Saturday, October 11, 2008

San Diego Mission, December 2007

The first cemetery in California isn't there anymore. Part of it is buried beneath the San Diego Mission garden, part of it extends underneath the parkinglot, school and roads surrounding the Mission.
Some woman's metate, used to grind seeds, corn, wheat.


A cross made in memory of the Indians with recovered bricks.
The beautiful garden, which sits over the graveyard.

At an excavation of the Mission, you can see a white bone sticking out of the ground just above the red pipe valve. Other pits lay open to the weather, some were covered with tarp.

San Diego
Black asphalt, white adobe, worn red bricks, dusky worm-carved beams. The gift shop sells class 3 relics of Father Serra, cobalt blue bowls by a local potter, post cards, pencils stamped “San diego Mission” and rosaries, lots of rosaries. A concrete model of an old horno sits on the ground beside several broken grinding stones; a perfect black lizard pauses alertly on the granite edge of one old stone. She’s soaking up the heat of the sun even in December. She’s the most alive thing I have seen here today. The sides of her scaly body pump in and out with her breath; her eyes snap back and forth as she monitors my movements, the distance between my looming mass and her small being. When I come too close, she skitters across the lip of the stone bowl, onto the asphalt, and into a crack beneath the horno. So quick!

Inside the church, inside the priest’s room, and the small chapel, the air is dank, cold, a kind of death that hasn’t been allowed to die. This is the ghost of a building that hasn’t been allowed to return to the earth as it longs to do; despite earthquakes, storms, armies, time itself, people keep raising the walls again over these old brick floors, re-painting the designs on the walls, cleaning out the bapistry, adding a replica font when the old one is stolen or broken or lost. In those grim rooms of walls three feet thick, powdery tiles, fragile wood beams, all joy or happiness has been wrung out of the air like the last bit of moisture in a rag, or a body. There is hardly any oxygen left for a visitor’s lungs; my chest hurts, my eyes strain for a crack of light. A bed frame sits in one dark corner, straps of leather woven to hold the pious body of a padre. I grimace. I’ve just read about how Spanish soldiers and 49’ers alike would strip the skin from dead Indian bodies to tan and fashion into reigns, pouches, straps. I know the leather strips on this bed frame are from a cow or deer, not a Kummeyay man or woman, but in this wintery, soul-less air the brown aged skin looks so much like my father’s leathery back in summertime when he’s worked the garden till sundown …

In the courtyard I walk in circles, following a brick path that takes me to tall, slightly bent crosses formed of Mission tiles and adobe “in memory of the Indians who died here,” statues of thin ascetic Franciscans in robes, mossy ground cover and palm trees. A sign says this is California’s first cemetery. Funny thing is, no one really knows where the cemetery at this mission is located; the fathers only said it was “next to” the church, until late in the records, at which point someone simple crossed out “next to” and kept “cemetery.” Some people assume this means the courtyard where I walk now; others say it could be anywhere else on the mission grounds. At the archeology site off to one side, I see a white bone sticking out of the earth, but the informational signs posted nearby assure me that finding human remains there is even less likely than finding buried treasure. This particular site was most likely living quarters for the padres, the signs say. Most likely. But no one knows where the graveyard lies, where those Indian bones rest, cradeled in the red earth, where those resistant Kumeyaay fell and rose to fight no more.

They killed their priest here, those Kumeyaay, those Yuma. A huge black and white drawing, at least 3 feet by 4 feet, dominates one side of the museum here: angry, scowling, howling long-haired, breech-clothed Indian men attacking Padre Jayme with clubs and fists, stones and feet. He cried out, “Love God, my children,” – according to the story handed down to us from witnesses – and who were those witnesses, other priests? captive Indians? - but the Indians killed him anyway, left his body beside the river. California’s first martyr. Depending on how you define martyr, right?

The suggested donation to enter the Mission is $3 for adults. Less for seniors, and children. I ask if California Indians have to pay, daring to think we’ve already paid enough. The answer is, of course, yes. I can’t do it; can’t physically push my hands into the pockets of my jeans. I’m not paralyzed with fear, but tongue-tied with fury. My partner pulls out her wallet and offers the woman six dollars. “Are you paying for both of you?” the woman asks uncertainly. “Yes,” Margo says.

I turn away, look at the wall of rosaries, relics, anything. I can’t pay. I can’t speak.

I want to go inside these walls where ancestors, Spanish, Mexican, Indian, and mixtures of all three, walked, worked, ate, slept, fucked, stood in stocks, took floggings, wept, pretended stupidity and slowness to irritate their masters, created works of “primitive” art on the walls with paint, in wood with knives and chisels, submitted to rape, poisoned one priest and beat another to death, ground corn, wheat, acorns, seeds by hand, nursed children, wove baskets, blankets, cloth. I want inside the walls those Indians wanted so badly to get out of. I want to see. I want to know. It’s only three dollars, and it’s cheating if I let someone else pay for me. I should refuse, get angry, walk through without making the token “contribution.” As if our flesh and blood wasn’t enough, I think, now they want my three dollars?

But what I see inside isn’t a testimony to suffering or loss, or genocide or resistance. It’s a testimony to fantasy. The buildings fell down a long time ago. Ripped apart by earthquakes, as if the earth no longer wanted this parasite on her back. Melted down by rain on unprotected adobe. Chewed and digested by termites, worms, the recyclers of everything rotting. Plaque after plaque attests to the efforts to restore, rebuild, renew, replace, re-dedicate. Everything here except the pavement stones found by archeologists beneath four feet of earth and debris are re-creations of a fantasy of colonization, missionization, the saving of pagan souls that went wrong before the priests ever stepped foot on the continent.

Let it die, I think. Let the adobe melt back into the earth, let the graves remain unmarked, let the dank chambers open to the skies and drink sun and rain until they breathe their last threat, fill their lungs once more with fresh air, sink into a new beginning. No extraordinary measures. No heroic rescues. When something’s been dead this long, you really need to just let it go, let it transform into the next existence.

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