Friday, May 30, 2008


Campanario (bell tower) at San Miguel Mission.


From the start, hollow stones with voices. Made in their own land, hard beyond rock or bone or abalone shell, shaped by hands of unseen beings we thought must be gods.

Soldiers brought them from the ships, hung them first from trees, then on wooden frames. At last, the bells sounded from the campanario in the church itself – after we made it, after we built the church.

The voice of the bell is the voice of the padres. We try, but we cannot always obey.

Bells at dawn, keening. Bells order us to prayer; the alcaldes stand over us with cudgels and long canes, prevent talk, invoke silence. Bells direct us to breakfast, a gruel of atole quickly swallowed. Bells tell us to scatter to our work, we women to laundry and looms, grinding corn or acorns or wheat, the gardens, harvesting, storing, preparing, cooking; men to the fields to plow, plant, slaughter cattle, adobe, plaster, tile, paint our designs inside the church.

Men work their leather, repair soldier’s saddles, plait reins or the cords of whips they used on us. Seamstresses cut, stitch, clothe our naked shame. Blacksmiths practice the art of heated metal, beating until the acceptable shape emerges. Vaqueros herd and skin the cattle for the hides the Spaniards love so, swimming in blood day after day till Indian skins smell like death too.

Bells for mid-day meal. Atole again. Bells return us to our labors, bells demand prayers or instruction in prayer, bells determine evening meal, maybe posole with meat. Bells give us permission to sleep.

Once, the bells hung silent. The Padres told us, put all else aside, join in collecting a great tide of sardines. Oh, what pleasure while we brought in that slippery harvest!

For many days we waded in the surf with our baskets, salty water bathing us of dust and blood, sun claiming our bare backs. We sang lusty songs out beyond the Padre’s hearing; I heard laughter all around me as the young unmarried men and women, separated in day by work and at night by lock and key, exchanged more than looks. We ate sardines fresh, we roasted them in coals, wrapped in seaweed, we hung them over the fire, their rich fat dripping onto embers.

Some of us caught as much as ten barrels, but when the barrels ran out and still the sardines came, I showed the Padres how to open the sardines, remove the spines, put them to dry in the sun. This, they gave away to anyone who asked, having no way to store such bounty, and that was right, and never would have happened, I thought, if the bells still spoke.

On holy day, we left the sardines in peace, went hunting for nests of sea birds that live in the rocks. We passed that day camping on the beach, small groups of us, each with its fire, roasting and eating what we had caught. Friends rested together, gossiping; daughters normally sequestered in the monjeria leaned against their mothers contentedly; children ate their fill, slept on the warm sand with bones still tight in their fists. Our souls swam gratefully into dream, whole and unbroken.

The Padres stood to one side, watched, laughed to see us at such ease.

Next day, we woke to bells.

The voice of the bell is the voice of the Padres. We try, but we cannot always obey.

Tom Miranda (my grandfather) standing by the same campanario, about 1955.

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