The San José Unified School District is presently looking to rename Burnett Middle School after a local historical figure more relevant to our present age.
Last Friday, I submitted a proposal to rename the middle school “Major José Ramón Pico International Baccalaureate Academy,” honoring our local-born, multi-lingual, multi-racial, Hispanic American Civil War hero and community leader. Please read on to learn about this auspicious local hero who deserves to be recognized, so that his example can inspire future generations.
In the summer of 1832 José María de la Natividad y Reymundo [Ramón] Pico y Bernal was born in Santa Clara to a Hispanic land, his heart coursing with the blood of his ancestry; which hearkened back to the continents of Europe, Africa and the aboriginal Americas.
This man of the world grew wise in the ways of those old California Rancho days: attaining acclaim for his excellence in horsemanship and his demonstration of humanity. When the challenges of Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo presented themselves, he rose to the occasion: learning a new language, and exercising his enfranchisement as a citizen of the new state of California.
Señor Pico’s status as a community leader was on the rise when dark days arrived with the crisis of the American Civil War: in this strife he looked for a way to aid the end of slavery in his adoptive country.
The opportunity presented itself when Governor Leland Stanford authorized the creation of the “California Native Cavalry” in January 1863 – a cavalry unit which was to be comprised of the Spanish-speaking citizens of California. Señor Pico was the first to enlist on Feb. 26th, and arranged for a rally — a ‘Junta Patriótica’ — to take place in what is now called the “Plaza de César Chávez” in San José.
On March 3, 1863, at his headquarters on the plaza, Capt. Pico, speaking in both Spanish and English, addressed the assembled crowd of hundreds in the soul-stirring manner for which the men in his family were renowned: “Sons of California! Our country calls, and we must obey! This rebellion of the southern states must be crushed; they must come back into the union and pay obedience to the Stars and Stripes.
“United, we will, by the force of circumstances become the freest and mightiest republic on Earth,” he continued, “Crowned monarchs must be driven away from the sacred continent of free America.”
Capt. Pico’s soaring rhetoric brilliantly connected the slave-holding southern aristocracy with feudal servitude under ‘crowned monarchs’ — oppression against which all nations in the Americas had resisted in their then-recent pasts.
Though, it is clear that Capt. Pico further saw that ‘crowned monarchs’ would be well-understood within the local Spanish-surnamed community, connecting the then-present invasion of Mexico by Emperor Maximilian to the rebellion of the Confederacy, and in so doing: depict both as mutual enemies of California.
Many men followed Capt. Pico’s lead, and Company A of the California Native Cavalry took shape, with Capt. Pico even going so far as to pay the company’s expenses out of his own pocket. He lead Company A throughout the rest of the conflict, being brevetted a Major before being honorably mustered out of service in 1866.
Major Pico went on to live a full life, living much of that life here in the Bay Area.
When he died in 1905, his obituary proclaimed “Major Pico was a typical Spanish cavalier of the old school — proud, hospitable, simple and frank. He had all that grace of carriage and gesture, charm of voice and diction, imperiousness and dignity of spirit that were the embodiment of the historic Spanish grandee.”
And true to his local roots, he was laid to rest in the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery just a few miles from what we hope will soon be a middle school named for our local hero: Major José Ramón Pico.
San Jose resident Andrew M. Crockett is a CPA, local historian, political activist and 32° Freemason.