San Antonio Creek: memories of Juanita Centeno

P1050737Tucked way in the back of Tucker’s Grove County Park in Goleta is a jewel of a trail along San Antonio Creek. It’s my favorite site for Herb Walks in Santa Barbara (although I’d love to hear your suggestions of others). I’ll be leading one there on Saturday, March 15.

For me, the attraction is more than the natural beauty of the creek or the plant diversity of the coastal riparian habitat. This is one of the places I first studied with the late Juanita Centeno (1918-1992), the Chumash crafts artist and plant expert.

Juanita was born in Lompoc and grew up on the Santa Ynez Valley Chumash reservation, returning to Lompoc for much of her life. There she gathered her native plant materials to make baskets, combs, sandals, paints and much more. Crafts were her specialty but she had much knowledge of medicinal plant uses that she learned from her aunt and other elders.

I attended a series of classes and field trips in the mid-1970s with her and UCSB Archaeology Professor Larry Spanne and then invited her to Ojai as a special guest on several Herb Walks in the late ’70s including an all-day crafts workshop among the tules at the now-dormant Matilija Environmental Science Area just upstream from Matilija Lake.

Juanita taught us about the ancestral Chumash people’s relationship with — and reverence for — the Earth, how they made an offering of thanks to the first specimen of a desired plant they encountered, then passed it by to harvest from a healthy abundant stand. Sustainable living, we would call it today.

Juanita wasn’t shy about voicing and representing those indigenous values in the face of the unsustainable society she witnessed around her. “Destroy Nature and you destroy yourself,” she warned us. So she committed her life to showing her people — and the rest of us — the value of Chumash culture, including the plants they revered. In a wonderful tribute to her entitled “Juanita Centeno: The Story of a Legend…My Grandma, Grandmother to All,” her grandson Robert Villalobos writes, “She was there to protect the origins and footsteps of our Elders. She did not only teach the culture, she lived it…Juanita was a true pioneer; she taught in shcool classrooms because it was a chance to enrich lives.”  

JuanitaMuralThough she never sought publicity for herself, today Juanita is prominently featured on a mural entitled “Ethnic Diversity” on the wall of the Superior Court office in Lompoc, CA. She is also memorialized by the Juanita Centeno Gallery of the Lompoc Museum, so named because, in the Museum’s words, she “passed on her knowledge to thousands of others interested in learning about the Chumash way of life. Respected by Chumash and archaeologists alike, Juanita was uniquely able to balance the need to honor her cultural roots with the archaeologist’s quest for knowledge.”

 I feel privileged to have known Juanita and I try to honor her legacy with the native plant education that I do via Herb Walks and Nature Hikes. I know I’ll be remembering her on March 15 on the San Antonio Creek Herb Walk.”

You can read more about her on the page Lanny’s Teachers.

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