Jeanette-Marie Gibson Bassi was listening to a talk radio station in her car as she was leaving her mother’s house in Temecula when she heard a quick news headline: a local tribe is trying to rename Maclay Avenue in San Fernando.
The news broadcast caught her by surprise.
Bassi is a descendent of Charles Maclay — the California state senator who is credited for founding the City of San Fernando and for whom the city’s main thoroughfare is named after — she had only heard great things about him through tales from her grandmother, uncle, and aunt; Maclay’s direct grandchildren. That he was a Methodist minister who was pivotal in establishing the City of San Fernando, the San Fernando Valley’s first city, and the Maclay School of Theology which eventually became the Claremont School of Theology. During a power point presentation, Bassi cited that Maclay was also instrumental in bringing the Southern Pacific Railroad west.
Bassi, a human resources consultant, did not understand why anyone would want to discredit her great-great grandfather, someone who “gave so much” and “did so much good in history.”
She started making phone calls. She called the Daughters of the American Revolution. She called the San Fernando Historical Association. And she called San Fernando’s mayor and city manager.
It was then that she learned about the shroud on her family’s legacy that has motivated the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians’ call to remove Maclay’s name from the city’s main street and replace it with one that recognizes the tribe or of their former tribal leader who they feel was wronged by Maclay. After purchasing a 56,000 acre land grant in 1874, what was known as San Fernando Rancho, Maclay ruthlessly displaced and, the tribe believes, illegally removed the Tataviam people from their land.
According to an account March 1, 1896 reported in the Los Angeles Herald newspaper:
A gentleman who was born and raised in Los Angeles county and who has known Rogerio Rocha for forty years yesterday related the story of Rocha’s ejectment from his San Fernando lands, which was certainly both cruel and heartless. He said: “The day that was selected to eject Rogerio Rocha was such a day as Monday afternoon. The rain was pouring down in perfect sheets. That was the time these philanthropists selected to have the old Indian and his bed-ridden wife moved from under their roof.
“A party of deputy sheriffs proceeded to Rocha’s casa, where he had lived for over forty years, and entering, they carried his poor old wife [Maria], over 80 years of age, out into the road in the rain, and there they laid her down.
“She had not the strength to move. She laid there for some time, and finally, as I remember, was carried down to the mission, where she died shortly after as a result of the exposure to the rain and wind at the time of the ejectment. “Rocha’s chickens and personal effects were stowed away in sacks and dumped into the road. The ejectment was the most outrageous proceeding I have ever witnessed in my life.” The gentleman who told this story is known throughout all Southern California. His integrity of character is beyond question. He desires no particular publicity in connection with the case, but his name will be given if any responsible person desires it.
Senator Refugio F. Del Valle is well acquainted with Rogerio Rocha. The senator remembers that when he was a boy Rogerio was one of the best known Indians about the mission San Fernando. He was a skilled artisan and was an adept at making spurs in the California style, as well as being a blacksmith. In those days the padres taught all the Indians to be useful in some way, and Rogerio Rocha was one of the handiest of them all. The senator states that Rocha formerly sang in the early days in the old mission church at San Fernando. He had a good voice and could read the notes of music very easily. The senator’s recollection is that Rogerio could read and write. If the senator’s recollection in this particular has not failed it is significant, for in the last five years everything that bears Rogerio Rocha’s signature is signed by his X mark.
The story also pointed out why Rogerio’s land was considered so valuable:
…he had the finest kind of pure mountain water on his place in the way of a spring is also a reason given why Rogerio escaped the ravages of the smallpox. This very spring is what made Rogerio’s land valuable, so valuable that it was wanted by others, and to get it it was necessary to dump Rocha and his aged wife into the road in a blinding rainstorm. They secured his land and its water rights and he was left to starve. His wife lingered only a few weeks and then passed away. This is another chapter of the story of the life of Rogerio Rocha, and there are others yet to come that will be interesting to all readers of The Herald, and to certain individuals they will be of surpassing interest.
The Tataviam tribe first presented the proposal to change the street name at an August 2018 city council meeting. The tribe also held a press conference during Indigenous People’s Day in front of their tribal office located on Second Street in San Fernando, where Vice Mayor Sylvia Ballin, then mayor, announced her support for the tribe’s position.
On Monday, Feb, 4, Bassi along with about a dozen supporters including Maclay relatives showed up to the council meeting and publicly addressed the council with a presentation of their own. They implored the City to not let this “deplorable” incident overshadow Maclay’s accomplishments, and to keep the street name.
Although none of Maclay’s descendants currently live in the City of San Fernando, the family still considers it their hometown, Bassi said. She mentioned the family’s long ties to the region, from the senator’s granddaughter graduating as the only girl at San Fernando High School in 1903 to noting that she and her siblings attended St. Ferdinand’s grammar school and Bishop Alemany High School. Much of her family is buried at San Fernando Mission’s Cemetery, she said.
Bassi maintains that Maclay acted lawfully, but acknowledged that his actions were inhumane.
“The incident involving the removal was legally correct. But as his descendants, we recognize the law that removed the Rochas’ and the way he removed them was morally wrong and non-indicative of our family values,” Bassi said at the end of her presentation.
She closed her presentation by saying, “We understand the Tataviam Indians want to preserve their heritage, and the Maclays also want to preserve their heritage. We hope that both families can be honored for their own accomplishments and contributions to the community that both families love.”
Also representing the Maclay family was Bruce Gibson, a county supervisor in San Luis Obispo and Bassi’s cousin.
“We’re the great-great grandchildren of Sen. Charles Maclay, and we are natives [of San Fernando],” Gibson said. “We’re also here because of a deplorable event that happened a long time ago and we know in that event the Rocha family was treated inhumanely. We also know the hurt from that even ripples through today.
“We don’t believe this particular event should define Sen Charles Maclay the man nor the wider contributions of his family. More importantly…we believe this is an opportunity to open an important conversation within this community. And we believe an honest look at the history of San Fernando — the good and the bad — will provide some important lessons, both insights on our present and hopes for our future.”
Following the presentation, Vice Mayor Sylvia Ballin spoke openly and reaffirmed her stance, saying “I stand with the tribe.”
“I think sometimes, in life, we have to stand for what we believe, and I stand for what I believe. I don’t know how this will end up, but I will do what I can to follow their lead and make the changes, hopefully, that they are asking for. Again, there is so much pain tied to this into the history, and this is not the end of the discussion, this is the beginning,” Ballin said.
Mayor Joel Fajardo said, “I myself at this point in time don’t know what the solution is. I’m not someone who is personally very tied into legacies of political names. And so for me, it’s always about doing what is right and learning what the best solution is.”
Members of the tribe also took the opportunity to speak during public comment.
Tribal President Rudy Ortega Jr., who previously met with the Maclay family before this city council meeting, said that he believes that a middle ground can be found.
“But I still strongly believe, from what my people have told me, that Maclay Avenue needs to change, and I’m going to stand with that as well,” he said. “Because without that, we are not correcting history. We need to tell all sides. Just as the [Maclay] family explained, we need to explain both sides.”
Ortega has pointed out that the members of his tribe have had difficulty securing their federal recognition today, “because of the actions of Charles Maclay.”
Bernice Francis Cook, a tribal elder, said “There is just such pain right now that I feel. Because we have given so much, and our ancestors suffered so much, and there was a price on our head. It’s a miracle that we are still here — but we are and we are so proud. And we’re honorable people. I just hope you would just take this into consideration when you decide on renaming Maclay.”
Pamela Villaseñor, said she is grateful that Maclay’s descendants want to have a conversation, but added that we are in a time “where there is no more excuses when it comes to discrimination, oppression, and further victimization” of victims.
“We are at a time where we need to come up with solutions to acknowledge true history and move forward with that reconciliation. Why? Because that’s a part of healing. You cannot heal historical trauma without actually doing the work and finding ways to help people who are victims,” the tribe’s executive advisor said.
The tribe’s historic boundaries extend from San Fernando and the Northeast San Fernando Valley through Santa Clarita where resident Leon Worden lives. He spoke of the need to consider change driven by present society, noting that “today it’s not that we have more information, it’s that we think about people differently. At least here in California. I’d like to think we don’t think of an entire race or entire ethnicity of people as somehow, less than human.
“Maclay is a product of his time. We’re not products of Maclay’s time. We’re not products of a probably different complected city council that decided to name a street in his honor. We are products of our time. We can only affect things for today’s people. Street names, parks, other public spaces reflect who we are. And naming them reflects how we want people to see us. All I ask is that you ask yourself, how do you want to be seen to the public?”
Businessman Tom Ross, a member of the San Fernando Chamber of Commerce added that, “The arc of history is littered with bad decisions and horrible events. I think we have to decide if we would like to have people remember us for making a huge, divisive argument, or educating people who are here today on what happened, and keeping that legacy of education on what happened in our town in their minds.
“We don’t teach anyone anything about San Fernando. This place is a linchpin of the development of Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. And the Tataviam Tribe is one of the litany of things that no one knows about San Fernando…we should partner with them — and the chamber is willing to do that — on what happened here and what shouldn’t happen again, and why this place is so unique.”
Outside the council chambers, Bassi told the San Fernando Valley Sun/ El Sol that instead of erasing Maclay’s name from the city, a street should be named after Rocha, even suggesting Second Street, where the tribal administration building is located and because the street “intersects Maclay [Avenue], which would be very symbolic, of course.”
She envisions a possible memorial at the intersection representing “both sides of the family, and let their stories be told. Both good and bad.”
Bassi told the San Fernando Valley Sun/ El Sol she felt the evening was a good opening of conversation.
“Everyone was being very upfront and discussing what we felt, and we just felt it was the first door for open communication between the two families, and we hope to continue that,” she said
Bassi added that the family does not want be divisive, stating there is “way too much divisiveness” in the country right now.
“There is too much hatred going on. We want to not delete part of history, or delete our grandfather and everything that he did good; we don’t want that gone. But we do want the Indian tribe to be more visible,” she said.
When asked how the Maclay family would commit to increasing indigenous visibility if Maclay Avenue is renamed, Bassi said she did not know.
“If they start to go that way, we will have to start to reassess what we are going to do,“ she said.
There is no official city policy on renaming streets, according to Fajardo. But, he said, the city would explore that process in the coming weeks.
The city previously changed First Street to Robert F. Kennedy Drive but then changed it back. The city had also previously changed San Fernando Recreation Park to Cesar Chavez Park to honor the late labor leader, but that too was reverted back by the local council to its original name.