A new mosaic mural in downtown Davis — depicting the long history of the Peña family in this region, and located at a site where the late Narcissa Peña lived for decades — was dedicated recently.
The mural by artist Mark Rivera is the latest addition to the Davis Transmedia Art Walk, which features nearly 60 pieces of public art.
Narcissa Peña died in 2008 at age 89. Four couples bought the Peña family home, in which Narcissa lived her entire life, at the southwest corner of Fourth and D streets. Their goal was to build a highly efficient LEED-certified four-unit building on the site.
The group explored the possibilities of moving the modest residence, which was built in the late 1800s and had some structural problems to the property where the Peña Adobe stands near Vacaville. But that idea ultimately proved too difficult to pursue. So Narcissa’s home and its contents were documented for historical purposes, and then the old structure was demolished to make way for the Parkview Place project.
The four couples — Don and Sue Morrill, Jerry and Kay Schimke, Dick and Carol Bourne and David Hosley and gayle yamada — selected Rivera to create an outdoor mural that would commemorate the Peña family history associated with the site.
Rivera, who lives in Davis, met with the couples and also with Peña family descendant Leo Huitt of Woodland to discuss the imagery that would depict the Peña family from Spain to Mexico to California. The mural includes the Peña family crest, as well as the patterns of brands that were used by the family to mark their cattle.
There are also images of cattle and sheep, of the Peña Adobe near Vacaville and of the old house where Narcissa lived, which Rivera depicted “with the lights on, indicating that she’s home.”
After creating a life-size mockup of the mural on paper, Rivera created the actual mural in sections at his studio in rural Solano County, and then installed it in front of Parkview Place.
“It was a new approach for me, because the mural is a memorial — guided by history,” the artist said. “I’m representing the family, telling their story, and also how Davisville of 100 years ago became the Davis of today. It was a big responsibility.”
Don Morrill, one of the residents, said, “We feel Mark did an exquisite job, and we’re thrilled. It’s a beautiful work of art.”
Huitt agreed that “Mark did a very good job — he did his research. And there is a Rivera mentioned in our family tree, so he actually could be a Peña family descendant, too.”
The mural includes an RFID computer chip (smaller than a dime) that’s embedded in a corner of the piece. When scanned by a smartphone, passers-by can access information about the mural and see a video about Rivera’s creative process produced by Monto Kumagai.
Parkview Place also has a rose bush that was grown from cuttings taken from the “cabbage rose” that flourished at the old Peña home for decades. The bush has been planted there as an expression of continuity with the site’s history.
The Peña family — and the related Vaca family — arrived in California from New Mexico in 1841, several years before the Gold Rush that began in 1849. Juan Felipe Peña and Juan Manuel Vaca brought their families with them, and applied for a land grant through Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo of Sonoma.
They received 10 square leagues of land (calculated at about 50,000 acres today), stretching from present-day Vacaville to present-day Davis, and they built adobe homes in the Lagoon Valley area on the western side of Vacaville, using mud bricks and redwood timbers that are thought to have been hauled to the site by a mule team.
The Vaca Adobe was wrecked by an earthquake in 1892, but the Peña Adobe survived and is now part of a Vacaville city park. The Peña Adobe is one of the few pre-Gold Rush structures remaining in the region.
In the late 1800s, Juan Felipe Peña’s son Galvino, and his wife Ruperta Vaca, sold their ranch in Lagoon Valley and moved to the northern end of their land grant near Putah Creek. When Galvino died in 1902, his widow sold that ranch and moved with her family to a home in Davisville, on the block now occupied by Davis Community Church.
Ruperta’s son, Jesus Peña, married Lucy Zuniga, and they lived in a small house at the southwest corner of Fourth and D streets. Jesus worked for the University Farm Division, and later the city of Davis — there are stories about him driving a water truck through the unpaved streets of town and sprinkling water to keep the dust down.
Jesus and Lucy had five children — including Narcissa, who was born on Oct. 29, 1918, in Davis — just one year after the city incorporated. Narcissa and her siblings attended Davis Grammar School where Central Park stands today and Davis Joint Union High School in the brick building that is now Davis City Hall. She attended many of the early Picnic Day events at what was then the University Farm, which later became UC Davis.
Narcissa lived in the same house for her entire life, and never married, but enjoyed a long friendship with the young men of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity next door. She was the fraternity’s house mother for some 20 years — cooking meals and ironing shirts on occasion — and in return, the fraternity members would help with Narcissa with outdoor maintenance, or take her to the store, or to church.
Narcissa reportedly never learned to drive a car — but she got a college education. She was one of the first women to attend UC Davis, earning a degree in home economics in 1939. She got a job as a mail carrier in Davis, and worked at a sugar beet refinery in Woodland during World War II. Narcissa also had a job in a local library, working for 11 years alongside the town’s first librarian, Hattie Weber.
Narcissa also worked for 30 years as a secretary at the university — in the Registrar’s Office, the botany department and finally the School of Veterinary Medicine. She also traveled to Mexico, Guatemala, Spain, Europe and Hawaii.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at email@example.com or 530-747-8055.