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Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Spanish Missions in California

All school kids in California spend part of fourth grade learning about the Spanish missions founded by Father Junipero Serra in the 1770s. I learned about them way back in the dark ages when dresses were mandatory for girls and if you were caught wearing shorts under your dress so that you could hang upside-down on the monkey bars at recess, you got sent home. That’s why my friends and I spent most recesses exercising our imaginary horses around and around the fields, galloping, cantering, trotting, changing leads, and all the other horsey things we could find in books, or that some of us gleaned from the rare, high privilege of riding an actual horse. But I digress, as usual.

Now, for those who have known nothing about Father Serra since that last lesson in the fourth grade eons ago, you might be as pleasantly surprised as I was to find out that the Pope beatified him in 1988—isn’t that great? Our own California saint-in-the-making. I had visited a number of the missions he founded, because my parents loved to take us places lots of weekends and for short vacations several times a year. Mission San Juan Bautista was my favorite, not because Alfred Hitchcock set part of Vertigo there although that is now one of the reasons—when I was young and we went there, they had a life-sized model horse in the stables, and I got to get up on on it! Was I thrilled! The only thing that could have made it better would have been if I had been allowed to wear pants, but back then, girls had to wear dresses everywhere except in their own back yards or at the beach it seemed. Mission San Carlos Borromeo (at Carmel) is a new experience for me. Father Serra is buried here. The church is lovely and peaceful; it ranks the status of a minor basilica because of the burial here. I walk out into the gardens, and there are a couple prickly pear cacti with trunks three feet thick, they are so old! There is a cypress tree and a cedar that must have been here when Father Serra was here. They are venerable trees.

Then I turn the corner and see what takes me back to childhood and my youthful feelings of repugnance when I learned the fuller story of Father Serra. Even though political correctness and the awareness of the rights of native Americans was not yet fashionable, I had long been siding with the Indians, as we called them, in every cowboy movie I’d seen up to the age of nine. Those feelings were reinforced profoundly when I learned what Father Serra and his cronies had done to the native Californians. There are thousands of them buried around the mission grounds, but only a few of the graves are marked. It filled me with sadness that these peaceful people had to suffer brutal subjugation at the hands of the Spanish padres. Back when I was a child and learned about the one culture being lost as the other took over, I wished somehow there could have been cooperative coexistence.

I wish it could be so still—that we could appreciate each other. That we could peacefully coexist on this earth while we enrich each other with different ways of doing things, not fighting over which is better.

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