PRESIDIO OF MONTEREY, Calif. -- The Spanish history of the Presidio of Monterey took center stage during a Hispanic heritage observance at the post theater, Sept. 25.
Attendees of the event, hosted by Company B, 229th Military Intelligence Battalion, sampled Mexican pastries and drinks as they listened to a presentation by the Defense Language Institute's historian, Cameron Binkley. A trio of Spanish language students closed the observance with a dance to the traditional Mexican folk song "Cielito Lindo."
Founded in 1770 by Gaspar de Portola, the Presidio provided a foothold against encroaching Russian interests in Alta California and protection for the lucrative Manilla trade route -- a route that sent galleons from the Philippines, across the Pacific, and down the coast of California to what is modern-day Mexico. By 1776 the new fort became the capital of both Alta and Baja California.
However, the location of today's Presidio of Monterey, Binkley said was known as El Castillo, a small fortification overlooking Monterey's harbor, and separate from the old Spanish Presidio.
In 1818 that separate fortification earned its stripes during California's only sea-land battle when it battled Argentine ships under French captain, Hippolyte Bouchard. "There was a three-hour gun battle, and the ship that attacked raised the white flag," said Binkley. He added a second ship landed troops down the coast, drove out the Spanish and sacked Monterey.
The U.S. took possession of Monterey and its Presidio, bloodlessly, 26 years later when U.S. Navy Capt. John Mervine landed and rose the American flag over the custom house during the Mexican-American War. The Americans would improve the fortifications of El Castillo, requisition the surrounding land, naming the post after the Navy captain as Fort Mervine.
The small military reservation didn't reach its current size until 1902 when the United States fortified its western coast as its Pacific holdings grew. The new larger installation was then named Ord Barracks.
Binkley said Ord Barracks was quickly re-designated as the Presidio of Monterey in 1904 thanks to romanticization by the new, mostly Anglo-American, inhabitants headed by the Stanford family of California's Spanish past. Today the Presidio and all its iterations make it 249 years old -- six years older than the United States.
Army Pfc. Justin Earnhart, one of three DLI Spanish language students who performed for the crowd of 200, appreciated Binkley's history lesson of his current home's uniquely Hispanic heritage.
"We learned how we got here, how the Presidio of Monterey got here -- a good history lesson," said the 21-year-old from Tacna, Peru. "It's one thing to learn about the culture, but when you can participate in it… it allows you to connect with the culture."
Spc. Jessica Luarte who also danced during the observance, said it was an honor to dress up and perform in front of her fellow service members and she hopes they value each other's diverse backgrounds.
"Be proud of being part of an organization that takes the time to honor all its heritages," said the 29-year-old native of St. Albans, Vermont.
Binkely added one humorous bit of knowledge about the word Presidio and its Spanish heritage. It no longer means fort in the Spanish speaking world, but rather -- prison.
"If you're a graduate of the Defense Language Institute and you're talking with a native Spanish speaker," said Binkley. "You need to be very careful when you're explaining to them that you got your education at the Presidio."