Homeless in Paradise

Santa Barbara is a small coastal city jammed between the Santa Ynez mountains and the Pacific Ocean. The city of Santa Barbara, characterized by miles of seductive coastline and impressive mountain peaks, occupies an area of forty-two square miles. This forty-two square mile area is less than 0.0001% of the United States’s landmass, and yet, this fraction of a percent of land has arrested the American psyche. To the American psyche, Santa Barbara represents a promise, a return to paradise. For those who know it, Santa Barbara’s beauty is shrouded in suspect serendipity. Every beautiful feature of the city, seemingly innate to the untrained eyes of tourists, mocks a history of colonization that is particularly ugly. Santa Barbara cloaks its ugly history in bright white stucco, ornate red-tile roofs, and lanky palms. The calm coastline, harmonious marriage of architecture and nature, and the yearly average temperature of sixty degrees fahrenheit sell a picture of paradise so enticing, that even hard-boiled Hollywood skeptics flock to the box office to purchase tickets for paradise. I did not purchase a ticket to paradise. I won my ticket in the raffle of birth. I am the recipient of good fortune and unfortunate circumstances, born into a nation’s fetish, homeless and naive.

But winning the geographic lottery was unremarkable to me as a child: as common as the eucalyptus trees which line the stretch of the 101 which cuts through Santa Barbara. The paradisiacal beauty of Santa Barbara was unremarkable, my experience of homelessness was unremarkable, and I am sure that if an alien with green skin materialized in my family’s assisted housing at Saint Vincent’s, I would have considered it unremarkable, for I had nothing to compare my experience to. This changed in college. In college, I learned that the eucalyptus trees which I considered native were actually invasive. A distinction that challenged my fundamental understanding of Santa Barbara and subsequently, myself. 

My sophomore ecological revelation shattered a facade that had begun to crack a year before. My college peers, many of them from less than picturesque towns such as Stockton and Palmdale, were dubious of my claim to paradise and interrogated me about my birthplace. Surely I did not mean the Santa Barbara, I must be referring to some lesser known suburb in the county. Santa Barbara is not a real place afterall, it is an idea.

“No, I am from Santa Barbara. Why?”

I stared back at my interrogators, annoyed. They acted like they knew a secret about me. To demonstrate my superior knowledge on the subject of my life, I shared with my interrogators the novel fact that I grew up homeless in paradise.

“Homeless in paradise”, I do not know what this phrase means; I have never asked myself. I am from the city of Santa Barbara, sure, my birth certificate says as much. But what rights does birth give you? The right to life maybe, but not the right to a home.

The right to life, but not the right to a home is a distinction the Chumash, the indigenous people of the central coast of California—where Santa Barbara is located, learned when the Spanish conquistadors sailed up from Mexico. The statement that Santa Barbara was Chumash land was repeated often during my public education; to my memory’s ear, it sounds more like a confession than a lesson.

“The Spanish colonized Santa Barbara,” we were told, “The natives were Chumash.”

Of course, the Spanish could not have colonized Santa Barbara: It didn’t exist yet. Our educators were too polite to say: “The Spanish colonized the Chumash.” Or started to colonize I should say. The colonization of the Chumash ended in 1965, long after the disappearance of Spanish missionaries,with the passing of the last native Chumash speaker, Ineseño. Today, no native Chumash speak their own language. I have my own language and yet I struggle to find the right words to explain the impact the loss of a language has on a people.

When words fail, pictures help. In downtown Santa Barbara, along Chapala street, between W. Victoria street and W. Sola street, there are six tile mosaics that tell the story of Santa Barbara.

The first mosaic depicts the Chumash before colonization. 

The second mosaic depicts the contact being made between the Chumash and the Spanish. 

The third mosaic depicts the Santa Barbara Mission, a Spanish missionary, a Chumash framing a structure, and a Chumash farming. The toll Catholicism took on the Chumash people is evident in the body language of the Chumash farmer. The Chumash farmer hangs his head. His eyes, primed to sow tears, stare into the soil, into the land that has been taken from his people. “Chumash farmer” is an oxymoron. The Chumash were hunter-gatherers, not farmers.

The fourth mosaic depicts the vaqueros, the Hispanic cowboys of Spanish California.

The fifth mosaic depicts two settlers, a man and a woman. The man looks back to the four preceding panels, ostensibly trying to make sense of his place in the story. The woman stares out from the mosaic at the viewer, as if to ask where they belong in the story.

The sixth mosaic offers an answer to the question posed by the woman in the fifth mosaic. The sixth and final mosaic on Chapala street depicts an oil derrick, a car, a rocket, a human-like being in a helmet, and the moon. The mosaic represents the future. There are no Chumash depicted in this future. In fact, there are no people depicted at all, there are only the objects of our ambitions.

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