San Diego's Oldest . . . Print

20160831(San Diego Reader August 31, 2016)


The thing about the dead that haunts us, in addition to having lost them, is that they are here, in the ground, buried or scattered, bones or ash. Their “remains” are marked, heralded, and sensed, and they are never out of our presence. “To be human,” Robert Pogue Harrison writes, “means above all to bury.” Elephants haunt the places where elephants die. Mammologists have found that the animals weep and nervously pace over their kind. As do we. In San Diego, we have a couple of huge tracts where mourners congregate—the city’s graveyard, Mount Hope Cemetery, with 76,000 internments, and Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery where more than 90,000, “who served the U.S. honorably in war and peace,” have been laid, beginning in 1846, and overlook the azure crescent of San Diego Bay.

Our oldest cemetery is what Juaneño Abel Silvas, a descendant of the Mission Indians, calls the “oldest European graveyard on the West Coast,” located at Presidio Hill, a “post-contact” site. Silvas knows the names of some 250 people—burials of natives, mulattos, mulattas, soldiers, Spaniards, mestizos, Californios, and priests; few were Anglo-Saxon pioneers—in the graveyard next to the original chapel. Complicating history has been the removal of some of these bones and their reburial in the Mission Courtyard of the Mission San Diego de Alcalá.

There, not long ago, a stone plaque, which still appears on Google images, read: “Memorial to Indians California’s First Cemetery Mission San Diego.” This marker, according to Janet Bartel, a volunteer historian at the mission’s Monsignor Halter Library and Research Center, was wrong and has been removed from the property. Just east of the courtyard is another site, Bartel says, “reserved for American Indians,” and honors the Diegueno people and the neophytes. The latter were native converts to Catholicism who died and were buried in consecrated ground after the 1775 revolt; the bones of a couple army soldiers were identified there as well, in a 1989 dig. Unsaved native people would have been interred elsewhere, according to church practice.

Indigenous people of the region, of whom the Kumeyaay are the most likely descendants, say their habitation here is 12,000 years and counting. In the building lust of the last two centuries, thousands of “pre-contact” native gravesites have been disturbed. Buried or cremated, the sites are unmarked. But tribal members know where the ancient ones lie. If bones are unearthed, they are left alone or reburied in a place where tribes revere the spot, not with a plaque but with a park or a tree, in some cases marking their “post-contact” disruption.

The burial site is sacred because the dead were ceremonially interred with prayers and music, at times with possessions. To intrude is to interrupt their spiritual ease—the peace of death and the abiding memory of their descendants—into which they were laid. In our county, the oldest dead are everywhere, beneath the concrete or dirt your feet are resting on.


The Bacharach-David classic ballad got it right: “A house is not home.” A house is the materials: a shack or a shed, made of stone or adobe, a mud-daubed lean-to or an ‘Ewaa, the Kumeyaay hut made of willow branches. The oldest adobe house, still extant, dates from the Pueblo of San Diego (Old Town), called Casa de Carrillo, built “about the year 1810.” Or was it built in 1817 as Save Our Heritage contends? Or 1821 as the California Historical Landmark No. 74 attests? A website and two plaques at the site—now a golf shop for the tiny nine-hole course west of the plaza—give these three competing dates.

Narratively true is the cross-ethnic romance, the spiciest lore of the oldest house. Comandante Francisco Maria Ruiz, a Spaniard, built this adobe next to an orchard of pear, pomegranate, and olive trees, some thirty-five in all, down the hill from the Presidio. Ruiz sold the house to a fellow soldier, Joaquin Carrillo, whose wife, Maria Ygnacia Lopez, had thirteen children, twelve surviving to adulthood. The Casa, “a center of social life and romance in the early Spanish days,” became the glue of the Pueblo of San Diego, its first neighborhood.

Ruiz’s teenage daughter, Josefa, fell for the New England sea captain and trader, Henry Delano Fitch. Master Fitch ran the Mexican brigs, Maria and Leonor, up and down the west coast. The first American settler in San Diego, he became a Mexican citizen and was baptized a Catholic—hands played to win the fifteen-year-old Josefa. Her uncle and another man, the governor of Baja California, however, forbade marriage talk: the uncle hated Fitch and the governor loved Josefa. And both were denied. Henry and Josefa eloped in 1829 and sailed to Chile on the brig, Vulture, honeymooning as far away as possible.

When the couple returned a year later with a child, Josefa’s father, Joaquin, was livid: he had the pair arrested and jailed. Once Josefa fell on her knees and repented to her father, he forgave the pair and had a grand ball in their honor. Still, they had to undergo “an ecclesiastical trial . . . to determine the validity of their marriage.” Eventually, the marriage was validated, though Fitch had to pay an ecclesiastical fine: a 50-pound bell for a Los Angeles church. His later memoir contained one of the bitterest paybacks in San Diego history: “All those busybodies who had had too much to say about my marriage being unlawful may go to Hell and fuck spiders and if you hear any of them speak any more about it please damn their eyes on my account.”

For a time Fitch kept the only store in Old Town, selling hides, tallow, and fur. Ambitious and gruff to the max, he copped a second act, becoming San Diego’s first attorney. He was the last person buried at the Presidio, unearthed in an archeological dig, and quickly covered back up.

Of Casa de Carrillo, Save Our Heritage Organization, our preservationist watchdog, says that “this venerable 1817 house” is “shamefully being used as a clubhouse for the pitch-and-putt golf course in Old Town. Its woodwork is infested with termites and its fragile adobe walls are deteriorating from improper repairs.” Holding the roof on are mud-and-straw pan tiles, perhaps salvaged from the Presidio after its demolition. Save Our Heritage also charges that the Carrillo home is “indifferently maintained” by the City. Send money: the City has none to spend on renovation.


Again, I’ll cite the indigenous: their villages go back 600 generations. Indeed, one estimate says that when Junipero Serra arrived in 1769 there were 310,000 people in Alta California, speaking some 100 languages. Of course, those stick-and-mud communities don’t exist anymore. Yet their interests—raising children, tending animals, cooking food, making music and crafts—continue in the descendants. Native Peoples have had to demand they be placed at the head of San Diego’s settlements. This is their homeland and the Spanish conquest, Christianity in tow, still has not eradicated their sovereignty. The county still remains the home to twelve Kumeyaay bands, “federally-recognized” sovereign nations.

What most San Diegans don’t realize (me included) is that those who lived in the first official Pueblo (Old Town) were not ethnically pure. They were of mixed race—Californios or Spanish-Indian—and mixed customs. (I’m reminded by multiple historians that Spanish galleons didn’t bring women along below deck; they took native women as their imperial right.) Post-conquest, the Pueblo was a cow pasture, dotted by a few ranches and roads. Cows, the Spanish currency, were valuable for their hides, eventually becoming the “California banknote.”

The oldest community, still residentially active, is the tourist piñata of Old Town, since 1968, a California State Historical Park, which over-leans on its Mexicanness. Abel Silvas’ family, the Machado y Silvas, had a home, built in the early 1840s, in the Pueblo, still standing. “My family lived in that house,” he tells me. “First we were Native Americans, then we became Spaniards, then we became Mexicans, then we became Americans—and we never moved from that house.”

The early inhabitants were ranchers and retired soldiers—and their broods. In the 1820s, families were bulging; it was not uncommon for a young mother to endure fifteen pregnancies. Their names are local legend: Silvas, Serrano, Aguilar, Lopez, Valdez, Alipas, and Machado. (Silvas’ family home, whose name at Old Town today is Casa Machado Y Stewart, has recently been reconstructed with an extensive vegetable garden, reminiscent of those raised by mid-1800 settlers.) Though the community grew with a constant influx of freed slaves, sailors, traders, hunters, merchants, gold miners, land speculators, and the illicit of every stripe, only the most stable families erected the ring of adobe homes that still surround the Old Town plaza.

Circa 1850, the community had grown to nearly 800 residents, so says a census, which counted taxpayers and left off the Kumeyaay and other indentured servants. In a town of forty brown houses and two whitewashed ones, there was one horse-mill and no industries of civilization; everything was imported except what homemakers made—quilts, tallow, furniture, clothing, and so on. For fun, residents would take a captured grizzly bear, which remained plentiful up on the mesas, and rope it to a pronged steer: the two would fight to the death, as the tour guide notes, “such was their version of entertainment.”

Old Town lost its commercial mojo in 1867 to Alonzo Horton’s dream: “I could not sleep at night for thinking about San Diego, and at 2 in the morning, I got up and looked on a map to see where it was, and then went back to bed satisfied. In the morning, I said to my wife, ‘I am going to sell my goods and go to San Diego and build a city.’” He did, creating New Town, a few miles south where the city, nestled by the bay, still thrives, once a naval haven, now a craft beer mecca.


To commune, a neighborhood also needs sacred places. Curiously, Old Town had no church for its inhabitants where soldier, sailor, merchant, and their families would share wedding or funeral. There was a chapel in the walled garrison on Presidio Hill, and Alcalá, six miles up the valley, had a sanctuary. But these buildings were taken over by troops (Spanish, Mexican, American) needing to bivouac or else were burned by natives, enraged by the conquest.

Old Town’s first parish church became a reality in 1858 when Don Jose Aguirre, part-owner of the land-granted Rancho El Tejon in Tehachapi, bought the home of Old Town settler, John Brown. Brown, of Hartford, Connecticut, had arrived in the Pueblo after the U.S.-Mexican War ended in 1848. He wanted to be a cowboy but, alas, married a Spanish woman, had five children, and nestled them into a two-story adobe while he made a less glamorous living renting farmland around San Luis Rey Mission and raising cattle and sheep alongside melons and squash.

A succession of builder priests shaped the long, high-ceiling building into a church by removing the second-story floor and opening the space within. There, they placed a two-sided confessional (for high-demand absolutions), a dozen rows of stiffly carved pews, wall-mounted tin candlestick sconces beneath drawings of the Stations of the Cross, and an altar of finely sanded wood, part of it painted to mimic a marble finish. Above the altar was a painting, “The Last Judgment.” In it, a crucified Christ hovers above the soon-to-be-sorted, naughty-or-nice multitude of souls. On the altar was a tabernacle: open the door and there, a gold-leaf-touched Lamb of God and sacramental designs glowed.

Save Our Heritage archivist Bruce Coons writes that the original artwork which adorned this chapel “was from the Presidio Chapel and the Mission San Diego de Alcalá and represents the earliest, most important and most beautiful collection that existed in California’s mission system.”

Though the city bought this church and property in 1937 and dismantled and reassembled the walls a couple yards back from the newly paved street—good streets mean more tourists—Coons and company are seeking funds to restore the church, in particular, its statue of the Immaculate Conception of the Most Blessed Virgin. This “Patroness of the City and Port of San Diego” is among the most innocent of Marys: she is robed in gold—her hair luxuriously long, her unworn hands fastened in prayer, and her gaze one of cherished surrender.


When I was in music school, studying composition, we had to take counterpoint—write two melodies that move against each other but also harmonize. A fellow student griped about the text, Gradus ad Parnassum, and its punishing exercises. Written in 1725 by Johann Fux, he found the treatise ancient, stale, useless. “If Fux was good enough for Mozart,” the teacher said, “he’s good enough for you.”

I labored, never getting the hang of counterpoint. But it put me in mind of why classics survive. Take San Diego’s oldest restaurant, Pekin Café, also known as Chop Suey, an eatery purposely named after a dish: “Where does one get good chop suey around here?” Twas the urge in 1931, so Leo Fong, rumbling down Highway 1 from Los Angeles, opened this North Park gem. Drive by at night and the neon letters blaze all red-yellow lantern-hot.

Known for their (old-style thrown-together) chop suey and their (new lightly breaded, real oranges) orange chicken, Pekin cabled three generations together: Leo (a centenarian when he died) and wife, daughters (two still waitress) and son (who married a woman raised in Mexico) whose three daughters hustle up to-go orders and staff the till. Stephanie, 30, the youngest of the third generation, details for me the family story, part of which comes from the lore of long-term customers and facts from the Wiki of contemporary cuisine, Food Network.

Grandpa Fong traded produce, hired cooks, ran supplies, bought the storefront and decked it with red-leather booths, a weekend dance band, and gewgaws of a romanticized Canton, the café’s provincial fare. Cantonese-American means mild spice, large portions, and stolid décor, as well as out-of-towner loyalty to a traditional food that’s going out of style. It seems, Szechuan and Mandarin, again Chinese-American, along with Thai eateries, vastly outnumber Cantonese. Today, Asian fusion is the rage: spicy, zesty, daring entrees, blending regional cuisines, like soul-funk-pop mixed with jazz—menus of performance.

Chop suey means “miscellaneous leftovers,” a phrase I love for its allusion to California history—overworked pan-Pacific families who built restaurant dynasties, stoves that never rest, holidays never taken, and a heritage near impossible to abandon: if this café was good enough for grandfather, it’s good enough for his descendants. Alas, in its 85th year, the Pekin elders have told the young ones, as Stephanie says, it’s time to move on. Oldest is not always an honorific.


Its speed on cobblestone was nine miles an hour, its horsepower one-and-a-half, its flywheel belt-driven, its fuel source benzene, its forward speeds slow and slower, and its number left in the world, “six or seven,” says the octogenarian automotive encyclopedia, J. A. Cooley, of the 1895 Benz Velocipede or Velo, San Diego’s oldest car.

The Velo, 200 of which were built by Karl Benz as the first mass production car, sits in the crammed confines of his Cooley’s Park Boulevard auto museum. How’d he get it? “You mean back in the 1900s?” Well, desire won out over sense when he got talked into buying the rarity for $35,000. When he told Carmen, his half-century marriage partner, the price, she gave him one of those “you idiot” looks: “‘This is nothing but a pile of wood,’ and she went on and on, criticizing me.”

Come 1995, a rival enthusiast who wanted to reenact the first auto race in America with original autos buttonholed Cooley to ship the Velo to Chicago for the meet. Cooley, infirm, said no way. The man offered him $100,000 cash—within earshot of Cooley’s wife. Who piped up, “We’re not in the business of giving things away.” No deal, Cooley said, relieved. “That was an insult and it got me off the hook with Carmen.”

Come 1998, a Frenchman came by and offered Cooley $400,000. Cooley consulted Bill Evans, of local restaurant fame, who said, “Tell him that when he’s serious, you’ll talk to him.” The longer Cooley held out, the higher the price-tag went. Up to $1 million, recently, and also turned down.

Another car he owns is the Hunt, one of one, built in San Diego in 1910, a five-ton roadster with a four cylinder 392-cubic-inch engine, custom-created by Arnie Babcock, scion of Eli who built the Hotel Del Coronado. For the Hunt, Cooley coolly turned down $6 million. “You can’t have a museum if you’re running a used car lot.” And one more of his 100 autos, showroom crammed like a hoarder’s freezer, is a reproduction of the world’s first car: the 1885 Benz, its wheels three, its horsepower three-quarters. He’s not parting with it, not no how.

San Diegan

Ending my stroll through local antiquities, I come upon the hardest nut to crack, finding the oldest local person. The Aging and Independence Services unit of the Health and Human Services agency keeps no such record. Scads of retirement homes and assisted-living facilities keep me on the phone for hours. Oceanside’s Agnes McKee, made it to 106 and passed on last spring. The longevity record is/was held by Soledad Mexia, of Chula Vista, a supercentenarian, who died at 114. You may get to be the oldest San Diegan but it’s a distinction you won’t hold long.

One of a growing clutch of centenarians is Bernard Cohen, an independent resident of Wesley Palms and its oldest dweller at 102. In his small apartment, the master of bridge, his daily activity, tells me of his career as a Manhattan dentist. Fifty years in the Times building in Times Square. “A good profession to be in,” he says, his Brooklyn accent less drawled than that other Bernie from Vermont. “Always in demand.”

A stretch in the Army during the war is his major memory and achievement. He was kept a mile behind the front lines. “Whenever the army stopped, I got patients.” He says his general dentistry “kept going no matter” how technology changed. He cleaned teeth and filled cavities from the first to the last day.

His health? “I take it for granted,” he says. He’s had no serious illnesses and avoids doctors. “I feel fine,” he laughs, “so I’m not going to ask for anything I don’t need.” I note that Cohen, who is diminutive, a bit stooped but with a strong pace and sharp hearing, seems much younger than his age, a head of wavy gray hair, taut socks, clean khaki pants. I ask but he can’t think of a worthwhile complaint. He seems to have no regrets, no longings. His room is free of doodads, just a few family photos, a novel on a table, a small TV, sun-breezy La Jolla out the window.

Why, I wonder, aren’t there more men over 100? “The men had a much harder time [doing] their work,” he says. “Much harder than the women.” As if I’m holding up his future, he shifts into summary mode. “I’ve lived a long life. I was busy all the time. I was happy in my work. It was a good life. I’ve been very fortunate. And I’ve been playing bridge since I was seven years old.”

It hits me then: oldest for the living is just a category, a movable range, without the built-to-last solidity of monuments and graves and buildings we preserve. Bernard Cohen, like you, like me, lasts only so long, and then what? The next longest comes and goes until the next comes and goes and the next and the next as well. Other than its evanescence, what about it can we hold on to?