Saturday, October 11, 2008

Belated posts

snuggled up to a grand old redwood in the Carmel Mission courtyard, November 2007. Photo by Louise Miranda Ramirez

Before I started this blog, I had already made several trips to various missions. I was too busy keeping up with each day's work to add these early photos and poems once the blog was begun. Now, almost a year later, I am working on the manuscript again and trying to reconstruct some of the materials. So here they are - late, but you know what? Nothing has changed. The Missions are still there, and I bet they still look a lot like this. And the Ancestors are still waiting.

Carmel Mission, November 2007

A brief visual history of Carmel Mission (where most of my ancestors are recorded, the earliest as being born about 1720, which made her about 50 years old upon baptism):

This is how the Mission looked in 1786, when a French explorer, La Perouse, visited. One or more of those Indians lined up there could very possibly be my direct ancestor. The Mission had been founded in 1770 in Monterey, but moved to Carmel in 1771 for better agricultural land and, more importantly, increased distance from the Monterey Presidio soldiers and their tendency to rape Indian women at will, something Father Serra abhored but could do little to stop.
Captain Vancouver visited the Mission in 1792; his artist contributed this sketch of a Mission most Californians wouldn't yet recognize.

I haven't been able to find an actual representation of the Mission during its heyday.

Secularization (when Mexico, post-revolution, closed the missions and recalled the Mexican priests who had replaced the Spanish priests) around 1834 continued the downward decline of all the missions, including Carmel. For a truly stunning history of this time period, see Steven Hackel's book "Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis." I wish I'd written it. Hackel's research mentions several of my direct relatives. In this photo, c. 1880, by Taber and Jackson, you can see that the roof has caved in.

Partially restored Carmel Mission (1938) and a small part of the ruins attributed to early Rosicrucian activity in 1602–1603. (Photo from the archives of the Rosicrucian Order, AMORC.)

[Interestingly, against all Mission Mythology, the Rosicrucians claim that their settlement at Carmel Mission preceeded that of the Franciscans, claiming that a small group of seven Rosicrucians were aboard Vizcaíno’s ship (constructing their base 1602-1603 and occupying the site until about 1632).

Richard A. Schultz, Ph.D., F.R.C., writes, "This permanent structure contained a temple room and an underground cellar in which several chests containing papers and other ritualistic materials were deposited. H. Spencer Lewis explored the extensive ruins near Carmel Mission in May 1918 and during subsequent visits; the records relate that he discovered several Rosicrucian artifacts there, including crosses with a rose worked in coral and other materials in the center. AMORC officers repeatedly visited and examined the Carmel site through the 1930s as part of RCUI activities, ceasing only after major restoration of the mission buildings had begun."]

Another view of the Carmel Mission as renovations were just beginning.

Carmel, the day we visited. It was a Sunday; Mass was being held.

Louise crossing the courtyard; an elderly woman selling candles and religious medals for Mass inside.
The cemetery. Boy Scouts gathered bones into generic pits, circled them with found stones and abalone shells, and sometimes a cross.The cemetery continues beneath the hedge and under the houses next door.

Bones and teeth that Louise and I gathered from the ground. Gophers bring them up, the earth erodes, digging projects disturb them.
This is a pretty big bone for a gopher to bring up?! We left the remains with the Mission office, and later Louise and other tribal members returned for a reburial ceremony.

Esselen or Costanoans carved this fountainhead for the lavandera, where women did the laundry.
Bottom of the courtyard fountain.

Indigenous angel set into niche outside of church. I'm trying to determine who carved it.

The Sacristy (just outside the sanctuary) with Indian designs painted on the walls for decoration. Although the Missions eventually were very successful, in the beginning everything was scrounged and homemade. Wall paintings emerged as one way of providing decorations that, in Spain, would have been carved of marble, expensive wood, or made of gold, silver or silk. Indians took templates by the priests and gradually included more of their own designs and color schemes.

A lovely window decorated with Indian paintings. The walls are at least that thick throughout the Mission, to guard against wild Indian attacks, fire, and other natural disasters. A confessional at Carmel. In one of his letters, Fr. Serra remarks that he's having some of the Indians make a confessional from a leftover packing box sent from Spain. It was good wood, he asserted, and would make a fine confessional. I wonder if this is it? I also wonder if this is the confessional that Vicenta Gutierrez fled around 1833-36, when she came to the church to confess for Lent and was raped by Fr. Jose Suarez Real. The story is recorded by J.P. Harrington, as told by Isabel Meadows:

lz [Isabel Meadows] April [19]35 Vicenta Gutierrez, sister of el Huero Gutierrez, when a girl went to confession one evening during lent, & Padre Real wanted to grab her there in the church and next day he was gone from there, he was never seen again. He probably fled on horseback in the night. Some said he fled to Spain. He was a Spaniard. He grabbed the girl and screwed her. The girl went running to her house, saying the padre had grabbed her.

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.

Soledad, November 23, 2007

Louise looking out over the old Mission lands, now broccoli fields picked by dark-skinned workers from Guatemala or Oaxaca or further south.
Original adobe wall, melting back into the earth after years of exposure. It's only mud. It wants to go back to where it came from.

One of the few Esselen baskets still known to exist.
What we found - a small portion - lying on the ground in the dirt parking lot.

The Esselen Nation Bone Recovery Crew.

Reclaiming Soledad, November 23, 2007


Mission Nuestra Señora Dolorosísima de la Soledad, thirteenth in the chain of Alta California missions, was established on October 9, 1791 by Fr. Fermin de Lasuén, at the site of an Esselen Indian village recorded by Pedro Font as Chuttusgelis. When Soledad Mission was founded, the "Golden Age" was beginning for the California missions, and there was anticipation for another successful venture. –


The Santa Lucia mountains thrust
up sudden, tooth-like, ridge

against turquoise sky, roots
grasping this sweep of valley.

Bell hanging from an iron post.
White roses in the raked garden.

The old mission lands grow
broccoli now, vineyards

drape along the mountains like jade scarves.
Brown workers picking since dawn.

I wonder if the soil recalls their bruised
Indian bones, if it ever forgot.


We have never walked so mindfully.
We find bone fragments on paths,

parking lot, edge of groomed green fields.
Here is a finger joint, here a tooth.

Here a shattered section of femur,
here something unidentifiable except

for the lacey pattern that means
human being. Our children run

to us with handfuls of ancestors
they keep calling "fossils" because

youth and privilege don't
let the truth sink in yet.

It's too big, too much to know:
our relatives scattered on the earth

where Mass is said once a month
and for three hundred dollars

you can baptize a baby in the old
chapel beneath turquoise, pink, green

and blue designs painted by our relatives.
Chevy trucks and Mercedes drive over

dispossessed white bones, grind
them into steel-belted tire treads,

carry them out to Highway 101,
scatter ancestors to the wind. Our Lady

of Sorrows weeps in her niche
behind the altar, dressed in black,

inconsolable. What has been done
in her name? She doesn't want to know.


We gather this chipped harvest
in our hands, pockets, cotton tobacco

pouches, circle the Mission slowly,
follow the woman who found our language

buried beneath her tongue, who places
living words in our hungry mouths

for us to swallow whole. James kneels,
digs a hole with a flat sharp stone.

Chris prays shyly: the old grandmother
hums inside her skin.

Ernie holds up the iridescent abalone shell, lets
pale blue smoke bless this lonely air.

The children hover like butterflies,
taste the past without fear.

Xu-lin, we say to our broken ancestors;
xu-lin, sprinkling sage, mugwort and tobacco

over the small grave. Xu-lin, we whisper
as the earth takes back. Xu-lin,

a plea and a promise:

note: xu-lin means reclaim, return to, recover

©Deborah A. Miranda
November 2007

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