Central San Diego, the newest panoramic landscape painting by local artist Amanda Kachadoorian, places viewers on the northwest side of Coronado island looking westward to the ocean under a stormy sky. Point Loma is shown in the background as it’s earliest inhabitants knew it, covered in local oak and pine trees. Moving across the San Diego Bay, the work’s botanical subjects stand in two groups in the foreground. Kachadoorian has combined this collection of flora and fauna to tell the stories of the city’s inhabitants, how they came to be here, and how different groups have used the land in this slice of San Diego throughout history.
For the Kumeyaay natives who have made their home in San Diego County for 10,000 years, the land around the bay was nationally held1; meaning it did not belong to any single band or group. Any member of the Kumeyaay nation could hunt, fish, and gather plants in the area. Though the eco-region has changed over several centuries, some plants used by the Kumeyaay still grow here. Locals will likely recognize the distinctive green spiked rosette of Shaw’s Agave in the center of the larger grouping. To the left of that, we see the stacked purplish bloom of a chaparral yucca, a native plant that used to grow along the coastline and is now more readily found in the high desert2. The Kumeyaay used these plants as food sources and worked their fibers into clothing and tools of all kinds3. They also used white sage, the distinct silvery leaves blooming from twisted tree branches on the right side of the same small island. The Kumeyaay burn dried sage as a part of closed spiritual practices that continue to this day4 5. The Natives cared for this land largely without interruption until the first Europeans to enter the region arrived in the 16th century.
Juan Cabrillo, a Portuguese navigator working for the Spanish crown, sailed from Natividad, Mexico on June 17, 1542, and landed in San Diego Bay in September of the same year6. At the time, Mexico was known as New Spain, having been added to the colonial holdings through conquest roughly 20 years earlier. The Spanish did not occupy the land at first contact; San Diego remained a distant outpost for nearly 200 years. The demographic changes in the intervening years happened on a smaller scale as Natives from the interior and Africans brought to the new world for forced labor migrated north, away from Mexico City7. The Spanish formally returned in the 1760s to establish the mission system across California and began to build in Old Town8. These religious outposts were controlled by Franciscan priests and supported by soldiers to turn Natives into, “good subjects of the King and children of God.9” The massive shift in culture, including forced labor, brutal punishment, and rampant disease, was devastating for the Kumeyaay and their enduring culture. This difficult 300 year period is represented by an enlarged bloom of Spanish lavender seen on the smaller island on the painting’s right side. This particular variety is identified by the tightly stacked pink or purple blossoms with a set of longer petals at the end of the stalk that stand up like rabbit ears10.
The Catholic church’s power was already declining when Mexico won independence in 1821 and weakened further when the mission lands were taken from the Franciscan priests and given to private citizens in the following years11. Time San Diego spent as part of northern Mexico is represented by the organ pipe cactus and the pod of the silk-cotton tree. The organ pipe cactus, seen at the far left of the painting, is native to the Sonoran desert. It has a highly textured surface with deep accordion-like grooves that give the impression of stripes from afar. Silk cotton trees disperse their seeds in the wind from pods like the one growing from the rightmost tree branch at the center of the work. These plants are native to tropical areas of Mexico and Western Africa.
Mexican control of the area ended when California was annexed by the United States in 184812. Statehood came in 1850, immediately after the discovery of goldfields in Northern California brought approximately 300,000 people from all over America, Asia, South America, Europe, and even Australia to the west coast13. A pair of golden poppies, the state flower of California, bloom atop the organ pipe cactus’ outstretched limbs. Exploding populations drove the development of railroads, which depended on the labor of Chinese immigrants, represented by bamboo sprouting from the agave rosette on the larger landmass. The silvery barked eucalyptus tree on the right side of the larger landmass symbolizes miners coming from Australia and an influx of actual trees planted in anticipation of building wooden ships and the wharf that would later become essential to the city. Tucked in with the groundcover on the lower left side of the painting, tiny white chamomile flowers sprout in the center of three-leaved shamrocks representing communities from Russia and Ireland respectively, and the blue Cyani flower, the national flower of Germany, is nestled in the Spanish lavender’s blooms. Other broadly European plants representing new San Diegans from this period include the pink berry of the spindle tree seen at the foot of the eucalyptus tree and again at the far right of the painting, the common bugloss blooming at the top of the two bamboo stalks, and St. John’s Wort, the trio of yellow flowers on the left side of the painting which can be found in southern Europe, northern Africa, and western Asia.
Gold was discovered in San Diego County by Fred Coleman in 1869, just west of Julian14. Coleman was a former slave and one of a handful of Black farmers who settled in San Diego County between 1804 and 1850. More Black families from the rural south settled in the far east of the county following the end of the civil war and ratification of the 13th amendment, which ended slavery in 1865. Though record keeping of the lineages and ethnicities of enslaved peoples are few and far between, it is believed that the majority of these people came from western Africa and are represented in the painting by plants native to that region, like the vine of the Nephthys Swainei plant who’s pale green, heart-shaped leaves are climbing the stalk of the white flower to the right of the agave plant. The tapered white petals of the bleeding heart vine, also native to tropical West Africa, sit atop the lavender bloom like a crown and the ribbed, cone-shaped blooms on the welwitschia bush, which grows along the southwestern coast, are bursting from the large cracked spindle berry to the far right side of the painting.
Part of what made west Africans advantageous assets for southern slave owners was their high level of skill with agriculture and raising livestock. This expertise was passed through generations and allowed newly freed people to set up homesteads in the countryside, limiting their exposure to racial discrimination. Julian was the first hotspot where Black San Diegans owned and operated their own businesses, including bakeries, restaurants, and the oldest continuously operating hotel in southern California, The Hotel Robinson (now known as the Julian Hotel)15. As the economy picked up in the 1880s, more Black San Diegans moved into the downtown area, opening their own businesses and settling in what we now know as Barrio Logan. Though there was no organized institution of slavery or racial antagonism in San Diego, Black citizens were still treated as outcasts and excluded from many facets of life. By contrast, their businesses largely served all races.
During the goldrush, businessmen William Heath Davis16 and Alonzo Horton17 looked south to San Diego and started major development in the port area. Davis was the first to purchase a large tract of land in 1850 and build a wharf and warehouse in what is now Downtown. Economic troubles stalled Davis’ project, but Horton arrived a few years later and continued working from what was left of the wharf to develop the city. Miners struck gold in Baja California in the 1880s, marking another boom of massive growth aided by the newly completed transcontinental railroad. New businesses were built to serve the needs of those heading to Mexico, and transportation in the downtown area via railways and streetcars quickly expanded. When the Philippines became a territory of the United States in the late 1890s, Filipino migrants started to settle downtown around Market Street. Kachadoorian has represented that community with the Manilla palm on the right-hand side of the composition. Climbing up the palm’s trunk is the bloom of an Attenborough pitcher plant, also native to the Philippines. The new technology of tuna canning was essential to the growing population. Cultures on the Pacific Ocean and around the Mediterranean Sea had been fishing for tuna for generations and were poised to bring that skill set to market. San Francisco had a large number of Italian businessmen in fishing and many moved their ships south after the turn of the century. Many Japanese fishermen also entered tuna fishing around 1900 and quickly dominated the industry operating 50 of the 131 boats in operation in 191418. Unfortunately, many of these businesses were seized and shuttered when Japanese citizens were moved to internment camps during World War II19. We see the red leaf of the Japanese maple tree surrounding the orange California poppy blossoms like a collar, and the fragmented head of a tuna fish below the large yellow flower at the center of the painting. Italy’s national flower, the white lily, is seen blooming to the right of the large agave rosette.
The military has had a pivotal role in the development of central San Diego and reached its height in the 1940s. Soldiers were among the sailors sent with Cabrillo from Spain in the 16th century. The Spanish sent more troops to maintain order during the mission period, and when control passed to Mexico post-revolution, those outposts were maintained to defend the harbor from smugglers. After the treaty of Hidalgo signed Alta-California over to the United States in 1848, land on the southern tip of Point Loma, seen in the background of the painting, was set aside for military use20. San Diego’s military grew modestly over the years, expanding to include training space and a hospital in Balboa Park in the 1920s and 32nd street ship repair in the 1930s. When World War II hit, San Diego experienced a “Blitz-Boom.” The city’s population soared from around 200,000 in 1940 to over 300,000 by the summer of 194121. The new arrivals included trainees going to war in the Pacific or Europe and support workers who stayed in San Diego. Established civilian industries were repurposed to serve the military, including about 50% of the established Tuna fleet. The massive expansion of Naval bases and aircraft production established San Diego as one of the strongest military cities in the country, and the armed forces continue to employ nearly 100,000 people across the county.
As the city of San Diego has expanded, it’s grown to include other neighborhoods and ethnic groups from around the world. At the tip of the chaparral yucca blossom is the pistil of the hibiscus flower which grows native in Thailand. Thai immigrants started moving to the U.S. in the 1950s, and almost 100,000 have settled in southern California to date22. The large yellow flower in the center of the painting is the Mai flower, also known as the Mickey Mouse plant, a traditional New Year’s flower from Vietnam. The first wave of Vietnamese immigrants came to San Diego in the 1970s, fleeing political conflict ,andlily established a community in the East San Diego neighborhood of City Heights. The six blocks of El Cajon Boulevard between Euclid and Highland are now known as the Little Saigon Cultural and Commercial District23. In the 1980s and 90s, a combination of ecological issues and civil war displaced thousands of East Africans who also settled in City Heights24. A super-sized calla lily rolls open like a soft wave on the left of the larger grouping representing Ethiopia. The National flower of Somalia, the king protea, sits on the right bank of the same arrangement tilted forward to show its wide white center surrounded by reddish-pink petals. San Diego is home to the second-largest Somali community in the country25. Refugees from Ukraine have joined the neighborhood more recently, following political escalation with Russia in the mid-2010s26. Their national flower is the sunflower, which is blooming in the branched canopy of the Chinese bamboo.
This painting is daunting in its complexity but masterfully executed and rich in meaning for those willing to dig. Each element has been rendered with a level of care that steers the content away from ideas of assimilation and towards honoring adaptation, resilience, and the preservation of distinct cultures. It’s important to note that though this writing has been arranged chronologically, the representation of time in the painting is amorphus; there is no differentiation between past and present. The circumstances that brought people to this region are moments in history, but all these citizens are living in a shared evolving now.
Kachadoorian’s layers of meaning extend beyond the hybridized plants; the stormy sky overhead is a reference to Mike Davis’ 2005 book, Under a Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See that exposed uncomfortable truths behind the public persona of this carefree vacation destination. Almost 16 years after its publishing, these issues persist. In a post of the work during the summer of 2020 amid calls for justice by the Movement for Black Lives, the artist wrote, “This painting represents all the cultures that have contributed to the history and community of San Diego…From the Kumeyaay tribe that inhabited this land for thousands of years to the various cultures that have migrated from various countries for the “American Dream” in hopes for a better future, EVERYONE has contributed to the development of this city and deserves the same respect and opportunity EQUALLY, REGARDLESS of ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, and economic income.27”
Her trademark floating heart is tucked in amongst the plants protected by a red-tinted glass bowl. The heart is a tender, vulnerable thing. One can easily imagine the caution and vigilance necessary to transport it over a long journey to a new home or protect it from centuries of settler colonialism. This painting is a representation of collective humanity and reminds viewers to see this work, and their neighbors, through a lens of compassion even while interrogating legacies of descrimination and violence.
1. Point Loma – Environmental Management of Pre-Contact Kumeyaay
2. Hesperoyucca Whipplei: Chaparral yucca
3. Summary of Shaw’s Agave and its Traditional Use
4. California White Sage
5. Native American Smudging
6. History of San Diego, 1542-1908, Part One, Chapter 1: The Spanish Explorers
7. The African Presence In New Spain, c. 1528-1700
8. History of San Diego, 1542-1908, Part One: Chapter 2: Beginning of the Mission Epoch
9. Indian Labor at the California Missions: Slavery or Salvation?
10. Spanish Lavender Plants – How To Grow Spanish Lavender In The Garden
11. History of San Diego, 1542-1908, Part One: Chapter 5: The End of Franciscan Rule
12. History of San Diego, 1542-1908: Part Two: Chapter 8: San Diego in the Mexican War
13. California Gold Rush
14. Julian, California
15. Black Pioneers in San Diego, 1880-1920
16. William Heath Davis, 1822-1909
17. Alonzo Erastus Horton, 1813-1909
18. The Origins of California’s High-Seas Tuna Fleet
19. Japanese Internment Camps
20. Naval Base Point Loma
21. War Comes to San Diego
22. Our Community: The Thai Immigrant Experience in the United States
23. Our History: Little Saigon San Diego
24. Migration data in Eastern Africa
25. San Diego’s Somali Population: Explained
26. Ukrainians are now one of the top groups resettled as refugees in the U.S. under Trump administration
27. @Art_From_Rose, Amanda Rose Kachadoorian on Instagram