Thursday, September 17, 2009

Dear Vicenta

Awhile ago I shared a field note from J.P. Harrington in which his consultant, Isabel Meadows, tells the story of a young Indian girl at the Carmel Mission in Monterey who went into the church during Lent and was raped by the priest. The note, in mixed Spanish and English, looks like this:

From J.P. Harrington’s field notes. Date: April 1935. Reel 73, page 98, side B. Consultant: Isabel Meadows.


Vicenta Gutierrez, sister of ‘The Blonde’ Gutierrez, when [she was] a girl went to confession one evening during Lent, and Father Real wanted her, to grab her over there in the church. And next day there was no trace of the padre there, and 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.

This note has haunted me, and my search for Vicenta resulted in a long essay titled " Saying the Padre Had Grabbed Her: Rape is the Weapon, Story is the Cure." But my initial response was to talk directly to Vicenta herself. The only way I could do that was in a letter.

Dear Vicenta

I’m sorry, because I don’t know what to tell you. I could try to be funny and say, Hey, guess that priest gave up celibacy for Lent, huh? or I could go for the crude wink, I know what you gave up, honey! That’s how I’ve learned to deal with it. That’s how I talk about what happened to me as a kid. I mean, it happens all the time, right? It’s not just that we’re women; we’re Indian women … poor Indian women. The statistics on that are predictable. 34% of us raped; 1 in 3! and 90% of the rapists are non-Indian.

Well, I shouldn’t complain. Those are stats from my day and age. For you, it’s probably more like 100%. I’ve read the testimonies, the as-told-to stories. Funny thing, that. No one believes what you say. Or cares. Until over a century has passed and the damn guy is dead and buried and safe in his cozy little Mission graveyard.

Now it’s all legitimate research, figuring out how women survived the Missions, how many rapes, how many self-induced abortions, how many infanticides, the native medicines for birth control, the ravages of syphilis that caused sterility, and worse. Scholars write dissertations, sexual violence against colonized women is real field of study, and what happened in the dark confessional or between the pews is suddenly outrageous, a weapon of colonization, not a shameful wound.

That Chumash guy, Fernando Librado – the one famous for providing J.P. Harrington with all that old-time information, even how to build a tomol from nothing? You can find those directions on the internet now. On websites for children, fourth graders studying the Missions, looking for Indian words, how to grind acorns. He’s a hero. He saved a culture from amnesia. That’s what they tell the kids.

Fernando remembered a whole lot more than recipes, though. Even when no one else listened to him, Harrington wrote it down. The old indios used to say “that man would write down the Indian directions for scratching your ass,” and it was true! Vicenta, here’s what Fernando told :

“The priest had an appointed hour to go there. When he got to the nunnery
[monjerio], all were in bed in the big dormitory. The priest would pass by
the bed of the superior [maestro] and tap her on the shoulder, and she would commence singing. All of the girls would join in … when the singing was going on, the priest would have time to select the girl he wanted, carry out his desires … in this way the priest had sex with all of them, from the superior all the way down
the line … the priest’s will was law. Indians would lie right down if the priest said so.”

Guess we won’t be teaching that to the fourth graders any time soon.

(It happened to me way before fourth grade.)

Vicenta, I keep thinking of how you ran home, telling everyone what had happened. I have to tell you, girl, that was brave. I didn’t tell for years and years.

And the priests were Gods then, even though by the time that Padre came to Carmel, they’d been dumped first by Spain, and then by Mexico. They still had the power. Even if you told, and you did, who would believe you? who would care? who would give you justice?

Nobody. Carmel was a rag-tag bunch of mixedblood Indians trying to survive, fighting over food, the very young and the very old the only ones left who hadn’t died or gone off to celebrate their “emancipation” by working as maids or vaqueros at the ranchos. What could they do? The priests had all the power. They always did. It seemed as if they always would.

Isabel didn’t forget you, though. One hundred years after the Padre raped you in the church, Isabel told your story to Harrington. She told it like it happened yesterday. And she was mad. She used Spanish and a brutal English to make sure Harrington understood. Vicenta, she used the priest’s name. “Padre Real.”

And she used your name. She made certain we knew which family you belonged to, connected you with your brother.

Isabel told that story like it happened to her, or to her daughter. She told that story like she could bring down the wrath of God just by finding the right words.

Maybe she did, Vicenta. By not following the rules, the rules that said we don’t talk about this stuff, we don’t name names, we don’t tell outsiders. Maybe she figured, what’s left to lose? Everyone was telling her that extinction was right around the corner, and it sure as hell felt like it. So why not tell the whole story? Why just tell the stuff they can analyze in a monograph, simplify for their children when they learn about the exotic animals that used to live here?

If we’re going out, she might’ve thought, we’re going out with some guts!

Isabel says Padre Real was gone the next morning. Maybe even gone back to Spain. That was wishful thinking. He left Carmel, all right, but he didn’t go very far. Right around that time, historical records say, Father Real moved his home base from Carmel Mission to the chapel in Monterey, and from there to Mission Santa Cruz, where he tried to sell the church’s land illegally as the Americans came flooding into the country. And then – he just vanishes from the record. Poof. Nothing.

Erasure is a bitch, isn’t it?

Vicenta, I don’t know if the fact that your story survives, that Isabel’s angry words fight for your dignity and honor, really brings any kind of justice to you. Not the kind of hands-on justice I’d like, anyhow. When the Indians at Santa Cruz Mission killed their priest – a man known for his use of metal-tipped whips and thumb screws - they made sure to rip off his testicles, too.

Now those were some Indians who listened to the “eye for an eye” part of the Bible pretty good.

But the scribblings of an obsessed white man trying to record the memories of an aging Indian woman attempting to tell the story of a young Indian girl’s rape one hundred years before – can this change the world?

Maybe nothing can bring you justice after all this time, Vicenta. That’s probably too much to ask. I hope for the basics: I hope someone was there for you when you ran home. Someone to hold you. Someone to help you clean yourself up. Someone who comforted you after the nightmares. I hope nobody told you it was your fault. I hope some old lady cussed out Father Real in front of the gossips.

And if no one did any of that for you, I hold onto this: Isabel remembered your story, and she told it to Harrington, and he told it to me, and I’m telling it to everyone I can find.

You told first.

Maybe that’s why Isabel felt, of all the stories she knew about violation and invasion and loss, your story was the one to tell Harrington. She was proud of you. She respected you for refusing to shut up. She liked that you weren’t a good Mission Indian. Maybe she even thought future Indian women could learn from you.

That 34% hasn’t gone away since I started this letter.

Vicenta. If that was your name, the Padre should have been more careful about giving it to you. Even in Spanish, it means “conquers.”

Not conquered.


© Deborah A. Miranda

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Numbers and diversity, weaving and threads

Most scholars agree that previous estimates of California Indian pre-contact population are now too low. The numbers usually given are between 250,000 - 350,000 at the time of Spanish contact. Contemporary population estimates for pre-historic/contact California of up to 750,000 come from scholar Russell Thornton; in a personal communication, William Preston (Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo) writes, “At this point I think that Thornton's high number is totally reasonable. In fact, keeping in mind that populations no doubt fluctuated over time, I'm thinking that at times 1 million or more Native Californians were resident in the state.”
That number of around 1 million souls had fallen to around 5,000-10,000 when my grandfather, Tom Miranda, was born in 1903. Slowly, the number began to creep up again. It's this reinvention of California Indian identity that so interests me. How do you start from scattered shards? How do you re-form community? culture? Change is inevitable. How much change can we survive, and still be California Indians? Or does our idea of California Indian evolve and change too?
Cultural identity has been described as a long, long rope, woven of many strands, some of which come to an end, only to be wrapped up by other strands that then continue on further. We don't say that the rope itself has become something else; it is still a rope. But is it the same rope that we started with, when we've gone 50 feet? Is it the idea of the rope that makes it still "a" rope, one rope, the same rope at one foot that it is at 50?
A culture would have to come completely unraveled, lose connection to the past, in order to end. Some California tribes suffered so terribly that they actually did become extinct. The strands of their rope were cut off and thrown away. The end was clear. But those of us who survived, like my grandfather Tom - we threw ourselves into life, adding on to that rope, changing it, changing materials and methods maybe, as when one weave picks up a line started by someone else in the same village. You can tell there's a difference; you can pinpoint the ways one weaver is unlike the other. But the rope, itself, survives. Goes on. Holds on.

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