Californians turn to missions for history
In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
We all know the grade-school rhyme that helps children everywhere remember just which Italian explorer planted a little European flag in the North American continent, bringing with him horses, coffee and smallpox.
Americans even observe a holiday in his honor by closing down post offices on the second Monday of October in an attempt to perpetuate a myth about the countryâs origins of discovery.
But there is an indifference to this holiday felt even more so here on the West Coast, where children grow up making Spanish missions out of Cheerios and bowtie pasta, complete with tiny plastic Native Americans.
Perhaps it is because West Coast dwellers do not feel the same kind of connection to the founding of a country that does not look like their surroundings. In California, the New World is still new; the skeletons of our founding fathers arenât present as constant reminders of our origins. Californian history has a poor physical manifestation of a past shrouded in agricultural growth, forced religious conversion and entertainment.
Unlike older East Coast cities that have historical buildings, complete with bullet holes and patina rust, Californiaâs landmarks are either remarkably young, part of a film or ravaged by seasons of fire, mudslides or earthquakes.
Local history, however, does not apologize for its lack of recognition. California subscribes to the same exact brand of origin mythology as does America and its glorification of a foreign sailor â just to a lesser degree.
The first European to see the shores of California, HernĂĄn CortĂ©s, arrived in what was originally called âthe Californiasâ in 1535, hoping to reap the benefits from what Europeans believed was a long island, and instead, discovered to be inhospitable and too hot for their taste.
Later, explorers swished by the stateâs ports, but Father Junipero Serra truly left a lasting colonial mark with a nine-mission system that sought to transform the hundreds of heathen indigenous into obedient, âHail Maryâ-chanting Catholics.
In the third grade, the little kiddies get the politically correct version of the story, and hear about how Father Serra stood at a tiny 5-foot-2 and how the kind old man traveled up and down the coast on the Camino Real, marked by magical bells and cacti.
Each eager child then chooses his or her very own mission to write a report on and gives a presentation in front of the class showing off a structure made of graham crackers, plaster of paris or brown Legos that crudely resembles the San Gabriel Mission or San Carlos de Borromeo de Carmelo.
From the first mission in Alta California founded on July 16, 1769, San Diego de AlcalĂĄ, to the last, San Francisco Solano founded on July 4, 1823, the missions served as Spanish religious and physical posts placed a dayâs worth of travel from one another. With a church, bell tower and plaza, each mission took its name from a different Catholic saint, stringing together a delicate chain of livestock, indigenous exchange, artistic growth, agriculture and political alliances.
Many of the major California cities started off as mission villages, including Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Diego and San Jose. The missions were secularized in 1834, when a newly independent Mexico tried to sell off the lands, which often contained remnants of the wine and wheat the missions had produced.
It wasnât until 1863 that the missions became an official part of the Catholic Church, which was well after many of the missions had been ravaged by natural disasters, Native American raids, minor battles and secularization.
Now, missions have cemented themselves as kitschy road trip destinations, local parishes and quaint, adobe-shaded wedding locations with gardens that used to grow olives through coerced labor. We donât sugarcoat this unnatural past with a made-up holiday that gives lazy bureaucrats an excuse to sleep in on a Monday, but let our children find out the cruel past after theyâre past the arts-and-crafts age.
California has an excuse for this dedication to a forged founding history, however. The very name of the state comes from a novel where California is a paradise island replete with strong women ruled by Queen Califia, who only let men on the island one day a year to replenish the islandâs population.
Though Californians today do not have that Amazon lifestyle, we can certainly pretend to. Who knows â maybe theyâd even make a holiday out of it.
Clare Sayas is a junior majoring in public relations. Her column, âLost & Found,â runs Thursdays.