David Belardes, OC's Most Controversial Native American Leader, Draws a Line in the Cemetery

Chief Belardes Makes His Stand
Orange County’s most controversial Native American leader draws a line in the cemetery

Walking up a fertile hill that hovers over the town of San Juan Capistrano, Juaneño Indian Chief David Belardes scans a row of green plants swallowing the edge of a gravel path.

“The mustard greens are pumping,” he says with awe. “When we were kids, we’d eat those all the time.”

John Gilhooley
You won't see the Rectory Garden on tours of Mission San Juan Capistrano. It's behind a wall and locked gate. Tribal members say ancestors are buried beneath it.
John Gilhooley
You won't see the Rectory Garden on tours of Mission San Juan Capistrano. It's behind a wall and locked gate. Tribal members say ancestors are buried beneath it.

Just then, a little blond dog darts ahead of its owner, scampers over to a mustard green, sniffs it, lifts a leg and pees on it.

“That’s why you boil them before you eat them,” Belardes says with a hearty laugh.

At the top of the hill on this bright, beautiful winter afternoon, you can make out the tallest parts of the town’s biggest tourist attraction and the jewel of California’s mission system, Mission San Juan Capistrano, to which Belardes has been closely tied for nearly all of his 62 years. He met his wife, Cha Cha, in kindergarten at the mission’s school for Indians in the 1950s. Until recently, she had worked at the mission for the past 25 years.

Half of Belardes’ family descended from two of California’s original Spanish settlers, one of whom arrived with Gaspar de Portolá’s first exploring expedition in 1769. The other half came from the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians, Acjachemen Nation. Cha Cha’s family is also half Juaneño, half Spanish, including the Aguilars of the Blas Aguilar Adobe, the museum Belardes runs around the corner from the mission.

As the chief of one of four Juaneño factions, Belardes is also a familiar face at the historical landmark, not as an employee, but as a Native American advocate who ensures his culture is preserved and protected there. For years, he worked closely with Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano’s longtime pastor, the late Monsignor Paul Martin.

He and Martin would go on to have a terrible row, but they managed to patch things up a year before Martin’s 2003 retirement. Belardes offered warm words at the monsignor’s funeral two years later, and he remembers him as a dream to work with compared to the crew running the mission now.

Belardes is suing the mission and Diocese of Orange Bishop Tod D. Brown because a Rectory Garden dedicated to Martin’s memory was built over land that is part of a cemetery where thousands of Juaneños are buried, three bodies deep.

The mission’s lawyer accuses Belardes of “making a federal case” out of the Rectory Garden because of bad blood with the mission’s current leadership team and jealousy over the mission’s close ties to a rival Juaneño leader. Belardes fires back with accusations of years of dodgy—and possibly illegal—renovations and excavations at what he calls “Disneyland South.”

During one of the Juaneños’ unsuccessful attempts to win federal recognition, California’s legislature in 1993 estimated there were 7,000 living descendants of the Juaneños. Non-Indians have joined Juaneños and members of the Gabrieleno-Tongva Band of Mission Indians, whose ancestors also settled in parts of what would become Orange County, in attempting to stop potential desecration of lands that centuries before were Indian villages. These include Pahne at what is now San Mateo Campground, Puvunga on the grounds of Cal State Long Beach, “Puvunga East” near Seal Beach’s Hellman Ranch, the Bolsa Chica mesa near Huntington Beach and the land beneath the Harbor Ridge community in Newport Beach.

Belardes is trying to protect land under which there is no question thousands of Indians are buried and, he claims, real damage has occurred, but he does not receive any support. That is because he is distrusted by many environmentalists for working closely with builders of contentious Orange County developments down in the valley.

He has also been at the center of squabbles with other Native Americans because, as he puts it, “getting two Indians to agree on anything is impossible.”

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Visit Mission San Juan Capistrano on a rainy day if you don’t like crowds. Aboveground crowds, that is.

“Approximately 2,000 people, mostly Juaneño Indians, were laid to rest in this area of unmarked graves,” read the words under “Mission Cemetery” on the map handed to visitors at the entrance.

The mission and downtown San Juan Capistrano are situated on what was once the village of Acjachema, whose people inhabited Orange County for 10,000 years. They built California’s seventh mission three miles to the east before it was moved to the current spot in 1777. The Spanish, other European settlers and their livestock brought diseases that killed many Juaneños, who were buried at the mission and up a hill just a short drive away on Ortega Highway.

Asked where the Old Cemetery is, a guy atop a ladder points to the portion of the Mission Cemetery that is open to the public. It is immediately east of Serra Chapel, where there is a large monument topped with a Celtic cross installed by the mission’s longtime pastor, Father John O’Sullivan, to memorialize those who built the mission. O’Sullivan’s tomb is at the foot of the monument.

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