Officially, this dateline does not exist. Officially, this is Santa Cruz. Officially, Villa de Branciforte breathed its last as a sovereign town in 1905. Officially, there is no “here” here anymore.
Unofficially, Villa de Branciforte lives on in the name of a creek, an avenue, a library branch, two schools, a late 18th-century adobe house and three state-posted historical directional signs along highways 17 and 1. Hidden in plain sight to those unaware, this neighborhood on a hill rising from the east side of the San Lorenzo River is steeped in history that is mostly ignored in the rush of progress and ravages of time.
You would think that any city, seeking ways to puff itself up with civic props, would go out of its way to publicize a section of town, founded in 1797, that had been one of the first three secularized communities in what then was Alta California. (Wonder what happened to those other two initial settlements, places called Los Angeles and San Jose?) But Santa Cruz, curiously, has always kept a loose embrace, occasionally bordering on a stiff-arm, on this chapter of its history. Politicians and even the local media refer to the Branciforte bluffs as the “East Side,” the river serving as the point of demarcation.
“You come off the highway where the arrow is pointing you to Branciforte, and it’s like, poof, you see nothing telling you where you are,” said Maria Caradonna, who, with husband Bruce Block, lives in the historic adobe house on the corner of Branciforte and Goss avenues and gives tours to groups such as Girl Scout troops and curious passers-by. “People come (here) confused, asking where the center of Branciforte is. I get that question a lot.”
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A definitive answer may prove elusive. Since Santa Cruz completed annexation of Branciforte in 1907, much of the history and lore has been forgotten through omission and commission. For years, native Brancifortean (read: Santa Cruzan) Ed Silveira of the Villa de Branciforte Preservation Society has fought for a higher profile. He says he wants to celebrate his neighborhood, keep its traditions alive, heighten its name recognition to tourists and newcomers in town and to house its artifacts somewhere prominent in the public eye.
Facing what he calls City Hall indifference and inertia, Silveira’s group has fought to protect artifacts – some from the original settlers in 1797, some from an Indian village believed to be 6,000 years old – found at housing construction sites. It also has fought to clean up, if not restore, an abandoned park on the Branciforte bluffs that once was home to Pacheco Park Zoo, and to save remnants of the art nouveau entrance columns, across the street from a future housing development. And, most recently, it has pushed for a sign at the newly evolving El Portal Park, a triangular swath of land in a busy traffic median. The sign they seek would read: “The Entrance to Villa de Branciforte, est. 1797.”
Mostly, though, what the preservationists seek from the city is respect for the secular Spanish Colonial settlement named after the 53rd Viceroy of New Spain, Don Miguel de la Grúa Talamanca Branciforte.
“What do I mean by respect?” Silveira said. “We’ve got signs on the freeway, so the state recognizes that we’re the Villa. But we’ve tried to work with the city for years to get some directional signs showing where the center is. They won’t put them up. We’d really like to have an interpretive center, but they won’t even pay the money for a couple of signs..”
Mayor Lynn Robinson deferred comment to Parks and Recreation Director Dannettee Shoemaker, who said the city is not reluctant to “recognize” Branciforte’s historic status. She said the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting regarding the El Portal Park signage would be held Nov. 3 and that she would not talk in specifics because “we’re still fact-finding and verifying the information Mr. Silveira has provided us.”
Shoemaker said she would like to meet with others in the Branciforte neighborhood to hear their concerns, but “whether we have a neighborhood meeting out there, I haven’t put my arms around that yet.”
Silveira’s group might give her an earful. Three years ago, the Branciforte branch of the Santa Cruz library removed a glass display case of Branciforte artifacts – roof and floor tiles, adobe bricks, tokens and buttons, cannonballs and railroad ties – that stood against a wall so it could convert part of the library to a teen center. It boxed up the artifacts and put them in the police department’s “unclaimed property” storage area.
“Removing that just gutted the small-town feel of the (library),” Silveira said. “The library (branch) is called ‘Branciforte.’ Why not celebrate its history?”
Teresa Landers, Santa Cruz’s library director, said the display was removed because “we’re not a museum, and we only offered to display the materials for a certain amount of time – not a perpetual display,” she said. “It’s possible, at some point in the future, it could be incorporated into a permanent kind of art. But at this point we don’t have any plans to do that.”
She added that the Branciforte Preservation Society is “not being treated any differently than any other group in town that would make a request for space.”
Silveira said he doesn’t want to take the perceived slights personally. But, well, he can’t help but harbor a certain irritation at the city’s reluctance to, in his words, give Branciforte its due. For the record, the state in 1950 mounted a plaque in front of Branciforte School designating it State Registered Landmark No. 469. If the state’s willing to acknowledge the settlement, Silveira asks, why not the city?
“The fact is, this was the first (secular) coastal village in California,” he said, standing in the living room of the first adobe house. “Santa Cruz was the mission on the other side of the river. They don’t call Santa Cruz ‘West Side,’ so why are they calling us the ‘East Side’ when we’re the Branciforte (neighborhood)? We’ve lost our identity, thanks to the city. Our own community doesn’t know who we are.
“No one knows that this (Branciforte Avenue) was the first documented surveyed road by a civil engineer, and also part of El Camino Real. And we’re confident in saying this is one of the earliest adobes in California. There’s a plaque out front, but the Clampers (E Clampus Vitus, a history group) put it there, not the city.”
Some of the wording on the plaque may hold at least part of the key to why some might want to downplay Branciforte’s history. The plaque, in part, reads that the settlement was “populated by paroled petty criminals from Guadalajaran juzgados and pensioned soldiers.” A book called “The California Missions,” a publication of Sunset magazine, called the Branciforte settlement “an unsavory pueblo across the river. ... Instead of upright, God-fearing men, there were nine vagabonds and criminals with their families, seventeen in all, sick, destitute, indolent, and immoral.”
To this day, Silveira said, some Santa Cruzans equate the “East Side” with a less savory side of town.
“Well, without using too harsh a word, well, you know, maybe it’s racism,” he said. “There are a lot of Italians who live in our community, and Portuguese and Spanish and Mexicans and the French. We’re a diverse (neighborhood).”
And a growing, changing one. As Silveira drove his sedan through the neighborhood on a tour, he showed where what for centuries had been a meadow just below the last remaining adobe house is now a housing development – with a small patch of undeveloped land where the historical remnants were unearthed during construction. Then he drove to the remains of the zoo and park, not much more than an abandoned bear cave and downed eucalyptus branches, where another housing development was under construction.
He tramped through the branches up the hillside where a stone monument once held a plaque commemorating the park and zoo. The plaque is gone, the stone structure tagged with graffiti. He shook his head.
“Most of the neighbors aren’t even aware this is here,” he said.
Later, Silveira and a reporter encountered a woman, Susan Myers, who owned a home nearby, on a hike near the zoo site. She said she had no idea of its history, but, when Silveira recounted the story, she exclaimed, “That’s fascinating.” She then asked the history of the adobe house, saying, “One of my old friends actually lived there as a boy.”
Such sentiments bolster Silveira’s resolve to push on against the city’s indifference and try to give Branciforte the branding he feels it deserves. After driving by the library, the zoo site, the burial grounds, the school and the proposed El Portal Park, he made one last stop on his impromptu tour.
It was a private circular driveway where three fairly new houses stood. In front were Spanish Colonial-style columns, adorned with red tile.
“See this street sign here? Vista Branciforte?” he said. “That’s a private road. This guy who built it realized the only way to get any recognition is if we name it and put up the sign ourselves.”