California history with numerous plaques, monuments and statutes to its forerunners, shapers and heroes.
Inside, there are tranquil coffee shops and bars, and an excellent historical museum with a fine library, book store, and special exhibits. When I was last there in April, there was an array of photographs of recent rock art finds from Baja California.
A visit to the Riviera is a worthwhile experience anytime. But if you’re in the vicinity of the Riviera, September 17, I suspect there will be quite a celebration around the statue of Cabrillo there in its magnificent new location.
Graham is the author of four books on Baja California including Nearer My Dog to Thee which describes a four-month sojourn in the Sierra San Pedro Mártir with two adopted street dogs.
Details on all Graham’s books can be found on his website: www.grahammackintosh.com