Sunday, March 23, 2014

Las Misiones Jesuíticas de la Antigua California, Baja California Sur, México (The Jesuit of Missions of Antigua California)

Dr W. Michael Mathes
Talks about the origins of the Jesuit
enterprise in Antigua California
From the trailer:
A most delightfully nostalgic evening spent watching the DVD my amiga the Mexican historian Carmen Boone-Canovas recently sent me: Sergio Raczsko's new documentary film, Las Misiones Jesuíticas de la Antigua California (The Jesuit of Missions of Antigua California)-- "Antigua California" being old California, the first California, that nearly 1,000 mile long peninsula that now belongs to the Republic of Mexico. Sponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Iberoamerican University Foundation, Mexico's Consejo para la Cultura y las Artes, and the Organization de Estados Iberamericanos (OEI) it celebrates the Jesuit missions of Baja California with interviews with historians (including the outstanding W. Michael Mathes, Miguel Leon-Portilla, and Barbara Meyer Stinglhammer, among many others) and brief visits to each of the missions-- many of them both very remote and very picturesque.

>Watch the trailer here

>As soon as I can find a link to buy the DVD or download the full documentary, I will posted it here.

When I first came across it more than two decades ago, the story of the Jesuit missions of Antigua California profoundly changed the way I thought about both Mexico and the state of California. I was born in Texas but came to California as a baby, and then went through the school system there, which taught every fourth grader that the "California Missions" began with Padre Junipero Serra in San Diego-- as if Antigua California and the daring and  tragic Jesuit enterprise that spanned nearly a century did not exist. The encounters of a paleolithic people with a cadre soldiers and (speaking of the Jesuits) some of Europe and the New World's most educated, visionary, and best-organized men though unintended, resulted in the former's destruction-- right about the time that the Jesuits themselves were betrayed in a both cruel and mysterious manner by the King of Spain.

The first permanent mission of Antigua California was Loreto, founded by an Italian Jesuit, Father Salvaterra who named it after Our Lady of Loreto-- Loreto being a town on the Adriatic which purports to have the Santa Casa, the house of the Virgin Mary, removed from Nazareth and flown across the sea by angels. (You read that right.)

From  my memoir of my travels through Baja California, Miraculous Air, the chapter "Like People You See in a Dream":

The Jesuits had not been long ashore when Ibó warned Father Salvatierra: the Indians were planning to kill them and take the food. Salvatierra was a veteran missionary to the Tarahumara, a fierce mountain tribe in the mainland's Sierra Madre. With his rock-launching mortar and harquebuses in place, the priest took the news in stride. The attack came from the heights, a rain of arrows and rocks and dirt clods that lasted for two hours. Finally, the Indians charged. Salvatierra stood up and warned them away, gesturing towards the harquebuses. But the Indians did not understand what harquebuses were; they loosed three arrows at him. "In this desperate strait," Salvatierra wrote, "God inspired me..." He manned a harquebus, and together with his soldiers, opened fire. The Indians "were struck down from every side — some were injured and others were killed outright. Disheartened and terrified at our valor, they all withdrew simultaneously at sunset." Then: absolute silence. After about fifteen minutes, Ibó appeared in the reeds facing the trench. He walked slowly towards the priest and his soldiers. And then he entered their compound, sobbing.
A bronze bust of Father Salvatierra was mounted on a concrete pedestal in the plaza facing Loreto's mission church. His expression was grim, like a man watching his house burn down.  Carved into the stone above the door to the church were the words
I savored that for a moment: Head and Mother of the Lower and Upper California Missions. In grade school, we'd been taught that the California missions began in San Diego. Father Junípero Serra and the Franciscan order played the heroes — or villains, depending on one's point of view. Salvatierra, Loreto, the Jesuits, none were so much as mentioned.
For years I'd had a recurring dream about finding a room in my house that I hadn't known was there. Sometimes the door was at the back of a wardrobe, othertimes I found it behind a cabinet. I suppose that's common, like dreams about flying. Baja California, I was beginning to realize, was like my dream about the room. Except that it was true.
The stone church looked small and plain, but inside was a luscious confection of an altar, all gold and Wedgewood blue, with an effigy of the Virgin in gold-leafed robes set back into a niche of pleated satin. The pews each had a plaque: En memoria de Teresa Valadez Bañuelos; Familia Benziger Davis; En memoria Ernesto Davis Drew. Names like Davis and Drew, I'd read, were from sailors, like Fisher and Ritchie and Wilkes in Los Cabos. The building had been heavily restored. A chubasco ravaged the town in 1829 (the capital was moved then to La Paz); earthquakes did further damage. By the mid-18th century, the Indians had died off and everyone who could had left for the Gold Rush and other mining booms. With no one to rebuild it, the church remained a ruin. When John Steinbeck came through in 1940, the only room left intact was a side chapel.  It was that simple whitewashed room which interested me, because here was the original Virgin of Loreto carried ashore by Salvatierra himself. I was so struck by Steinbeck's description of the brown-haired wooden effigy that I'd made a note of it:
[S]he has not the look of smug virginity so many have —  the "I-am-the-Mother-of-Christ" look, but rather there was a look of terror on her face, of the Virgin Mother of the world and the prayers of so very many people heavy on her.
Which was a remarkably creative thing to say, I thought as I gazed up at the shiny polychromed face. To me, she had a vapid expression. Her eyes were open, but she looked as though she hadn't yet woken up.

I'm not too cozy with the Catholic Church, as you might guess, but I did write about the Jesuit missionaries with as much accuracy and compassion as I could muster. Unlike the men of most of the other missionary orders, the Jesuits left a remarkable trove of reports, memoirs and letters, and in reading them, I came to appreciate them as individuals, as well as recognize the scale and fearsome hardships of their enterprise. (A few, such as the curmudgeonly German Father Baegert, author of Observations in Lower California, I became quite fond of.) I also tried, with the help of their reports, recent scholarship, and conjecture based on comparisons to other "first contacts" to tell what stories I could from the points of view of the indigenous peoples. It really was a thrill to write, for Antigua California's, which has been told and retold and will continue to be retold as long as there are tellers, is one of the greatest stories of the Americas.

For scholars: the most authoritative overview is Harry Crosby's Antigua California.

For scholars and anyone else, I warmly recommend Sergio Raczsko's documentary is a superb and rich introduction. (Carmen Boone-Canovas, who is a leading expert on Our Lady of Loreto and the Jesuit missionaries in Mexico, consulted and also edited the text.) Again, I will post the link to buy the DVD as soon as I have it.

Back to Junipero Serra. Several fine biographies have come out or are about to come out this year. More about him, and more about the desert and about conversos, anon. 

Now I'm back to writing about the Big Bend of far West Texas (that project was interrupted this year by the rather unexpected Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution)-- a land that has much in common with Baja California.  Stay tuned for my podcast interview with historian John Tutino about the origins of capitalism (oh, yes) and Spanish North America.