Village News Reporter
Although the Pala area was part of the Luiseno region – there were no formal boundaries between tribal lands, but often mountains separated tribes – in 1903, the Cupeno people were evicted from their Warner Springs land and relocated to the Pala reservation. Pala Tribal Council member Eric Ortega, who is also the assistant station manager of Pala Rez Radio, is Cupeno and organizes the annual Antonio Garra Day event in Old Town San Diego which tells the story of the Cupeno leader who was executed in San Diego in January 1852.
This year Antonio Garra Day took place March 18.
“It went really well,” Ortega said. “It was a really nice event.”
Ortega measures success by the number of spectators who are not Native Americans.
“The whole purpose of this is sharing our culture with the outside world, letting the outside world know we were here,” he said. “It’s all about educating people.”
Garra is believed to have been a Yuma Indian and was originally from Yuma before he met a woman and moved to the Cupeno lands. After California was granted statehood – formal admission took place in 1850 – Garra sought sovereignty for the Native American people. San Diego County was also created in 1850, and that year the Cupeno volunteered to help with provisions.
Garra declined to help the following year.
“He made the decision to not give,” Ortega said.
County officials considered the contribution a tax payment and sought to take the resources anyway. A skirmish occurred which resulted in the deaths of whites.
As the leader of the resistance Garra was arrested.
“There are questions about whether he was really there when people were killed,” Ortega said.
In 1867 Alonzo Horton bought and subdivided land in what is now Downtown San Diego and over the next five years government seats and influential businesses relocated from Old Town to Horton’s Addition.
The court was in what is now Old Town when Garra was put on trial. Garra was charged with treason and murder. Because Indians were not recognized as United States citizens until 1924 Garra legally could not have committed treason and that charge was dropped.
“They still convicted him of murder,” Ortega said.
Garra was marched to El Campo Santo Cemetery and was executed by a firing squad.
“They shot him and he raised his hand,” Ortega said. “He didn’t show any fear.”
He had been a neophyte at the mission.
“He was a religious man,” Ortega said. “His final words were ‘I seek your forgiveness for all my trespasses and expect yours in return.’”
It is not surprising that Garra’s last words were based on the Lord’s Prayer.
“His house had a library full of books,” Ortega said.
The group planning an event to recognize Antonio Garra began the planning late in the first decade of this century, and the first Antonio Garra Day was seven years ago. Since Garra was executed in January, Antonio Garra Day was held in January from 2016 to 2020. Coronavirus precautions eliminated the 2021 event, and due to the outbreak of the Omicron variant last year’s Antonio Garra Day was postponed until March.
Holding the event on the third Saturday of March had advantages even after the coronavirus emergency was declared over.
“It was a beautiful day,” Ortega said.
No rain occurred, and the temperature in Old Town was in the 70s. It not only made it more comfortable for the participants but also encouraged more visitors to Old Town who noticed the event.
“We had a lot of people walking by, a lot of people asking questions,” Ortega said.
The quest to educate non-Indians is the reason Antonio Garra Day is held in Old Town rather than in Pala or in Warner Springs.
“When you go to Old Town you’re talking to people who don’t know that much about Native Americans,” Garra said.
The Kumeyaay are indigenous to the city of San Diego area. Kumeyaay Elder Stan Rodriguez, who is from the Santa Ysabel reservation, gave the welcome address.
“The reason we always look to have a Kumeyaay speaker first is because of the area that we’re in. It’s Kumeyaay territory,” Ortega said.
Garra reached out to other Native American nations during his resistance, and Rodriguez’s address noted that Garra appealed to the Kumeyaay.
Ortega was also a master of ceremonies for Antonio Garra Day, sharing that role with First San Diego Courthouse museum board member Abel Silvas. The Pala Tribal Council was also represented by Shelia Smith‑Lopez and Anthony Ravago. Pala tribal member Wayne Nelson led the Inter-Tribal Bird Singers, Elijah Duro led the Pal ‘Atingve Kupa Singers and C.J. Martin led the Black Mountain Bird Singers.
In 2018, James Ramos became the first Native American to be elected to the California State Assembly. Ramos is of Serrano ethnicity and lives on the San Miguel Indian Reservation in San Bernardino County. Ramos presented the Pala Band of Mission Indians and the First San Diego County Courthouse Museum awards for sharing cultural history.
Old Town San Diego is in the Assembly district represented by Chris Ward, who spoke about the positive support San Diego County tribes provide for the San Diego community. Many tribes are in the Second Supervisorial District represented by County Supervisor Joel Anderson, and Anderson’s office presented a proclamation signed by all five county supervisors.
Bill Howatt attended Fallbrook High School before his family moved to San Diego. Howatt is a retired judge who now researches the history of courts and law, and he gave a presentation on Garra.
“He looks at old cases, and one of the old cases is the trial of Antonio Garra which is about the oldest case you can have,” Ortega said.
San Diego Old Town Chamber of Commerce president Fred Grand is part Kumeyaay. Grand organized the wagon and horses which were part of the procession from the courthouse to El Campo Santo Cemetery, provided publicity for the event and obtained burritos for the volunteers. Approximately 30 volunteers contributed to Antonio Garra Day.
“He actually showed up with 60 burritos,” Ortega said.
It allowed tribal elders to have a meal. When Antonio Garra Day volunteers couldn’t obtain electrical connection the Mormon Battalion Museum showed up with 150 feet of extension cords and the Mormon Battalion Museum also plugged the extension cord into that museum.
“All the success I had was because of everybody else,” Ortega said.