Wednesday, June 25, 2008


This drawing exemplifies the Mission Mythology of Happy Indians Working at Productive and Useful Chores Instead of Lolling About the Undeveloped and Wasted Paradise! Published in Harper's Weekly in 1877, forty years after secularization, the drawing and accompanying article (which I haven't tracked down yet) show how deeply embedded this mythology became in American history. And, of course, this mythology continued to affect the descendants of the Indians in this drawing, including my great-grandfather, Tomas Santos Miranda.

He was born in 1877, the same year the article was published. Here is the only photo I have of him, sometime between 1920 and 1930-ish.

What do I know about Tomas Santos? It's a short list:

He married my great-grandmother, Ines Garcia, on May 5, 1901, at Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo. Witnesses were Laura and Alfonso Ramirez - both consultants for J.P. Harrington, and related to Tomas by marriage. Inez (Agnes), perhaps on her wedding day?

In 1905-06, Tomas and Inez were counted in the Kelsey census in Sur, along with two children. There were noted to be "without land" and Indians. One of those children was my grandfather, Thomas Anthony Miranda.

Tomas Santos Miranda died in 1940. He was 63 years old.

In the tapes that Thomas Anthony made in the 1978-79, he says little about his father. That he was a hard man to work for; he demanded absolutely every ounce of energy and time from his workers, including his sons. Thomas Anthony left home at fourteen. Looking at that face, remembering my own father's fierce work ethic, I can understand why.

In notes taken by someone - I think Thomas Anthony's second wife's daughter, Bella - a different story is sketched out. Here's what I made of it:

"Rabbits - 7 years

1907 Father built big home. Had never seen little rabbits. Finished [house] by xmas eve. Father had saw and ax. Took Tom clear across hill to brush between Pacific Grove and Presidio. Dad stopped and looked at tree. Dad cut down tree and gave Tom ax and saw to carry home. Dad working for PI Co then. Dancing - party. Indians and Portuguese. Women wore big skirts. Couple weeks later Dad built rabbit pens. Dan went to work and Tom wandered out to pens and saw five or six tiny ones in nest. He ran to mother - hollering - She came running - just baby rabbits!

Father went to school. Spoke good English."

This story is written in blue ink on the back of a form letter from AARP. Both the story and the form letter are undated. It's the most information I have on Tomas Santos.

A little map accompanies the story: showing where the house was located in reference to Pacific Grove and Presidio. This was in Monterey, I think; Tomas and family must have moved back from Sur.

I love this story, bare bones as it is. My son, my brother, and my father are all incredibly handsome, and as little boys, adorable. I have no reason to suspect that my grandfather was anything but adorable as well. I can just see him running to Ines, his mother, hollering about these weird little aliens in the cage with the rabbits. "They're just baby rabbits!" she must have laughed.

The story about going to cut down a christmas tree is sweet, too. I'm glad Tom remembered it. He must have felt important, carrying the ax and the saw all by himself. I wonder how they decorated the tree? I wonder how they celebrated Christmas?

And oh, those parties. How I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall! What music did they play? what dances did they dance? Who was there?

How grand that must have all seemed to a seven year old boy. Maybe Tomas Santos knew how to play as hard as he worked.

And exactly where was this "big house"? and how big was it (remember, seven year olds often think small places are huge)? and what happened to it, did they lose it, did they stay?

and Tomas had gone to school, "spoke good English." What school? how long? What else would he have spoken besides English? Spanish? Old Carmel Spanish? Indian? Scraps of various Indian dialects?

I've been trying to write about the photograph of my grandfather, which is part of a larger photograph.

He kneels alone on the far right, one knee on the ground, resting his left arm on the other, long white sleeves buttoned around his wrists. He is staring – no, glaring – into the eye of the camera. Into my eyes. Dressed in clean new denim overalls and a white shirt, I imagine this is a dressy day for him; the swoop of a watch chain, gold or steel, runs like a wing from a buttonhole at the top of the overall big to what I imagine is his watch pocket further down on the bib – his arm obscures it, but what else could it be? The cuffs of the overalls are carefully folded up about 2 inches. I think my great-grandfather is meticulous about his appearance, even if it is just work clothes or a cook-out.

The only thing I know for sure is that the old man is my father’s grandfather. His name and position (“far right”) are written on the back.

But I’d know that face anywhere.

Ay, his face. There’s too much of my own father in that face; it scares me, makes me wonder what the hell I did wrong this time, makes me want to turn tail and run for the hills. The dark skin, the wide nose, the scowl, the thin lips set in an almost straight line – yes, I know Tomas, though he died long before I was born.

Tomas bears the look of a man who has seen the worst life can throw at him, yet refuses to give up. But he’s not fighting back with faith or tenderness or even a sense of protecting his family. No, this man fights back out of bitterness, out of sheer cussedness, out of a bent and misshapen pride. He fights back because violence is the only way he’s ever known anyone to get what he needs. He fights back with his fists and feet, his bear body, his biting wolf teeth, his human eyes. You don’t mess with this man. He’s created a space around him that few dare to breech, a kind of glow, like a smoldering ember, that you don’t want to touch or approach too intimately. People walk around him, go out of their way to maintain a safe distance.

Even in this family portrait around a campfire, twelve of the other fourteen people gathered seem huddled together on the left side of the photograph, their bodies held away from Tomas. This man is dangerous. Not because he’s bad or mean or evil. But because he has seen too much pain, witnessed too many of his loved ones killed, known too much injustice to even imagine that justice might exist somewhere.

This man is dangerous not because of what he believes in, but because of all he does not believe in. He has no faith in God, in religion (Indian or white), in goodness or tenderness that goes unpunished. Everything he’s ever loved or hoped for has let him down, betrayed him, or abandoned him to this solitary place on the edge of the family, poised on one knee, ready to lunge upward if necessary, ready to strike without asking questions. Doubt is one problem that doesn’t plague this man. He knows the world is a shitty place.

His hands – or rather, the one hand I can see, his left hand – is huge. Like my father’s. Big square palms with thick strong brown fingers. He’s worked all his life, from the moment he could hold a basket or hammer or grab hold of a stick. These are not the slender graceful hands that some Esselen ancestor left on the cave walls, hands immortalized as “noble” and “beautiful” by a white man, the “poet laureate” of California. These hands are not the hands of a peaceful or content soul.

These hands are hungry. These hands have had too many things slip out of their grasp. These hands can’t be gentle; gentle means dead. And while these hands may be deadly, they are very much alive, and intend to stay that way as long as possible, by any means possible. Desperate hands. Ruthless hands. Frightened hands. Frightening hands.

This is my great-grandfather, my grandfather’s father, my father’s grandfather. This is the bridge between missionization and post-secularization.

"I am the result of the love of thousands." Linda Hogan wrote that. It's true, over and over again. And sometimes we are the result of the bitter survival of thousands, as well. Sometimes we get here any way we can. Sometimes our bodies are the bridge over which our descendents cross, spanning unimaginable landscapes of loss and brutal history.

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