Printer Friendly

On a Mission to Relive History.

In public events this fall, Californians will reflect on their Spanish and Mexican heritage shaped by colonizers in the name of God and glory

On the edge of the continent, seemingly imbued with limitless possibilities, the state of California has always looked to the future. In the mid-nineteenth century a gold strike lured fortune-seekers here from across the nation and around the globe. Today, Californians pride themselves on offering a glimpse of what the future holds for the rest of the country. So perhaps it's not surprising that residents of the Golden State tend to display a casual disregard for the past. Despite an abundance of Spanish place names, this collective amnesia is most acute in regard to California's Spanish/Mexican period. "There's a gap in people's consciousness," says historian Martha McGettigan, "between Indian California and the State of California."

One person who aims to fill that gap is Verna Jones, director of Sistahs' Productions in Los Angeles. Her vision: an ambitious, multi-pronged initiative encompassing Spanish foods and films, history and heritage, known as "Feria de California." Jones envisions festival-goers sampling tapas at cooking demonstrations, sipping Rioja at winemaker dinners, and probing the passionate rhythms of flamenco music and dance. Though visual and performing arts play a major part in the cross-cultural endeavor, Jones explains that Feria encompasses more than a festival: "We want to promote inclusion, to help people understand our commonality. We don't believe people should be erased from history." With tourism as part of the focus, she says, "We also hope to educate people in the importance of historic preservation, for example, those icons of California history, the missions."

Jones outlines the goals of Feria de California within sight of one of those missions, in the pleasant little town of Sonoma, at the entrance to California's wine country. Along the town's aptly named Spain Street, landmarks evoke both the Spanish/Mexican presence and its imminent demise. Literally and figuratively, Sonoma's Spanish-style plaza marks the end of the "Royal Road" for the far-flung Spanish Empire--the Final few steps of a dusty trail known as El Camino Real and a last-ditch effort at colonization.

Compared to some of the more glamorous missions farther south, Sonoma's Mission San Francisco Solano presents a modest face to passersby. But whatever Sonoma Mission lacks in grandeur, it makes up for in historical significance. This is the last of the California missions, founded in 1823, not trader the Spanish flag like the others, but as part of the newly independent Mexico.

On almost any weekday, the courtyard at Sonoma Mission buzzes with the sounds of schoolchildren busily weaving baskets or dipping candles or otherwise plunging into the activities that characterized mission life in its heyday. A volunteer docent, impersonating a Franciscan padre, explains that twenty-seven rooms once bordered the mission courtyard to accommodate nearly a thousand Indians. Many missions provide such hands-on history lessons to California schoolchildren. Some also feature "Living History Days" enacted by volunteers steeped in the stories of the characters they portray--Junipero Serra and Don Gaspar de Portola among the favorites. Taken together, these stories weave a drama of epic proportions involving beleaguered native peoples, priests, and pobladores, not to mention adventurers and entrepreneurs.

Spain had made good use of the mission concept in extending its domain over other colonies. One or two priests and a small contingent of soldiers would establish a temporary church, later to be enlarged by Indian labor, and set about converting and acculturating the natives. After a transition period, envisioned to last as little as ten years, the indigenous people would become Spanish citizens.

"It's hard for people to understand the zeal, and the thought that the only way to get to heaven was to be baptized," says Martha McGettigan. "The Spanish were very zealous in what they wanted to do--for land, God, and glory."

Spain had a more urgent reason to dispatch settlers to Alta California: the need to protect the vast unpopulated territory against possible incursions by both England and Russia. As early as 1542, the Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, sailing for Spain, had laid claim to San Diego Bay. Sebastian Viscaino, who explored much of the Pacific coast in 1602, is said to have urged colonization of Alta California. But his advice was shelved until the mid-1700s, when Russian ships sailed south from Alaska in search of seal and otter pelts. Later, seeking a source of provisions, Russians established settlements around Bodega Bay and Fort Ross, west of Sonoma. Meanwhile Sir Francis Drake, sailing the California coast, had claimed "New Albion" for England in 1579.

Accordingly, some two-and-a-half centuries after Spanish conquistadors wrested Tenochtitlan in from the Aztecs, King Carlos III approved the expansion of missions from the Baja California peninsula into the northern province. The chief objective was to secure the port of Monterey, a site glowingly described by Viscaino. The "Sacred Expedition," headed by Gaspar de Portola, was also to establish a base midway between Monterey and Loreto, Baja California, at San Diego. In charge of the new missions was Franciscan padre Junipero Serra, who had only recently taken over the former Jesuit missions on the peninsula.

Today's thriving parish church in San Diego's Mission Valley otters little hint of the hardships associated with the founding of Alta California's first mission. Ships dispatched to San Diego in 1769 lost half their crews to scurvy. The land parties fared better, but for the first few years it was problematic whether they could survive the wilderness amid the sometimes indifferent, sometimes hostile natives. Eventually Father Serra and his party overcame famine, disease, and Indian raids to establish Mission San Diego de Alcala. The present church is a restoration of a church built in 1813, after the original had been moved from Presidio Hill, then twice destroyed and rebuilt.

Likewise, Serra dedicated Mission San Carlos Borromeo in 1770 in Monterey, from where it was moved to its current location in the Carmel Valley. Many of the missions, in fact, were displaced from their original sites, sometimes to obtain better farmland or water, but often to put some distance between Mission Indians and soldiers at the presidio. Visitors to Carmel admire a graceful example of mission architecture, its sandstone walls accented by a star window and a Moorish tower. But an early visitor to the mission, the Frenchman Jean Francois Galaup de La Perouse, reported that in 1786 the mission church was still thatched with straw.

Seventeen years after the dedication of the first mission, La Perouse lists a total of ten missions, under the protection of the presidios at San Diego, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco. Within a few years three pueblos, neither religious nor military, were functioning at San Jose, Santa Cruz (Branciforte), and Los Angeles.

The padres were dependent on a supply ship that departed San Blas once a year for their wilderness outposts. "An efficient land route was never established," says Giorgio Perissinotto, professor of linguistics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Perissinotto's research into the memorias (requisitions) and facturas (invoices) in the mission archives indicates that "the missions were very difficult to supply. It was extremely difficult to get here." Apart from the missionaries, people had to be lured to the new frontier. "It was very far, and there was nothing to be gained--no gold, no silver. In those days nobody wanted to come here."

Though the Franciscan priests continued to be drawn from Spain, most of the settlers were recruited from what is now western Mexico. Of the forty-some individuals who trekked north to Los Angeles in 1781, the majority claimed Indian, African, or mixed Spanish heritage.

For forty years after its founding in 1776, Mission San Francisco de Asis, also called Mission Dolores after a nearby stream, marked the northern terminus of El Camino Real. Franciscan Brother Guire Cleary points out the four-foot-thick walls, the wooden pegs, and rawhide bindings that withstood even the calamitous earthquake of 1906. By that time the outlying buildings had been torn down, but the sturdy mission church survives from 1782, and contains the oldest altar in California as well as two side altars that were among the last shipments from New Spain.

Once Mexico cut ties with Spain in 1821, even the infrequent supply ships failed to arrive. But by then the missions were enjoying relative prosperity, with fields of grain feeding the Indian neophytes and a surplus of cattle propelling trade with ships like the one described by American author Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast. Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, in northern San Diego County, counted nearly twenty-eight hundred Indians tending fifty-seven thousand head of livestock.

So anxious was Governor Luis Arguello to fortify the Mexican position against the Russians that he plotted with a young priest in San Francisco to start a new mission farther north as a replacement for both the Dolores and San Rafael missions. Accompanied by twenty soldiers, Father Jose Altimira set off to seek a favorable site, passing through what is now the Carneros region of southern Napa and Sonoma counties. Though he neglected to obtain the prior approval of his religious superiors, the parties involved reached a compromise in which all three missions would co-exist. Padre Altimira erected a rough chapel in Sonoma, 650 miles north of San Diego along El Camino Real.

Three flags--U.S., Mexican, and the California Bear Flag--fly over El Cuartel de Sonoma, the barracks just west of the mission. These buildings housed the troops of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo, sent from San Francisco to guard the northern frontier. Vallejo's Casa Grande, which stood next to the barracks, was destroyed in a fire, but a little farther down the street stand two smaller houses that he built toward the end of his life: a dwelling with a decidedly Yankee look and an even more jarring Swiss-style chalet.

Vallejo's house from the American period, which he called Lachryma Montis ("Tears of the Mountain," from a nearby spring), represents more than a historic landmark to Martha McGettigan; it's the repository of her personal family history. McGettigan claims direct descendance from Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo: She is his great-great-great-granddaughter ("Three greats," she says). Local history revolves around this dignitary, born in Spanish California but active in public life during both the Mexican and early Anglo-American periods.

"My great-great-great-grandfather was sent to settle this area in 1834," says McGettigan. "He brought his wife, Francisca Benicia, and their oldest son. Their next daughter was born here. The only thing here at that time was the mission, but it was falling apart a bit."

General Vallejo himself laid out the new pueblo around a plaza, which was used as a drilling ground for the soldiers who defended the settlement. When his wife requested that he build a parish church, Vallejo did so, on the foundations of the original chapel. "His mother-in-law, Maria Ignacia Lopez de Carrillo, asked to be buried here," says McGettigan, indicating a spot near the holy-water fount. "She said that way, when people bless themselves, they'll sprinkle holy water on her grave."

This building, though, was never used as a mission. General Vallejo's arrival in Sonoma was part of Mexico's move toward secularization, the blow that stripped the missions of their holdings. ("Confiscation" is the term used at Mission San Gabriel.) "The Indians were basically let loose," says McGettigan. "Where would they go? Many of them ended up working as vaqueros on the large ranchos."

Just over the hills toward Petaluma, the spacious ranch house of Mariano Vallejo still looks out over oak-studded hills, with great hornos that recall Moroccan ovens in the partially enclosed courtyard and cattle hides drying on racks behind the living quarters. Petaluma Adobe, now a museum, provides a window on California's short-lived rancho period, when this ranch house was headquarters of a sixty-six-thousand-acre Mexican land grant.

In the years following secularization, mission buildings degenerated to stables, storage sheds, and even saloons. But on the ranchos the Californios (Mexican Californians) prospered, expanding the trade in hides and tallow that the missions had started. Vallejo himself furnished wheat to the Russians, elevating their status from military threat to clandestine trading partner.

Meanwhile, the fur trappers who found their way across the Sierra Nevada and opened land routes for new settlers were neither Russian nor English, but American. As Mexico's grip on Alta California slackened, Mariano Vallejo argued in favor of the Californios casting their lot with the upstart nation moving westward.

A monument in Sonoma Plaza memorializes the comic-opera escapade that preceded the actual takeover by the Americans. Some thirty-five mountain men, determined to resist possible expulsion from Mexico as foreigners, converged on Sonoma. Led by one William B. Ide and fortified by brandy, they burst into Vallejo's quarters. Though the comandante received them as guests, the mob arrested him and imprisoned him at Sutter's Fort. On June 14, 1846, they raised a flag that had been hurriedly contrived (some say from a woman's petticoat), smudged with berry juice in the shape of a star and a grizzly bear, and emblazoned with the words, "California Republic." Captain John C. Fremont's troops, camped suspiciously nearby, then joined the rebels until, on July 9, the American flag replaced the bear flag. A more refined version of the berry-stained white muslin lives on as the California state flag.

Vallejo's rancho, like many others throughout the state, never recovered from the looting and disruption that accompanied the American takeover. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo notwithstanding, few Californios possessed the savvy or the resources to defend their land from protracted legal processes, unscrupulous attorneys, and brash squatters. In an ultimate irony, the gold-seeking Spaniards missed the precious metal that surfaced only a few miles away, on land claimed by John Sutter of Sutter's Fort. Within days of the discovery, the official treaty was signed, ending the war between Mexico and the U.S. The hordes of gold-diggers who followed overwhelmed both the indigenous people and the Californios.

The restored Sonoma Mission, now part of Sonoma State Historic Park, contains a compelling collection of paintings from the turn of the last century. All twenty-one missions are portrayed in various stages of decay after decades of neglect, the victims of earthquakes, weather, and vandalism. In the early 1900s preservationists and historical societies began to reclaim this evidence of early California. The missions' renaissance ushered in a romantic period in which nostalgic interpretations of the rains were shored up along with the sagging walls and roofs. Local officials promoted the reconstructed missions as tourist sites.

San Juan Capistrano is the embodiment of romantic ruins, with cascades of bougainvillaea spilling over its campanario, Serra Chapel, and the shell of the Great Stone Church, felled by an earthquake only six years after its construction. More than ever, visitors flock to the mission that half a century ago inspired a popular ballad. Like many of the missions, it's a popular place for weddings.

In Santa Barbara, where Mission Revival was the architectural style of choice after a destructive 1925 earthquake, the "Queen of the Missions" rises majestically above a town of red-tiled roofs, Spanish arches, Moorish fountains, and lush gardens. The church, founded in 1786, has been built and rebuilt several times.

Mission designs derived from the padres' humble quarters now blanket whole housing tracts in California. Mission museums preserve clerical vestments and other memorabilia, together with the documents that returned some property to the Catholic church in the 1850s and 1860s. At Mission San Luis Rey de Francia, the signature on the document is that of Abraham Lincoln.

The proposal that Junipero Serra be considered for eventual sainthood unleashed a torrent of criticism of Serra and the missions in general. Native American activists point out that mission Indians suffered from loss of freedom, obliteration of their cultures, epidemics, and near-annihilation. Even La Perouse, while praising the piety of individual priests, wrote that the mission he visited reminded him of slave plantations in the Dominican Republic. Still, say apologists like Brother Cleary of Mission Dolores, "In some respects Spanish civilization was more enlightened and humane." than other colonizers--for example, the English settlers in the eastern U.S.

Of all the Changes wrought by the Spanish, none is more far-reaching than the transformation of California's virgin landscape to an agricultural and pastoral environment. Wild oats, probably brought in with the horses and cattle, replaced the native grasses. Olive trees thrived at the southern missions, while reports from the Carmel Valley mention vegetables such as artichokes, lettuce, carrots, peppers, and squash. Orchards at San Buenaventura Mission produced pears, oranges, apples, and other fruits that impressed British captain George Vancouver, visiting in 1792-93. The padres' agricultural experiments showed how readily Mediterranean crops could be transplanted to California.

But it was the imported wine grapes that presaged California's starring role as a wine-producing state. Old wine-making equipment can still be glimpsed at San Gabriel Mission, where a 120-acre vineyard produced both red and white wines. Dan Gustafson of Artesa Winery traces Napa Valley's first grapevines, planted in 1838, to cuttings from a vineyard at Sonoma Mission. What's more, says Gustafson, the priest who in 1823 traipsed across the future site of Artesa's vineyards was from Barcelona. So is Artesa's parent, company, Codorniu, which began making wine there in 1551. "We like to think that Father Altimira may have tasted Codorniu wines in his native Barcelona," says Gustafson.

California's Spanish roots go back even further, to a fictional romance published about 1510. In Las sergas de Esplandian [The Deeds of Esplandian], black Amazons inhabit an island paradise "on the right hand of the Indies." Its name: California.

This fall, the Feria de California, with help from Spain's Cervantes Institute and Turespana, will celebrate parallels between Spain and California, not least of which is a love of festivals. Performers will display theft talents in mission towns and wineries; in the San Francisco Presidio, only recently reborn as a national park; and in the heart of the sprawling, multiracial, polyglot city that grew from El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles. Events will take place under the banner "Feria de California: Harvesting the Spirit of Spain."

Joyce Gregory, Wyels is a California-based travel writer and a previous contributor to Americas.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Organization of American States
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Spanish and Mexican heritage of California
Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:May 1, 2001
Previous Article:All Fired Up In METEPEC.

Related Articles
San Diego; California's Cornerstone.
Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of its Mexican Past.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2020 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters