California’s Hispanic heritage

By | Category: Travel destinations

Patricia Cleveland-Peck peers into California’s Hispanic past

Standing on Presidio Hill, San Diego we find ourselves on the very spot where California began. The view below is now the urban sprawl of America’s seventh largest city but in 1769, when the Franciscan missionary Father Junípero Serra stepped ashore with a group of Spanish soldiers there was nothing to see but miles of scrubland.

The Spanish had made plans to establish a string of missions up the coast from San Diego to Sonoma, north of San Francisco which, it was felt, would serve the dual purpose of securing the territory for the Spanish crown at the same time as saving the souls of the native peoples by converting them to Catholicism.

The first mission, San Diego de Alcalá was built together with a presidio, or barracks, for the soldiers who were to protect the mission. This was needed as not surprisingly, the natives did not take to their land’s being seized and were even less enthusiastic about being forced to forsake their homes and beliefs for ever and enter the mission, there to work all day. Several skirmishes took place which the soldiers quelled and one priest Father Luis Jayme, was killed.

Not long afterwards the mission moved to its present position nearer the San Diego River and today it is a vibrant and attractive complex, lovingly restored and visited by thousands of tourists. Its lay-out, which is similar to that of other missions, consists of a church, a quadrangle containing a garden ( originally for corralling stock) and the Indian’s dormitories and workshops. Most now also contain a museum, a cafe and a shop. Another common feature is the campanario or bell wall: the mission day was regulated by bells announcing mass, work, meals or death.

Here we find Father Serra’s room with his tiny bed ( he was only 5’2”), the white adobe cloister surrounding the colourful garden and the courtyard with a fountain and a pepper tree alive with humming birds at its centre.

A few miles north is Mission San Louis Rey de Francia, named after St Louis IX, King of France, and known as the King of the Missions. It is the largest, at one time owning six ranches. It flourished until all missions were secularised in the 1833 after which most were abandoned, becoming secular ranches, hog farms and in one case a dance hall and saloon. In 1849 Abraham Lincoln restored the missions ( but not the land) to the Catholic Church and San Louis Rey returned to the care of the Franciscans who now still operate retreats and ‘quiet days’ there.

The 21 missions were planned by the Spanish to be just one day’s horseback journey from each other – but we take the Amtrak Surfliner train north, a comfortable journey which is much less scary than driving on the multi-lane free ways. The railway hugs the coast and we enjoy some good views of the pacific before disembarking at Los Rios, one of the oldest neighbourhoods in California in order to visit Mission San Juan de Capistano.

Dubbed the Jewel of the Missions, this is a haven of peace with glorious gardens full of colourful flowers, bougainvillea, pepper trees, monarch butterflies and birds. It is here that the return of the swallows is celebrated with an annual festival in March, an event which gave rise to a popular song in the 1930s. The self-sufficient mission life is illustrated by interesting displays of millstones, tallow ovens, tanning vats and suchlike. The tiny stone chapel with its 350 year old altar and Indian frescoes, believed to be the oldest building in California, is the only chapel left in which Father Serra himself celebrated mass. We learn that he was beatified in 1988 and there is hope of his canonisation – a controversial subject which unsurprisingly is opposed by local people of Native American descent.

We are also shown the ruin of the huge old Graeco-Roman style church which was destroyed by an earthquake in 1812, killing 40 people. We can only wonder how impressed people must have been to see such an enormous edifice, the largest building west of the Mississipi, rising in the Californian wilderness – and how devastated by its destruction.

The last mission we visit is Mission Santa Barbara, known as The Queen of the Missions which sits proudly above the city. It has a rich art collection and it is here that we meet Professor Jerry Sortomme, head of the Environmental Horticultural Programme, who together with a team of volunteers has recreated a huerta, or kitchen garden, effectively a ‘ living museum’ planted with vegetables and flowers grown during the mission era.

It is interesting to see how throughout history, plants have spread from county to country. The Spaniards came prepared, wishing to maintain their accustomed eating habits and as early as Columbus’ second voyage seeds and cutting of 20 plants were brought over on the 17 ships together with tethered horses, longhorn cattle and crates of chickens. Most of the Mission gardens were modelled on those of a Castillian monastery with orchards and vineyards – the ‘Mission’ grape they brought with them effectively initiating California’s multi-billion dollar industry today. Mediterranean plants were spread not only by friars visiting each other’s missions but also by native peoples who had come to enjoy them. The traffic was by no means one way: as well as chocolate which had been introduced by Cortes, tomatoes, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts and chillis all made their way back to Europe influencing the cuisine.

The Missions with their beautiful gardens and interesting architecture give us an insight into a very different California from the ‘sun and show bizz’ image usually projected. As well as being spiritual havens for local worshippers, they are also fascinating reminders of California’s Hispanic past which tourists from all over the world can appreciate.

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