There are twenty-one missions in the state of California – remnants and reminders of the fact that our nation’s most populous state was once a Spanish Colony and a part of Mexico. They are all lovely buildings, and in many cases, they serve as symbols for the towns and cities in which they are located. Because of their iconic role in California’s identity, we tend to forget the shadow side of the mission system. In addition to representing a rich Spanish history, the power of exploration, and a dedication to growth, missions also stand as physical evidence for an enormous colonization project that dramatically affected the native inhabitants of California. In the effort to create a literate tax base of compliant Christians for their new colonies, the Spanish and nearly wiped out the local population.
Of course, you don’t really see this controversial past when you visit missions today. I recently took a break from a long drive up Highway 101 to spend time at Mission San Miguel, a large, well-restored cluster of structures right by the side of the freeway. While you can get a quick look at the buildings as you whizz by at 70 mph, it’s definitely worth taking the time to stop and wander through them. In the compound, you find yourself awash in classic adobe colors and textures. You walk amidst a sea of creams, beiges, and terra cottas, with the unpredictable ridges and ripples of plaster all around. On a sunny day, the warm California sun creates constantly shifting patterns of shadow and light, and even a common cactus becomes an art piece.
This particular mission was founded in 1797 by a Franciscan priest. The intention was to “close the gap” between the mission to its north, San Antonio, and the next one to the south, San Luis Obispo. Missions were supposed to be placed one day’s horseback ride apart, so San Miguel was appropriately located eighteen miles from each of its neighbors. Its lands and influence reached sixty-six miles to the east and thirty-five miles to the Pacific Ocean on its western side. The mission’s properties produced wheat, barley, corn, beans, and peas in addition to providing grazing lands for 22,000 head of livestock at the mission’s peak.
The site’s original structure was a small wooden church which burned to the ground in 1806. It was replaced with the more elaborate 1821 adobe building that still stands today, complete with its multi-colored interior frescoes. In addition to the frescoes, the complex is well-known for its arcade of twelve arches and the extensive cemetery which holds the remains of over two thousand Native Americans from the Salinian tribe. The 2003 earthquake that rocked the area caused substantial destruction to the mission, but over the last ten years a great deal of money and time has been spent restoring the site to its original appearance.
Missions were charged with the task of converting native Americans to Catholicism, and, in the process, creating a class of people who could labor in the fields and contribute to the economy of the new colony. In order to accomplish both of these tasks, priests frequently lured local indigenous people to the missions with promises of food and other gifts. Once they were there, they received only a minimum of religious education before being baptized. After baptism, the new converts were called “neophytes,” and they were required to work and pray at the mission from that point forward. Neophytes who refused to work were whipped, beaten, and denied food; those that ran away were hunted down and brought back. They received no pay and no land in exchange for their labor, as profits from any crops that were sold by the mission went directly back to the mission itself. Living conditions were terrible, and the poor sanitation and close quarters contributed to the already rampant outbreaks of contagious diseases. In many ways, the mission system was the west’s version of slavery.
The mission priests did bring a vast selection of new crops to California – such as citrus fruits, stone fruits, and olives. They also catapulted Native Californians’ technology into another era. Prior to contact, the indigenous people used only bone and stone tools, and they had no exposure to the tradition of animal husbandry. The Franciscans introduced mining and blacksmithing to the neophytes. They taught local inhabitants how to make bricks and tiles, and in doing so, passed on the adobe-style construction techniques that would come to characterize the state of California. But in the process, over 72% of the population of the Salinian people – a tribe that had peacefully co-existed with its native neighbors – was decimated by smallpox, measles, syphilis, tuberculosis, dysentery, and malnutrition.
As I walked through Mission San Miguel, I didn’t have images of forced labor, mass devastation, and the widespread loss of cultures and belief systems. Today, the place feels incredibly peaceful. It is in a rare part of California that is sparsely populated, and at this time of year the hills are carpeted in electric green. Most of the outbuildings were quiet, and their sturdy architecture and minimally landscaped cactus gardens seemed comforting. I happened to visit on Easter Sunday, when the church itself was completely packed with smiling parishioners – most of them Latino. The scene was downright pastoral, and I genuinely enjoyed my time wandering around the compound.
Historic missions are a rich part of California history with a legacy far more complex than we are often left to believe when most of what we see is charming woodblock prints of church steeples and silhouettes against beautiful sunsets. As we continue to grapple with issues of cultural contact and mass migration of populations in our current society, we need to remember and hold in awareness the complicated issues that our predecessors – both those in power and those without power – experienced. We need to learn to see a mission’s bell tower as a symbol of our changing world, and the challenges that come along with that, not just as a source of pride and beauty.
That’s not a reflex for me – not yet, anyway. But as I continue to visit the twenty-one California missions, I plan to devote a chunk of my mental energy to more thoughtfully considering the lives of the indigenous people whose populations and cultures were so radically affected by the construction of these seemingly simple buildings. In that process, I hope to transform the way I see these buildings too.