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The Root of the Problem?

By Bruce Coons

July 16, 2006, San Diego's 237th Birthday passes uncelebrated and unnoticed. California's oldest community, the "Plymouth Rock of the West" Coast does nothing to celebrate its founding. Is San Diego's significant history indeed past?

Around the country the anniversary date of a city's founding is usually cause for celebration. Until recent years this was also the case in San Diego. In the past our city's birthday was a major event. Beginning with the "Trek to the Cross," a procession that would start in Old Town and was led by figures portraying Gasper de Portola, Father Serra and other reenactors of historical figures. The procession would end at Presidio Park where there were reconstructed native habitations, Native American, Spanish and Mexican dancers, musicians and reenactors, bell ringing, cannon and musket firing. Historical flags waved proudly, and there were many exhibits showing the contributions various groups and cultures have made to San Diego. There was good food and inspirational speeches by dignitaries highlighting San Diego's prominent place in the history of our country.

This year there was no celebration, no notice by the media, no proclamations by city leaders, no notice whatsoever.

However, just to the North of San Diego in the younger city of Los Angeles on September 1, 2006, more than 1,000 people took a nearly nine-mile walking journey from San Gabriel Mission to El Pueblo Historical Monument, birthplace of the city, in downtown Los Angeles to celebrate the 1781 founding of the City and walk in the "footsteps of the founders." Many more joined in the celebration at the Plaza.

"Happy Birthday!" Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa shouted to the crowd.

The walk was a reenactment of a trip that was undertaken 225 years ago, following the footsteps of 44 Mexican nationals (four soldiers and 11 families), known as Los Pobladores, or town settlers. Those settlers trekked from San Gabriel Mission to Los Angeles in September 1781 and founded a tiny community near the Los Angeles River that today is one of the world's largest cities. Felipe de Neve, the first governor of the Californias, sent the settlers from Mexico to help cement Spain's claim to the region.

The walk gave people a chance to commemorate their far-flung heritage in a diverse city where it often seems as if everyone is from somewhere else. "We should have more things like this so people who live here can get to know each other better," one Asian walker said. The event's founder, whose ancestors weren't from Los Angeles but came to America on the Mayflower, was enthused that the 25-year-old walk has broadened its appeal.

Do San Diegans not have the need to celebrate our birthday, to hold similar events, or do we believe we know each other well enough? Do we believe that our history is only relegated to the past and has no bearing on the present? Maybe we think San Diego's ability to effect history is also in the past. Is it a lack of pride, worn away from years of mismanagement, and a pronounced lack of vision that San Diego has demonstrated in recent years? Is it because the lessons that can be learned from San Diego's past have been and are consistently ignored?

What might happen if we celebrated the founding of our city and revived our traditions? What if we studied the gifts and used the knowledge that those who came before us gave, what if we were to explore and discover once again our roots, embrace our city's culture, preserve our historic resources, preserve our environment? If we were to do this, then and only then, would we be in a position to build a future for San Diego, one that is uniquely San Diegan in nature. We could build a San Diego that could deservedly take its rightful place, its birthright, among the great cities in the history of the world.

Until then San Diego's fame and unique promise may remain just that, history.

2006 - Volume 37, Issue 3

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