looking back

Looking Back – Cervantes

By Kinen Carvala

“The peer of Homer, Dante and Shakespeare” was how J.C. Cebrian described the subject of the memorial he was presenting with E.J. Molera at Golden Gate Park. These two architect-engineers, who had separately emigrated from Spain to San Francisco, dedicated the memorial to the Spanish author Miguel Cervantes. 

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A statue honoring the man many scholars consider to be the greatest writer in the Spanish language, Miguel Cervantes, was unveiled more than 110 years ago in Golden Gate Park. It is located just east of the de Young Museum on Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive. Photos by Michael Durand.

The monument of Cervantes was unveiled on Sept. 3, 1916, before a crowd of more than 1,000 people, reported the San Francisco Chronicle. San Francisco Mayor James Rolph, Jr. accepted the statue on behalf of the city. George Barron, member of the Native Sons of the Golden West, noted how close the Cervantes statue was to the monument for Spanish missionary Junipero Serra. 

Also present at the unveiling were diplomats from Spain and Uruguay, where the monument’s artist, Jo Mora, was born (he emigrated from Uruguay as a child). Mora also worked on the façade of a new Native Sons of the Golden West building. Mora later worked on a bronze piece in the San Francisco Bohemian Club, a terra cotta panel in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, a golden panel in Campton Place hotel and Serra’s crypt in the Carmel Mission.

The memorial has two life-size bronze statues of characters from Cervantes’ most famous novel, “Don Quixote.” The titular protagonist and his sidekick Sancho Panza are both kneeling and looking up at a larger-than-life bust of the author. The characters kneeling on a pedestal have their eyes about six-and-a-half feet above the ground, so that visitors at the memorial will be in a similar position to gaze up at Cervantes.

Cervantes statue looking up closer

The Cervantes statue in Golden Gate Park depicts the two main characters in the book, “Don Quixote” – Sancho Panza and the title character, Don Quixote de la Mancha – staring up adoringly at a bust of their creator, writer Miguel Cervantes.

Cervantes was born in 1547. In 1567 he first published poems commemorating the death of the Queen of Spain. Cervantes did not spend all his years quietly in a writer’s study. According to Donald McCrory’s biography, Cervantes fled to Rome after a duel, fought the Ottoman Empire under the pope’s banner in the Mediterranean and was held for years as an injured prisoner of war in Algiers, a city in North Africa.

Cervantes’ literary output of a novel and some plays was interrupted again by what the English called the “Singeing the King of Spain’s Beard.” English fireships, led by Sir Francis Drake at the Spanish harbor of Cádiz in 1587, destroyed thousands of tons of supplies. Cervantes was assigned to travel around Spain and seize grain as taxes for the war effort, giving him unpleasant experiences with people from all walks of life which later provided material for the adventures in “Don Quixote.”

In the story, the protagonist Don Quixote is inspired by other authors’ novels he had read, including the 1500 novel “Las Sergas de Esplandián” (“The Adventures of Esplandián”), the source of the name California. The fictional California’s pagan warrior women under their queen Calafia joined Muslims to fight against Christians for Constantinople – only to be defeated and converted to Christianity. The words “California,” “Calafia” and “caliph” are all derived from the Arabic word khalifa, referencing Muslim political leadership. 

The fictional religious conflicts had a nonfictional analogue: Christians battled Muslims; Spain’s Christian rulers completed their “reconquista” (re-conquest) of the Iberian Peninsula from Muslims in 1492 and mandated conversion to Christianity. As late as 1566, unrest in the southern Spanish region Andalusia with Christianized descendants of Muslims, called Moriscos, prompted Cervantes and his family to move to Madrid. Later, a 1609 Spanish royal decree announced the expulsion of Moriscos from Spain.

Part one of “Don Quixote” was published in Spanish in 1605. Part two was published a decade later, in 1615. The novel also gained a following outside of Spain, with part one translated into English in 1612 and into French in 1614. The novel even made its way across the Atlantic to another part of the Spanish Empire promoting Christianity – colonial California, where “Don Quixote” was present at the library at Mission Santa Gabriel. An example of good Castilian (i.e.,Spanish), is how the last governor of Spanish California, Pablo Vicente de Solá, described “Don Quixote” to the young future governor of Mexican California, Juan Bautista Alvarado. 

Cervantes’  and Shakespeare’s deaths were both recorded as April 23, 1616, but each writer’s countries used different calendars with different methods of calculating leap days. Cervantes’ Spain used the Gregorian calendar. He passed away 10 days before Shakespeare died in England on same date on the Julian calendar.

The Cervantes monument is in the northeast end of the Music Concourse. Start at JFK Drive and walk south on Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive towards the de Young Museum; The Cervantes monument can be seen on the north (right) side of the road.

Cervantes statue placque

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