We are about to go down a rabbit hole, or three or four, so I will give you the punch-line, the spoiler ending, up front. Juan Crespí Middle School, which sits on the northeastern edge of San Francisco Bay, was formally renamed Betty Reid Soskin Middle School Wednesday, on Soskin’s 100th birthday. And there was much rejoicing.
But Why? I asked. Not Why choose Soskin. That’s easy. She’s a badass social justice warrior, as I’ve said before in my pre-pandemic 2019 blog, Betty Reid Soskin: Social Justice Ninja Warrior.
Why was the school named for Crespí in the first place? Who was the dude? How did he get picked for the naming? Why did they decide to rename it now? I had questions. Of course, each question led to more questions. In my previous work life, we were trained to uncover the root cause of problems by asking Five Whys. When you do that on the Internet, suddenly, the morning disappears. There’s always more than meets the eye. But it’s all good.
So, if you want some answers and to learn a little about the history of the Spanish New World expeditions, missions, epidemiology, and the politics of nomenclature, then settle in for a few minutes. The Internet beckons. La madriguera de coneja–the rabbit hole–beckons.
Rabbit Hole One…Why Juan Crespí (what were the Franciscan monks doing there in the first place)?
Who was this Crespí anyway and what was he doing, wandering around far to the north of New Spain, whose capital was in central Mexico? Simply, he was a Franciscan monk, assigned to a Spanish expedition that traveled north from Baja California, looking for places to put missions. In particular, they were looking for Monterey Bay, whose virtues had been extolled by explorers Juan Cabrillo (1542) and Sebastian Vizcaino (1602). Vizcaino had named the bay for the Count of Monterrei, his financial backer.
The Spanish had dispatched first Columbus, then Cortez to the New World. Those groups had returned with tales of riches, trade goods to prop up Spain as it tried to compete in the hurly-burly of the Renaissance. But within a century, England had taken care of Spain’s Armada, Germany was launching religious rebellion, and Portugal was sending explorers all around Africa and to the New World. Spain’s power was on the wane by the late 1700s. Yet the colonies they established in the Caribbean, Mexico, and the Pacific far outlasted the Kingdom of Spain itself.
The Spanish had sent missionaries after the first explorers, priests who had systematically, energetically, and fanatically established a series of missions up the Baja coast as far as San Diego. But those military-religious zealots were not Franciscans. They were Jesuits. To know that they thought of themselves as “God’s soldiers” is to understand why they successfully transformed the search for New World treasure into an organized project, constructing buildings and harvesting souls.
The Jesuits built 20 missions along the southernmost Pacific coast of North America and another 23 in the Arizona/Mexican desert–in less a century. That might not be as fast as Walmart, but it is roughly one every 2.5 years. So why was it Crespí, a Franciscan, looking for good soul-harvesting ground? Because the Jesuits had been so successful in globe-trotting for Jesus that the Catholic monarchs, like Carlos III of Spain, feared their power. Jesuits were supranational, loyal to the pope, not any national government. Plus, military. Territory conquerors like to bring their own guns, thank you very much, and not have them monopolized by the priests.
King Carlos III was hoping to confiscate the accumulated Jesuit wealth and squeeze money out of Jesuit vineyards and missions. But it turns out the Jesuits had–according to my spouse, KK, who studied the California missions in grade school–put their wealth back into constructing missions rather than keeping it in a hoard like dragons and popes tended to do. Expelling them didn’t pay off. Within fifty years of being declared persona non grata, the Jesuits were re-established, and Napoleon was redrawing European maps.
Rabbit Hole Two–Why Juan Crespí (why name a school after Crespí )?
If we continue to focus this lecture on Europe, then we’ll just run into Martin Luther and Anne Boleyn, and have to watch a mini-series or two. Instead, let’s get back to the Franciscans, who were brought in to California to replace the Jesuits. My spouse recalls:
I was led to believe that Father Junipero Serra personally traversed up and down California several times, barefoot, in his monk’s robe and tonsure, communing with the animals and blessing all the children.
Fake history. That sounds a lot more like Francis of Assisi, for whom the order was named. Serra himself was middle management, the COO of the priests dispatched to New Spain, the dude in charge. Even though the Franciscans weren’t military, Serra planned to pick up where the Jesuits left off: building buildings and collecting souls i.e. indigenous people.
An expedition was planned to travel north into Alta California. Serra wanted to go, but only made it as far as San Diego when a serious leg infection made him stop. The expedition continued, organized and run by the military governor Gaspar de Portola. Portola gathered 61 soldiers, a hundred mules, and two monks, including Juan Crespí. Crespí kept the diary; Crespí wrote the history.
The group traveled across the lush valley northward of San Diego, and Crespí declared it a beautiful site for a future mission: “a very large and rich mission of Our Lady of the Angels of the Porciúncula.” Los Angeles. He further coined the name Santa Clara after Saint Clare of Assisi.
They pushed northward, determined to find Vizcaino’s Monterey Bay. Somehow, they never found it. They got as far north as one of the ridges overlooking Pacifica, 15 miles south of the Golden Gate itself. A marker today commemorates this “discovery” of the peninsula, the waters of the San Francisco Bay to the east and the ocean to the west. Crespí described the bay as “a very large and fine harbor, such that not only all the navy of our Most Catholic Majesty but those of all Europe could take shelter in it.”
Along the way, the Spanish discovered dozens of settlements of Ohlone natives and other tribes, who may have been surprised to be discovered, since they had always lived there. It might be interesting to erect a second marker on Sweeney’s Ridge, written in Chochenyo or one of the Ohlone dialects, to commemorate the native’s discovery of the Spanish, tramping through their backyards.
Portola sent scouts around the bay to find Monterey, not realizing they had already passed it on their way north. They noted the marshy wetlands as they traveled through what is now Silicon Valley and San Jose, heading far enough north to climb another ridge on the east side of bay. From there, they could see the Sacramento/San Joaquin delta on one side, and the Pacific Ocean on the other. This was their stopping point, the Hayward foothills, which I can see from my house. The scouts returned to the peninsula and the Portola/Crespí party turned back on December 7, 1769. They never made it as far north as El Sobrante, the site of Crespí Middle School. After four months of heavy-duty discovering while eating mule and pelican, the group headed back south to San Diego.
Rabbit Hole Three: Why Not Crespí ? (Why shouldn’t schools be named after Spanish missionaries?)
Perhaps it’s helpful to compare the establishment of the Spanish missions to the approaches of other countries. Often, explorers to a new land would establish colonies as living settlements, trading posts, and/or forts. I’m living here now, I’m extracting raw materials, and/or I’ve got weapons. While the Puritans did come over to establish a religious colony, they did it for themselves, not for the purpose of converting the natives.
For the Spanish, though, missions functioned as both buildings and purpose. The job of the Spanish priests was to round up the locals and bring them in under their watchful eye–this process was called “reduction.” The missionaries needed to establish a foothold into the territory, to become self-sufficient, and to feed their protectors with the guns. They needed labor, and there were the natives, ready to be converted. Workers, of course, not slaves, as the man says in Ragnarok, “prisoners with jobs.”
Of course, the natives weren’t thought of as slaves or free labor. The narrative was that the locals would be converted to Christianity and indoctrinated into Spanish culture. Those who didn’t comply would face the guns or possibly be accused of witchcraft. Serra wrote reports to the Inquisition back home, which was still underway, about handling such “heretics” in his flock.
Gunpowder wasn’t infinite. Why did the indigenous people continue to allow themselves to be herded into the missions? For one reason, their numbers were dwindling. Because the soldiers also had fleas.
The soldiers, Juan Crespí, the Spanish–as with all the Europeans from Columbus onward–carried smallpox. The forced conversions at gunpoint were bad enough, but an estimated 90 to 95% of native populations in the New World died from Old World diseases. Moving the natives from their villages crowded them into conditions that spread disease faster. As the explorers continued moving throughout the coastal area, they carried the disease with them. And, when natives would escape into the hills, they, too, spread smallpox. It was genocide on an unparalleled scale.
Rabbit Hole Four: Why Rename the School?
Finally, it’s worth wondering why schools were named for monks like Serra or Crespí in the first place. Why would a school opened in 1965 be named for a Spanish monk, rather than a local land feature or, at the very least, a dead American president? In the mid-1960s, the superintendent of schools, Max Rafferty, was a right-wing, anti-Communist proselytizer. He decried the loss of “traditional” teaching and pushed for more patriotism in schools. (Rafferty later campaigned with George Wallace in his unsuccessful 1972 presidential bid.) He also pushed for romanticizing the religious foundation of California through this idealized view of the Spanish mission culture.
Hence, students today still study the missions which were, after all, a part of California history. In 2020, the Crespí middle school students did study the Spanish missions. Only this time, they were encouraged to study the full history, learning how the monks and soldiers herded the locals into religious compliance and servitude.
Several students were appalled, among them Anaya Zenad. She and others put together a presentation and petition to change their school’s name. In the ensuing discussion with parents, teachers, and community members, the vote was heavily in favor of leaving Crespí, the namer, historian, and subjugator, in the dust.
The only question was what name to choose instead. The panel briefly considered naming it Chochenyo, after the language and culture from the indigenous people. But someone had also suggested Betty Reid Soskin. Soskin had been a park ranger at the nearby Rosie the Riveter monument for years, having helped plan for the memorial in the first place. This was an easy call. In these parts, Soskin was well known for decades of community support and activism.
When the suggestion came up to rename it Soskin Middle School, no one had to ask Why.