Recovering an Erased History

1764

On the walkway from the bookstore to McHenry Library, in the wooded ravine below Hahn Student Services and the road, there’s a bell that reads, “El Camino Real,” or “The Royal Road.” This modest looking steel bell honors the pathway taken by Spanish missionaries as they traversed the California coast. This pathway is not only an approximation made over 200 years after the fact, but a pathway marking a series of oppressive institutions staining California’s history.

There are 21 missions in California. In the mid-18th century, the Spanish Crown gave permission to missionaries to enslave Native Americans and force them to build the religious and military outposts, yet the dominant narrative surrounding them carries a tone of historical admiration. The California missions ought not be upheld as exotic artifacts or architectural wonders, but as institutions with devastating repercussions for the Native American population.

Elias Castillo, author of “A Cross of Thorns,” recently gave an impassioned speech at the UCSC Arboretum about the missions’ fictionalized history. He spoke about the sociopathic racism of Father Junipero Serra and his successors, the dramatic spike in Native American disease and death rates and of a French traveler who likened the situation to plantations in the Caribbean.

After living for thousands of years along the California coast, men, women and children were tortured with Spanish blacksmiths’ creatively perverse devices. Escapees were whipped, there were revolts, portions of missions were burned by the enslaved and it’s estimated that 62,000 Native Americans died under Franciscan oppression between 1769 and 1833. It was violent and tumultuous. So are the California missions really an appropriate place to sell souvenirs?

Think back to your fourth grade magnum opus — that scaled down Styrofoam model clad with a tiny courtyard, garden and water fountain (you can also buy complete kits online). The assignments highlight the complex architecture that blended European and Mexican aesthetics. It was a chance for the impressionable fourth grader to internalize the extent to which the missions were self-reliant, little communities. But the project focuses on the buildings, not the oppressive racial hierarchy that enabled its construction in the first place. The assignment is a whimsical distraction requiring some degree of emotional detachment from the men, women and children who built them, and I do not mean the 20th century mission revivalists.

“El Camino Real,” the mythic road that claims to traverse the heart of UCSC, is a testament to the state’s selective memory. The El Camino Real Association was formed in 1904, and it was its idea to place those bells along the coast, supposedly marking the very soil that Father Junipero Serra’s sandals walked.

If the El Camino Real Association was accurate, these bells should be everywhere, including on buoys in the Pacific. Missionaries traveled and sailed many routes, depending on weather or time of year. But the problem is not that the “El Camino Real” is inaccurate, it is that this inaccuracy is a symptom of a more dire issue — our historical amnesia.

The important story has fallen to the wayside in lieu of something more warm and fuzzy. The missions are often fetishized as nostalgic windows to the state’s culturally rich history, where Native Americans and Spaniards put aside their differences and live communally. This is a comfortable yet deeply skewed narrative. It is time we reassess the mission history, enabled by violence and racism, and reconfigure the conversation around the Native American culture that was snuffed out.