For the past 29 years, Marc Martinez and his wife, Donna Egeberg, stood sentry dressed as 18th-century Spanish soldiers at the Mission doors during the annual Fiesta Pequeña ceremonial performance. This year — as Fiesta’s theme was “Celebrate Traditions” — Martinez and Egeberg were not allowed to assume their usual role. According to Iris Engstrand, a retired history professor from University of San Diego hired by Old Spanish Days, there’s no record in historical documents “of the soldados standing guard at the Mission church.” Engstrand concluded tartly, “Apparently, those who attended mass did not need to be watched.”
Equally tartly, supporters of Martinez and Egeberg have noted there’s no historical record of St. Barbara ever walking through the Mission doors, as is depicted during the Pequeña performance. According to Scott Burns, who organized this year’s Pequeña, Martinez and Egeberg would have been allowed onstage as soldados but not wielding weapons in traditional guard-duty role. The couple declined.
Efforts to shed them from the event are not new. Last year, Martinez and Egeberg were notified they could not perform, but they did so anyway, encouraged by a faction within Old Spanish Days that supported their participation. Their absence from this year’s event aroused the ire of Mayor Cathy Murillo, who demanded to know what happened.
Historically, the role of the soldados within the Spanish colonial world is highly charged with genocidal overtones. Martinez acknowledged the disease and destruction wrought by Spanish colonial rule, but he stated the spread of infectious diseases was accidental, not intentional. Many of the soldiers, he noted, were of Native American descent and married into Chumash families. “It’s a lot more complicated,” said Martinez, who has also served as a parade marshal. He added that Old Spanish Days has become less inclusive. “It’s more of a class thing,” he said. “I’m a house painter. I don’t fit in anymore.”