A short road trip…ro

Jennie and I took a short road trip down to Oceanside a few months back.

The brief trip was a spur-of-the-moment getaway and a chance to visit with Jennie’s brother and sister-in-law. On a partly sunny afternoon, with big white clouds in the sky, we mounted our E-bikes and cycled for five miles along a dedicated bike and pedestrian trail that followed the San Luis River. We arrived in Mission San Luis Rey at midafternoon. The grounds were typical of the many restored missions up and down the central coast, complete with newer adobe walls, revitalized gardens, and a remodeled basilica. In many ways, it reminded me of the mission model I made out of cardboard for my 4th-grade class when we studied early California history.

We took the self-guided tour through the various rooms and displays that were cordoned off with thick sisal rope, complete with placards describing life in a Franciscan mission over 200 hundred years ago. I was struck, as always, by the idyllic portrayal of the relationship between the padres and their native charges. There are elucidations on the economic activities that people were engaged in, with comments and quotes on the wonderful cooperation among all that lived within the mission walls and worked under the tolling bells of the ruling missionaries. There are references to the benevolence of the padres and how well they treated the natives, teaching them useful skills, introducing them to religion, and, of course, baptizing as many souls as possible. Clearly, there is the implied depiction that casts the Franciscans as “fathers” and the natives as their “children.”

While we know this characterization of mission life is filled with many falsehoods, the point can be made that recent, important books like A Cross of Thorns and We Are Not Animals, books that portray the Franciscans—and especially Father Junípero Serra—as cruel and sadistic, may also miss the mark on what was the reality of the California Mission system.

Some of the truth can be found in the meticulous records kept by the padres at each mission. Two notable facts emerge:
1) There was an extremely high mortality rate within the indigenous population, mainly due to European diseases.
2) Ledgers show the missions were principally agrarian enterprises that not only provided sustenance for their occupants but participated in a market economy by selling hides, cloth, and foodstuffs. In order for the missions to survive, they had to keep a large labor force.

When the labor force kept diminishing due to loss of life, there had to be a means of acquiring more labor and ensuring that workers stayed and continued at their jobs. What resulted was essentially a concentration-camp atmosphere where it became a punishable offense to leave, especially after one was baptized.

What began as an attraction to native people (for many were drawn to the innovations that the “modern” world demonstrated) turned into a system that, over time, became adulterated. The father-child metaphor became a master-slave relationship. Cultural genocide was the result. And, like most human upheavals, good and evil, benevolence and hatred, knowledge and the loss of knowledge all accompanied this historical change.

Photo of Mission San Luis Rey originally posted by the National Park Service.

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