Cabrillo goes to Mexico

A statue’s sordid history

The statue’s trip occurred several days after Christmas, but for the previous two weeks, the Mexicans had been coming to the monument to prepare for loading. Workman had his doubts that the statue was stable enough to be handled. “But the men were very careful,” he tells me. “They used spray foam and popcorn foam to pack it in a huge box.”

The statue stands 14 feet high and weighs close to seven tons. “When the driver pulled away,” says Workman, “I thought the weight might break the truck’s rear axle. They drove very slowly out of Point Loma and all the way to Ensenada.”

The Cabrillo statue was the creation of Portuguese sculptor Alvaro de Bree in 1939 and had graced the Monument for years on its eastern side, starting in 1949. But the statue’s sandstone composition made it especially susceptible to degradation from the marine air on the Point. In 1988, a replica of the statue was put in its place, and the original went into a monument warehouse, where it remained until the end of last year.

Nico Saad, who owns the San Nicolás Hotel in Ensenada, has dreamt of the Cabrillo statue coming to his city since the mid-1970s, and he’s been a leader in the city’s efforts to “acquire Cabrillo.” The explorer is known as the first European to have discovered the Pacific coast of what is now the United States when he sailed into San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542, and continued toward havens further north. But ensenadenses such as Saad, have often wondered why San Diego should be the official West Coast home of Cabrillo, for the explorer had stopped in what is now Ensenada on September 17, 11 days earlier.

Saad tells me by phone that Mexican “restoration professionals” have come forward to help the city stabilize the statue, repair the damage it has undergone in San Diego, and protect it from the marine elements it will endure in its new home. That home will be on the waterfront at Ventana al Mar, where each year Ensenada celebrates Cabrillo’s 1542 visit. The city’s mayor and port commission are planning a cooperative effort to redesign the entire area and name it Cabrillo Passage.

The Ensenada newspaper El Vigia indicated in early January that the Cabrillo statue was donated to the city for cultural purposes.  However, Ensenada’s minister of tourism, Xavier Rivas, tells me, “We got the statue through a formal 20-year loan.”  He also emailed me a copy of the contract his city entered into with the U.S. Department of the Interior. The contract holds Ensenada responsible for the statue’s care over the duration of the loan. Before the statue left San Diego, representatives from Ensenada told Tom Workman they had insured it for $5000, an amount Workman found woefully low.  “I argued for $1 million,” he says, “and we settled for $300,000.”

The misunderstandings surrounding the statue wouldn’t be the first in its history. After first arriving in the Bay Area in the late 1930s, the statue had to be clandestinely spirited out of a residential garage in San Francisco and brought to San Diego. The episode is recounted by Ross Holland in a 1981 article for the Cabrillo Historical Association called “The Origin and Development of Cabrillo National Monument.”

In Holland’s telling, the government of Portugal had commissioned the statue to be created as a gift to California for the 1939 San Francisco World’s Fair. But the statue arrived at the fair too late to be used. So Culbert Olson, California’s governor at the time, promised it to the City of Oakland, which had a large Portuguese population. (Cabrillo sailed for the Spanish crown. Some say he was born in Portugal, others say it was Spain.) Meanwhile, the statue was stored in the San Francisco garage.

Ed Fletcher was a San Diego real estate developer (Fletcher Parkway in La Mesa, and the east county neighborhood of Fletcher Hills are named after him), but at the time of the Cabrillo statue’s arrival in California, he was a state senator representing the region. Fletcher coveted the statue for the Cabrillo National Monument, which President Calvin Coolidge in 1926 had established at the lighthouse on Point Loma as “a suitable monument in commemoration of Cabrillo.”

Fletcher argued that the governor had no power to donate the Cabrillo statue to Oakland. “Quietly obtaining an opinion from the California Legislative Council,” wrote Ross Holland, “which stated that only the California Legislature had the authority to dispose of the statue, Fletcher visited the residence where the statue lay in boxes. The man of the house had recently died, and his widow, perhaps anxious to be rid of the seven tons which had already cracked the floor of her garage, was sympathetic to Fletcher’s desire for the statue. But she would not accept the opinion of the Legislative Council alone; she wanted more authority before releasing the crates.”

The senator then tried passing legislation that would give the statue to the San Diegans, but an Oakland representative killed it in the Assembly. So Fletcher “secured a letter from the President of the State Park Commission, a San Diegan, asking the widow to turn over the crates to Fletcher. He prevailed upon the Secretary of State to place the ‘golden shield of the State of California’ on the letter,” wrote Holland.

Fletcher later explained that, armed with the letter, he returned to the woman and had workers load the statue onto trucks. Before they left, she called Fletcher back into the house to take phone calls from the Vice Consul of Portugal and an attorney representing Oakland, both threatening court action. By then, it was too late. The statue was soon aboard a Santa Fe Railroad train rolling toward San Diego. The governor accused Fletcher of theft. But the San Diego legislator had already convinced himself that possession is “nine tenths of the law, so the lawyers say.”

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It is amazing what politics goes on behind artwork. What amazes me more is the cost of storage and upkeep.

With all the homeless, and all the money we spend on other countries and art, we can't keep our homeless off the streets?

I must be getting old. Let's give away some artwork and concentrate on getting everyone back to work and off the streets.

Great article.

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