Delfina Cuero: Her autobiography, an account of her last years, and her ethnobotanic contributions

One of the most important documents ever written about San Diego

Delfina Cuero
  • Delfina Cuero

Delfina Cuero was a Kumeyaay Indian born around 1900 in Jamacha. Her parents and grandparents came from mat kutap (Mission Valley) but were not attached to the Mission. “My father and mother left Mission Valley, they told me, when a lot of Chinese and Americans came and told them they had to leave. They did not own the land that their families and ancestors had always lived upon .” They moved to Mission Gorge; then, of necessity, deeper south and east.

Toward the end of her life, Cuero wrote an autobiography that is one of the most important and moving documents ever written about San Diego. It gives voice to the original inhabitants of the area and traces the slow erasure of their presence. Among many other things, the autobiography details the daily life — i.e., the quest for food — of hunter-gatherers.

Most histories call Cuero’s people “Southern Diegueño” — which means attached to Mission San Diego — but they prefer Kumeyaay. The eastern edge of their territory extended from the Los Peñasquitos Marsh, just north of Torrey Pines, on a diagonal to the southeast: Jamul, Tecate, and deep into Baja California.

Native Californians lived in Mission Valley 15,000 years ago. Like her ancestors, Delfina Cuero didn’t regard her surroundings as “the Book of Nature.”

She saw a library. Everything had a name, often based on a distinct characteristic: “Otay” was a weed that grew there in abundance; La Jolla was “land of holes”; “Point Loma was called ‘black earth’ because that is how it looks from the distance” — and still does, especially when backlit by the setting sun.

Everything, including rocks and mountains, was alive. And practically everything, if you were hungry enough, could be food.

Cuero’s mother and grandmother taught her what to gather. “Any kind of meat we could get we used — rabbit, deer, opossum, raccoon, wood rat…mice, lizards, some snakes, anything. Opossums are good food, the meat is real good. I still eat them when I have a chance, but now I’m getting old, and I care more for cottontail rabbits; they’re easier to find. I still live on my Indian food when I can get it.”

They gathered green vegetables and roots, pine nuts (which they ground into pinole, flour mixed with water and honey), acorns (which was over 50 percent of the native diet, an observer estimated in the 1870s), lilac, wild cherry, “flowers of all sorts,” grass. “We had to learn how to use all these plants, what to hunt for and when. We used to go out a long way sometimes, gather the food, put it in our bags, and pack it back. Then we had to clean and dry it and store it for winter... when not so much would be growing.

“There were a lot of ‘vegetables’ in Mission Bay. More mud and weeds were in the bay then, like marshland. Between Old Town and Point Loma was a lot of black mud where it is dry land now. We would gather the greens and roots and boil and dry them.... The food we gathered from the mud...was real good because it was salty. It tasted good and it kept real good.” Visitors to the Mission Bay Salt Marsh Reserve or Torrey Pines State Park look at a plant and see the plant. For Cuero such a walk resembled a trip to the pharmacy. We see sage (Artemisia californica); Cuero saw a tea to stimulate the immune system, a poultice for ant bites, a bathing cure for measles, and tobacco.

In September, Cuero and her family gathered pine nuts from the mesa that is now the golf course at Torrey Pines State Park. Their word for the tree — ehwiiw — means “pine nut.” They ate them raw or roasted, and also as flavoring for other foods.

In the early 1970s, Cuero revisited Torrey Pines, with Florence Shipek, and observed that “There were more pine trees than now.”

We admire the white flowers and bright-red berries of an evergreen toyon at Torrey Pines State Park. Cuero saw medicine and food. “Make a pulp of the leaves and wash sores with the liquid,” she says. “The berries were bitter and used for food only when we were starving.” Cuero describes divisions of labor between the genders but makes no distinction about the difficulties each faced. “The women had to do their work while the men worked too. Either we do this or we starve.” The word “hungry” and its variants is one of the most repeated in the autobiography.

“We ate many things that look ugly but that are good meat. I remember we caught an octopus a long time ago; it was real ugly, but good.... We ate scallops too. Anything we could take, we ate. We ate lobster and wee little stuff that looked like spiders, real small [i.e. shrimp].”

During low tide, they’d search the shoreline for abalone. To pry them loose, they used a sharp rock that fit in their hand. “You have to pound the meat of abalone soft with a rock right away. Then you cut it up and set the meat to dry in the sun, just like the other fish. The abalone shell made good dishes; other, smaller shells were used for spoons.”

To spear fish, they fixed cactus thorns to a long stick. For ropes, nets, and traps, they wove tall grasses and agave fiber. “We put the traps in the ocean, put a piece of rabbit meat in it, and could come back later to get the fish.” You can hear a note of relief in the last part of that sentence: that something other than the immediate labor of their hands helped them obtain food.

When she was young, her family fished and gathered shellfish in the Ocean Beach-Point Loma area. “We ate a lot of shellfish. There were lots of rabbits there, too. My grandfather used to tell the boys to eat rabbit eyes especially, because it would make them good hunters. We hunted those things until we couldn’t hunt on Point Loma anymore.

When she wrote her story, Cuero no longer recognized Ocean Beach: “There are so many houses here now I can’t find my way. Everything looks so bad now; the hills are cut up even.”

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