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In search of the real curse of Santa Cruz

By Sarah Phelan


WHAT IS THE CURSE of Santa Cruz? Ask Santa Crustaceans that question, and you'll find that many people believe there really is one. In fact, there appears to be not just one but at least a dozen curses that are apparently swirling around this town.

Take, for instance, this random sampling:

  • "The curse is the weather. It's so sunny and foggy and nice that it makes you lose all your ambition."

  • "Every group that settles here gets displaced."

  • "A bunch of freakish things--especially murders and lynchings--have happened here. That's proof there's a curse."

  • "The curse is summed up in town's name, which means Holy Cross."

  • "It's the Unbearable Lightness of Being of this place, all the Collective White Guilt that has pooled here."

  • "Maybe the Mystery Spot has something to do with it."

    Another theory we heard was the legend that men and women who live here can't commit and that once single men reach 30, they are doomed to live promiscuously.

    Interestingly, this latter "curse" didn't seem to faze the thirtysomethingish males we told about it--further proof, perhaps, that this town is doomed.

    One thing's for sure. For a place that seems so blessed when it comes to weather and location, there's a veritable vortex of negativity whirling around, and even legendary curse status to back it up. Which makes us wonder, Is there a link between all the beauty and the curse? Are these curses man-made, organic or heaven-sent? And is there any way we can undo them?

    But before you read on, be warned. The very fact that you are reading this suggests you have a fascination with the dark side, which as we all know only leads to trouble. Which is particularly true in this case. Because once you read on, you'll never again be able to claim innocence of the curse, nor specific suggestions as to how to undo it. Oops, too late. We sense your eyes straying ahead, straining to catch a glimpse of the gruesome details--so go ahead and enjoy, dear reader, knowing that you are about to join the ranks of the cursed.

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    A Pox on Your Mouse: As hexing moves into the 21st century, the web offers great new ways to give a damn.

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    The Cursed Truth

    Fatalists argue that the curse of Santa Cruz is its geography. Perched on the Pacific Rim, the town is doomed to slowly crumble away--if a tsunami doesn't get it first.

    And then there are the earthquakes. Don't even get us started about the earthquakes. Thirteen years ago, on Oct. 17, the Loma Prieta earthquake reduced Pacific Avenue to rubble.

    Such dangers aren't, of course, peculiar to Santa Cruz--whereas the curse of the San Lorenzo River is.

    First recorded in print almost 120 years ago, the story of the curse of the San Lorenzo River was told by Mother Chapar, an old Spanish beggar woman who reeked of whiskey fumes and cigar smoke but could tell a damn good yarn.

    And according to Old Chepa, as she was also known, this particular curse was triggered by the town's first white visitor, a shipwrecked sailor who did not hit it off with the Indians.

    The daughter of the local chief, it seems, smiled at this new arrival, and when she did, all hell broke lose, with the tribe voting to put the white impostor to death. When a young Indian warned the white man of his impending doom, he, too, was condemned to death by his own tribe, a decision that inspired him to curse them with his dying breath, vowing to haunt them forever. And from that time on, so the story goes, the evil spirit of the San Lorenzo terrorized the tribe, eventually driving them all out of the area.

    The river curse seems to have extended its reach to successive waves of settlers, beginning with the founders of Santa Cruz, whose decision to build smack-bang in the middle of the river's flood plain was reportedly a source of much merriment to the local Indians, who knew the river's rhythms well. Sure enough, during the next hundred years, the winter river overflowed its banks repeatedly, causing several extensive floods downtown.

    Then in 1955, more bad juju was created when the Army Corps of Engineers straightened the river's sinuous curves, using a huge cement girdle that stopped the floods but compromised the tidelands and made life difficult for the river's plants, animals and fish.

    Today, efforts are being made to restore the river to health, but bodies are still found along its banks--murdered, overdosed or dead of exposure. Though some might attribute these deaths to the evil spirit of the San Lorenzo River, others say they show that Santa Cruz is not immune to two other curses of urban life: homelessness and hard drugs.

    Plenty of Curses To Go Around

    The San Lorenzo River isn't the only spot in Santa Cruz with a legendary curse on it, however. And while all this talk of curses may strike you as balderdash and poppycock, local historian Phil Reader says a grain of truth lies hidden in most such tales.

    Take another Santa Cruz curse, "The Ghost of the Pogonip," which is said to hang over the low flatland known as El Potrero that lies north of Holy Cross Church and stretches between the Evergreen Cemetery and the San Lorenzo River from Harvey West Park up through the Pogonip.

    In the case of El Potrero, more than one storyteller has recalled a terrible battle in which Yachicumne Indians from across the hills slaughtered the Brancifortes, who lived mostly on fish and were described as being "unathletic."

    In several versions of this story, mention is made of all the bones and skulls that littered the area for years and how strange deaths and events have occurred there since.

    Hike up to Mission Hill, and you can still see the low-lying El Potrero. Once used by the padres to graze their cattle, the land is now dissected by Highway 1, landmarked by the River Street sign and largely zoned for industrial and commercial use, with Costco in its midst.

    What's weird about this picture is that this land should have been given to the Indians when the Mexican government closed Mission Santa Cruz in the mid-1830s, by which time the Indians had already paid some serious cultural and social dues, the mission having been founded 40 years earlier.

    Indeed, in A Gathering of Voices, historian Randall Milliken tells how the missionaries used to kidnap and baptize Indian children, thereby luring the kids' desperate parents into their fold. Those who refused to convert found themselves alone, shorthanded and overwhelmed as enemies and European-borne diseases ravaged their villages. Meanwhile, those who endured the mission's labor-camp atmosphere suffered disease, depression and, in some cases, padre-inflicted cruelty.

    Ghostface Killa?

    But though 90 percent of the indigenous people had been wiped out by the time the mission closed, a few survived to tell the tales, some of which included acts of resistance.

    Take Lorenzo Asisare. Born and raised in Mission Santa Cruz, Asisare's narrative accounts, recorded in A Gathering of Voices, tell of a padre who slept with Indian women, and another, named Father Quintana, who used a whip with wire to punish Indian workers at the mission.

    Quintana's cruelty came to an end one dark and stormy night when a group of Ohlone, including Asisare's father, ambushed the padre and crushed his testicles (presumably, he, too, had been messing with the women), then took him back to his hut and tucked him into bed so it would look as if he'd died in his sleep.

    Either the mission doctor didn't notice or was too embarrassed by the crushed testicles to say anything, but Quintana's murder went undetected for several years until an Indian woman spilled the beans, at which point several men, including Asisare's father, did time for the assassination.

    For a while, "Quintana martyrdom" became a cause célèbre among "heathen-hating" colonials, but modern revisionists, like filmmaker Stephanie Michel, blame it on the Ghost of the Pogonip , which Michel says was drawn by Quintana's vice.

    Either way, when the missionaries left town, the surviving Indians lived in the Potrero, until the United States defeated Mexico and rewrote the rules, beginning with the 1850 "Indian Protection Act," which mandated humane treatment of Indian minors but was little more than legalized slavery.

    Sixteen years after this act passed, and only 30 years after the last of the missions was gone, the Santa Cruz Sentinel recommended that the Potrero be "forever set apart to those Indians and their children, and that no vandal shall ever despoil them of what the good priest gave them for services rendered."

    But to no avail. Both the Americans and the Europeans chased the Indians out, treating them and the newly arrived Chinese with equal disdain.

    Indeed, some of the negative karma accumulated in Santa Cruz was doubtless generated by our lousy attitude to the Chinese. And though four Chinatowns were built here, all that remains is a plaque on Front Street's Galleria building. It's on the site of the fourth and last Chinatown, which burned to the ground in 1955.

    But while land and respect weren't accorded to either the Indians or other non-European groups, plenty of low-paying and highly dangerous jobs were, like building the railway and getting horribly maimed at the Powder Works in the Potrero, where things had a natural tendency to explode.

    The Burial-Ground Angle

    Further fueling all the local curse talk, however, is the fact that, many of the freakish happenings in Santa Cruz have occurred in areas like the Potrero and Beach Hill, which have been identified as sacred Indian burial grounds.

    "The stories vary, depending on whom you're talking to and how much they've had to drink," says Reader, who's heard them all: a black girl named Ida Wells died after being thrown from a wagon; a child suffocated in a vault; and a woman died on the way to her wedding when a rock from an explosion at the Powder Works sailed through the air, hit her on the head and killed her outright.

    And the hill overlooking the Ocean Street Extension is the apparent stomping ground of the White Lady, a mail-order bride, who was beaten and eventually beheaded by her German drunk of a husband, who then burned the house and disappeared. But the White Lady hung around, appearing as a glowing apparition in a blood-soaked wedding dress, with her head tucked under her arm.

    Even if you don't believe in curses, you'd be hard pressed to deny that the native people here got screwed. So what, if anything, can be done to undo that wrong?

    "Grant us tribal recognition and some land," says Patrick Orozco of the Pajaro Valley Ohlone Indian Council.

    Orozco earned his middle name, "Yana-Hea," or "He Who Yawns," when he was trying to preserve a sacred burial site in Watsonville.

    "I was yawning so hard because I was working all day and attending meetings at night that my uncle gave me that name," says Orozco, who managed to save that burial ground but hasn't yet managed to get the feds to grant him and other local Indians tribal recognition.

    Setting Things Right

    One of the first steps in getting such recognition is to establish that petitioners have been identified from historical times until the present as "American Indians" or "aboriginals." But as Randy Milliken writes and Orozco can personally attest, establishing a continuous aboriginal identity is no small or easy task.

    As Milliken explains, by the time record keeping stabilized after the Civil War, the paper trail for the life histories of many Indian families seems to have been broken.

    "Because of this legacy of spotty record keeping, or perhaps because of our society's insistence on proofs from the written record, contemporary political groups of mission descendants have had challenging problems in establishing their historical tribal affiliations," Milliken writes.

    Adding to their problems is the fact that many Indians chose to identify as Mexican or white after statehood, a choice that's entirely understandable given that after statehood in 1850, citizenship was only open to whites, only white males could vote, whites could indenture Indians as a free source of labor and many newcomers who arrived in the wake of the Gold Rush clamored for the Indians' extermination.

    But though most assimilated, 152 years later their descendants are trying to rediscover their ancestry and culture, through educational programs, cultural exhibits, protection of burial grounds, monitoring of development on cultural sites--and by honoring and bringing recognition to their ancestors.

    "It's time for them and us to be counted again," Orozco says.

    Orozco's current hope is that they can buy some land locally, build a cultural center and give workshops to raise awareness about Indian history and issues.

    And, of course, get some respect from the feds. And if all this talk of bad blood, cultural crimes--and yes, even curses--proves one thing, it's that that respect is long, long overdue.

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  • From the October 9-16, 2002 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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