By Helen Ofield

We are celebrating the centennial of Balboa Park, but the park’s namesake is missing in action. Among the various statues and sculptures in the park, nary a one represents the Spanish explorer (who worked as a squire for a nobleman before coming to the New World), ex-pig farmer, courageous soldier and first European to see the Pacific Ocean “silent upon a peak in Darién.”

Vasco Nuñez de Balboa, namesake of Balboa Park. Image via Wikimedia Commons

Why is that? Is nobody concerned about this obvious historical oversight?

Why would a 23-foot statue of the medieval Spanish hero, El Cid, dominate the center of the park? He was a soldier of fortune who died in 1099, four centuries before Vasco Nuñez de Balboa entered history by walking across the Isthmus of Panama, establishing a stable settlement named Darién, and finding the Pacific.

True, Balboa Park and California are rooted in Spanish history. With help from architect William Templeton Johnson, El Cid was donated in 1930 by the Hispanic Society of America and its founder, Archer Milton Huntington, who had commissioned his wife, Anna Hyatt Huntington, to create the statue for them. The original stands outside the Society’s building, 613 West 155th Street, New York, NY.

Our El Cid is one of four copies made for Seville, Buenos Aires, San Francisco and San Diego.

Mrs. Huntington was a great sculptor and her billionaire husband influential. But El Cid’s story has nothing to do with our park.

The real El Cid never left Spain, being engaged from age 14 in fighting Christians and Muslims alike (whoever had the upper hand in the chronically warring regions of disunited Spain). But Balboa’s career was centered in the New World and the Americas.

Balboa statue in the Philippines. Image via Helen Ofield

In 1913, four centuries after Balboa’s harrowing trek in 1513, The San Diego Union ran a story about the 1913 Carnival Cabrillo (he got a statue!), the third day of which was named “Balboa” to help herald the coming 1915 exposition in the park named for the maritime explorer. The article mentioned a plan to erect a colonnaded monument to Balboa at the east end of El Prado — where the fountain stands — at a cost of about $15,000.

What happened to that plan? In the California drought, fountains are verboten. But a statue uses no water.

San Diego has correctly made much of Cabrillo, who sailed into San Diego Bay in 1542 on his flagship, San Salvador. A spectacular replica of that mighty Spanish galleon, built by San Diego’s Maritime Museum, will soon make its maiden voyage on San Diego Bay, then sail northward along the California coast.

Cabrillo came here for the same reasons as Balboa: gold, territory, proselytizing, fame, fortune. We have honored Cabrillo in spades. But Balboa? Not so much. Surely, political correctness isn’t the reason since we continue to honor the slave-holding Cabrillo, even to building a replica of his ship. But we ignore the explorer who walked through jungles, paving the way for the explorers (and canal) to come, and ultimately lost his life in the New World.

San Diego put Balboa on a one-cent stamp in 1913. And on Balboa Avenue (lots of traffic, no statue). And, of course, on the magnificent park (lots of culture, no statue). Just as millions of Americans have little or no idea who George Washington was, knowledge of what the name “Balboa” signifies is slipping away. You’d be surprised how many people think El Cid is Balboa.

Get out your checkbook if you want to see statues of the man. You’ll have to fly to Panama City (Panama), which got it right in 1924 when they erected a statue of Balboa sculpted by Miguel Blan and Mariano Benlliure and donated by King Alfonso XIII of Spain.

Or fly to Balboa’s hometown, Jerez de los Caballeros, Badajoz, Spain, to see the 9-foot bronze statue in the main square.

Here’s the kicker: Four years ago, the House of Spain in Balboa Park’s House of Pacific Relations brokered a tentative deal whereby the Spanish government would bankroll the creation of a replica of the statue at Jerez de los Caballeros and present it to San Diego as a gift. Shades of France giving us the Statue of Liberty.

The House of Spain had a visionary — and self-evident — idea: in the 2015 centennial year erect a statue honoring the park’s namesake.

But despite numerous pleas for help — i.e. approve a site in the park for Balboa and get the ball rolling with Spain — nobody in park or city management has lifted a finger. This kind of historical and bureaucratic obtuseness during the centennial year of Balboa Park is jaw-dropping. Pick up the phone, City Hall, and call Jesus Benayas, president of the House of Spain.

Mayor Faulconer? Council members? Historians? Papa Doug? Who will take up the gauntlet tossed in 1913? The clock is ticking.

Helen Ofield is president of the Lemon Grove Historical Society.

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