Cresensio was born on April 15, 1930 and grew up in Santa Barbara, where his roots are firmly planted. His mother was born in Santa Barbara also, as was her mother, her mother’s mother, and her mother before that, all the way back to the Chumash Indians.
“One of my great-great-grandmothers was a lady named Scolastica who was born in a village on the very end of State Street, where the wharf now is. And her husband was an Indian whose name was Andreas, who was born in San Luis Obispo. Both were pure-blooded Chumash, and from there it went mother-daughter, mother-daughter up until my mother and a sister I had who died very young. So it was a positive DNA done by Stanford University to trace back the bloodline.”
“My grandfather was a Cordero, who was a descendent of the man who once owned 8,000 acres here. All this land belonged to Miguel Cordero, who was a Yaqui from Baja, California. He was signed on by the Portola expedition, and he guided them all the way up to Monterey. His son joined the Spanish army at the Presidio, and when he retired, this land was given him as a grant. Eventually one of the daughters married a member of the Bixby family. Through the years, they ranched and raised small crops. They took their crops over the Nojoqui Trail to sell to the Santa Ynez mission. More than anything, they raised cattle for the hides and the tallow. If you killed a steer, you ate what you could that day and you dried some into jerky and the rest was just left out for the animals to eat.”
“Growing up, I always thought I was of Mexican ancestry because in our house my mother spoke Spanish and English, and my father, who was a teacher from New Mexico, also spoke Spanish and English. Then when I was about forty years old, there was an article in the paper that President Lyndon Johnson had signed an official paper that all money being held in trust for the Indians of this area was to be distributed evenly amongst all the Indians who could prove their bloodline. Up until that time, the only ones who could get money from the government were Indians who lived on reservations — I’ve never been a reservation Indian. A friend of mine said, ‘I’m going to apply for that money because I’m of Chumash ancestry, and if I’m of Chumash ancestry, so are you!’ So, my older brother and I went to see a lady who knew how to dig into the backgrounds, and we went to a local church where they kept records, and in about five hours they were able to trace back my bloodlines. It made me eligible for this money. So originally, I was after the money! I never realized how much more my ancestry would come to mean to me. In those days, nobody really wanted to be an Indian. Indian was kind of a dirty word. But I am very, very proud to have found out about my heritage, and every opportunity I get either to talk to somebody or read more about it, I do, because I am constantly learning new things. I feel so proud of the fact that I have Chumash blood. They really left a lot for us to think about.”
“I have grandchildren now. To be able to let them know as children who they really are is very important to me. I think it’s important for all of us to know about our parents, about our grandparents, and to keep that in your heart. A lot of kids nowadays only think about tomorrow — they don’t think about yesterday. But yesterday is a part of who you are.”
“When I was a child, I enjoyed the same things you enjoy. We didn’t have TV, so our imaginations were the best things in the world. I liked hiking…and I mean we’d really go hiking. I lived on Carrillo Street, and we used to ride our bikes to Rocky Nook, back of the old mission by the creek. We’d stash our bikes by the creek, and we would follow the creek all the way to La Cumbre Peak. It was a long ways. We’d take a backpack and a couple of little canteens of water, and we would stop along the way back of Tunnel Road where there were orange orchards. We’d steal maybe about fifteen or twenty oranges there, and from one of the kids, whose name was Vior and had the Vior Bakery, we’d get two or three loaves of French bread and a cube of butter, and we’d be gone all day — come back maybe about sunset.”
“The empty lot across the street from my house was my favorite place. We had a big, big field there, and I lived in a neighborhood where a block from me on the west side of the street was the Japanese community, and on the other side of the street was the Chinese community, and the rest of the neighborhood was made up of Italians, Mexicans, Spaniards, and Indians, so we had all kinds of kids and we all played together.”
“During the month of March, all the Chinese kids traditionally made kites, so we would all be sitting out in this empty field lying in the grass, eating sour grass and flyin’ our kites, and we never could make the kites as good as the Chinese kids. They always had beautiful kites. Ours would always break.”
“And we used to cut all the anise down from the field and we’d play football, baseball, whatever. We never got in trouble. We didn’t do any graffiti, and everybody knew when they were supposed to go home. It was a wonderful time, really. We had to use our imagination. My father didn’t believe in buying me everything. I had to earn it.”
“Come Christmas time, I would get one gift. I’d get a pair of skates, maybe, and I’d be using the skates until they broke, and then I’d take the wheels off and make a scooter, and then when that broke, I’d take the ball bearings out and use them so, and by the end of the year, I had used that skate in a hundred different ways.”
Cresensio went to Lincoln School until third grade, at which time his father put him in Catholic school.
“We had small classes, and wonderful teachers — they were nuns. You couldn’t fool around with the nuns; they were very strict. But now that I look back on it, some of the best things that happened to me in my life happened when I was in school.”
“When I was in high school, there was one teacher I had whose name was Sister Mary Dennis. She really liked me. My father had died when I was ten years old, and my mother was already an old lady and couldn’t work, so I got a job working in a bakery. I used to get up really early and go to the bakery before school. I’d scrape all the pans, grease ’em, and sweep the floors. Then I’d go to school. Then after school, I’d go back to the bakery and kind of do the same thing. Sister Mary Dennis admired me because I was accepting this kind of responsibility. There was no man in my house anymore, and she knew I had to work hard to help pick up the slack. Even years after, when I grew up, and went in the Navy, and went to Pearl Harbor, and did other things, she would always write to me. She had a lot of confidence in me. We were very close.”
“Well, many years later, after she had retired, somebody called me and said that Sister Mary Dennis was very ill and could die. At the time, I worked in a meat processing plant and had a little flower shop business as a sideline. I told my wife that I had to go to Dubuque, Iowa right away to see my old teacher. My wife didn’t understand why this was so important. She said, ‘Why don’t you just send a card and wire her flowers?’ I told her that would not be the same. I said, ‘I have to be there.’ Well, my wife got very upset with me; she thought it was very foolish of me that I would spend three or four hundred dollars to get there, to this place I’d never been to in my life. ‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you wanna get mad, go ahead and get mad, but I’m not gonna change my mind.'”
“So I got on the plane, and I was dressed just like you dress here in California and it was around Easter time, and I went through Chicago, and the wind was blowing, and everyone was wearing parkas, and here I was, this little California boy, freezing to death, and then I got on this small plane and went to Dubuque, Iowa. I hadn’t made any arrangements for a motel or anything. I got off at the airport, which was miles from the town, and I was just standing there. A man came up and said to me, ‘You look lost’ and I explained that I had to get to this hospital. He gave me a ride to the hospital and I went up to the desk and asked to see Sister Mary Dennis. She had just gotten out of surgery. She opened her eyes, looked at me, and all she said was, ‘I knew you’d be here.'”
Cresensio lowers his head for a moment. “I’m sorry,” he says, with tears in his eyes, “but even after all these years, I still get emotional when I think about this.”
It’s a story that tells a lot about Cresensio. He is sensitive to the “energy” of people, and when he makes a connection with someone, it means a great deal. His spirit is loving and generous. One way that he expresses his nature is in the walking sticks he creates.
“I’ve been doing walking sticks for quite awhile,” he explains. “This one is made of sassafras wood from the Midwest. It’s something I like to do. I have a little shop near my bedroom. I put on a tape with some Indian music and get ideas. Not all of my work is traditional Chumash. The Chumash people were not a particularly colorful people — they were a very simple people, very generous, very open, not people who liked to fight with each other or with others — they were very warm people, but plain. They didn’t decorate themselves with the kind of beadwork or other crafts that I do.”
“I put a lot of my energy into the walking sticks. I have been told by spiritual people that I come from a long line of healers. I have often questioned that, but I do know that I have a very warm feeling for old people. I work a lot with old people who don’t have anyone to look after them, and I feel very good about doing those things, because someday we all get old. The Chumash were noted for that — for reaching out to people, helping them. It’s kind of a role for me now, and I feel very good about what I am doing with my life today. I feel honored that you guys could call me, and maybe a little bit of it will rub off on you. As I have said, what you do today for somebody will make a circle and come back to you. Whether it is something good or something bad, it will return to you.”
“Usually after I make a walking stick I give it away to somebody that I feel should have it. Sometimes I run into somebody and I can sense their energy, and they can feel mine, and I think ‘That’s why I made this walking stick. It was for this person.’
“Right now I base a lot of my work on what I think the Chumash did, but I interpret it, too. It’s not always real authentic, but since I am part Chumash, in that sense, it is authentic.”
“I make mandalas, also. I get a round piece of rawhide stretched taut on a piece of wood and I paint and decorate it. I used to sell them, but I don’t need the money, and I find that I get a lot more back when I make something and I give it to somebody. I can tell when I see their face, that that’s the person I made it for. I am convinced that what energy I have, I am putting into the things I make. It’s a gift. And a gift is something you don’t sell. A gift, you share.”
“That was one of the things about the Chumash that has always impressed me. My mother never talked about being Chumash, but it was part of her way of life. We don’t live alone on this earth –we share. The Indian, he lived here — he never put up fences, he didn’t shut off the water — the people shared. And this is the way I learned. When my dad died, I thought, ‘Gee, we’re gonna really have a rough time,’ but you know, in my house we were never out of food. We always had fresh fish; we always had venison; we always had vegetables and fruit. There wasn’t a day that would go by, that somebody wouldn’t come by and drop something off. My mother would get a box of peaches, and she would take what we needed, and she would send the rest over to the other neighbors. And I grew up like that. We didn’t have to use it all ourselves, so we shared.”
At one point in his life, Cresensio owned a small apartment building, which he rented to retired schoolteachers. “They were a bunch of old maids,” he jokes, “they had never been married.”
“Anyway, I took care of one lady until she died at 96 years old. She loved her apartment. But she had no family, and she couldn’t take care of herself anymore, and I had to put her in the hospital. Her doctor wouldn’t let her come back to the apartment, and I had to put her in a home. She was in the home for one month, and I used to go every day to sit with her and have lunch and keep her company. She loved baseball. But I could see that even in that one month, she was just slipping away — she was very unhappy.”
“So I went to her doctor and I said, ‘You know, Edna’s just looking really bad.’ And he said, ‘Well, she’s old.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but she’s unhappy.’ And he said, ‘Yeah, but she’s old.’ And I said, ‘What’s old got to do with being unhappy? I’m gonna bring her home.’ He said, ‘I don’t recommend it’ and I said, ‘I don’t really care.’ So I took her back to her apartment, and I took care of her until she died.”
“I can still feel her in my apartment. Sometimes at night — I have two cases in which I have a lot of Indian artifacts, and there’s a light on top — and sometimes I look up and I see the little light is on, and I always feel it’s Eddie. I say, ‘Well, Eddie, it’s eleven o’clock — I’m goin’ to bed.’ Maybe it sounds funny, but I always feel good about the spirits.”
“I feel very strongly that when you love someone very much, they never leave you. Maybe in their body they leave you, but their spirit is always there, and you can always depend on them — you know? They’ll get you over the rough spots.”
Now that he is retired, Cresensio devotes a lot of his time to helping preserve and teach about the Chumash culture. He is on the Board of Directors of the recently formed Maritime Museum, which will be housed down at the harbor in the Naval Reserve Building. He has been invited to help put together an exhibit that will depict all of the things the Chumash did with regard to the sea.
“The Chumash Indians were great mariners,” Cresensio explains, “They built the tomol canoe, and we recently rebuilt one from scratch with the help of a man named Pete Hovarth. He is an active environmentalist who has worked hard to help protect whales and dolphins. He had done a lot of research on how the Chumash used to make the tomol, and last year, five or six of us received funding from the Maritime Association to build two canoes. We built a canoe and had a documentary film made in order to record the process. Oh, it’s a beautiful canoe! We built it in the backyard, and it’s about twenty-six feet long and takes five rowers. I did all the abalone inlay on it. It’s called the Swordfish, and it’s meant to be used. It will eventually be on display in Goleta, but we have the right to take it out and use it. We have a crew of about eight young men who have been taught to take it out and maintain it. It’s fragile. We’re building the second canoe of plywood and fiberglass covered with resin.”
We ask Cresensio about some of the Chumash sites in our area, and mention that we have glimpsed offerings such as small pouches or bundles of sage at pictograph sites.
This area is a very spiritual place,” says Cresensio. “And there has been a resurgence of interest in the old ways. A Chumash descendent will leave a handful of tobacco and beads at a site. It is a way of letting our ancestors know that we are still here.”
Cresensio explains that the cave drawings were done by shamans who may have picked a particular spot because of the way the sun hit it at certain times. They would meditate, and use their drugs, and have visions — when they were in a trance, they would see many things, good and bad.
“The Chumash did not wander far from their village,” Cresensio tells us. “The Indians had a good life here. There were hundreds of villages, but the villages were very small, and the people stayed where the water was good, where there was easy game, where they were close to the ocean. People stayed in their villages like an animal who has his own hunting territory. The long-distance travelers would be the shaman and his family, and that is why I believe my ancestor, Andreas, came from San Luis Obispo to Santa Barbara. He was a shaman.”
“I once met a well-known ‘channeler’ named George Daisley, who immediately sensed my Indian ancestry and told me that I had healing power. I said, ‘What kind of healing power do I have? Can I mend a broken arm, or a cut?’ He said, ‘Eventually, you’ll be able to, if you learn how to heal yourself, first.’ Now I don’t know what he meant by that, but I do know, I can sense, that I have an ability to heal.”
“Now there’s all kinds of healings. Sometimes just putting your arm around somebody when they’ve fallen down and hurt themselves, or when somebody has died, just putting your arm around them and reassuring them that they’re gonna be okay — that’s a form of healing.”
Cresensio, then, is a healer. He is a giver of gifts, a teller of tales, and a caring friend
He presents each of our students with a handmade necklace of beads.
“Many good things have happened here,” he tells us as we say our good-byes. “It’s a funny thing — whenever I have company, I always just automatically get in the car and we drive up through this area. I am drawn to it. Just going through this country, you somehow know that it’s a very spiritual place. I can feel that this is part of where I belong.”
Author’s note: Sadly, Cresensio Lopez passed away a few years after this 1998 interview. Because he loved to come to the Ranch and walk at the beach, I had occasion to speak to him a couple of times after the interview, and once I even went to a gathering at his house. He was sick by then and sat upright in a chair with his walking stick in front of him, surrounded by friends, still talkative but subdued. That was the last time I saw him. I have searched online many times to learn more about him, but only this interview comes up, and an image of an abalone swordfish inlay he made for the bow of a Chumash-style tomol. A beautiful walking stick he made and gave me still stands by the doorway of my house.