Robert M. Senkewicz*
When I left my native New York City to begin graduate school in California almost five decades ago, many things about my new home region struck me as strange. It seemed odd, for instance, that a local Safeway supermarket had the same kind of tiled roof as I could see on Mission Santa Clara, a scant three blocks away. And it seemed unbearably grandiose to call a local street, whose defining characteristics appeared to be used car lots, gas stations, and strip malls, El Camino Real, which I soon discovered meant the Royal Road. But I eventually realized that missions and Spain were apparently crucial parts of California’s popular identity. Combined with another never-far-from-the-surface part of that identity, the Gold Rush, my new home seemed to be constantly trumpeting a kind of California exceptionalism. Things happened here, everything seemed to say, that never happened anywhere else in the U.S. California is different—and by “different,” what’s clearly meant is “better.”
I began to wonder about that exceptionalism, but the doubts really came into focus when I was writing my dissertation on gold rush San Francisco. It seemed that the social processes alive in that 1850s instant city were quite similar to developments and tensions that were simultaneously occurring in places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The vigilantism that wracked the city twice (in 1851 and 1856) during this era seemed to have more in common with Eastern violence than with “we’re going to have to take the law into our own hands” vigilantism in places like Montana or other frontier venues.
After I finished with gold rush San Francisco, like a good historian, I went back in time. I ended up focusing on California and the Southwest before the U.S. takeover. And here I saw California exceptionalism strongly at work. Even some scholarly work seemed to be written with scant regard to the origins and foundations of Spanish California. Those origins stretched back over three centuries, but you would never know it by learning that San Diego had been founded in 1769 by a party led by two individuals who seemed to materialized out of nowhere, Gaspar de Portolá and Junípero Serra. And the fact that California had once been part of Mexico was apparently quite embarrassing. This embarrassment was solved in textbooks by focusing almost exclusively on Anglo-Americans who began to arrive in California in the 1820s and began to bring culture and civilization to this benighted region.
Popular understanding of California’s pre-U.S. past still suffers from two crucial absences: the absence of context and the absence of people.
First, context. The U.S. state of California was one of the last regions to experience settler colonialism in a Spanish Imperial context. That colonialism had a long and varied history. The Spanish presence worked itself out differently in the Valley of Mexico, the highlands of Peru, the sugar islands of the Caribbean, the Southern Cone, and the arid regions of what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The indigenous cultures the Spanish invaded and disrupted were radically different and the combination of resistance and strategic accommodation varied region to region. Survival often depended on flexible and creative strategic alliances with other groups and, at times, with dissident elements of the invading group. As was the case with British colonialism along the eastern coast of North America, not all colonial officials saw eye to eye, and indigenous leaders attempted to exploit those differences. European maps showed huge regions as controlled by “ Spain,” but this was hardly the case, as large and powerful indigenous peoples from many regions persisted well into the nineteenth century.
California was heir to all of these developments and the Spanish colonialism that took root there was diverse, messy, and at times contradictory. It was anything but a story of Spanish control and indigenous acceptance. The extensive writings of the Franciscan missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bear eloquent testimony to the fact that, even in long-established mission compounds, missionaries knew that they could never assume that external conformity implied indigenous acceptance of subservient status. This part of the story was completely ignored during the “Spanish revival” era, when self-sacrificing, heroic missionaries and happy, contented Indians dominated the narrative. The assumption that California was exceptional meant that California identity could exist in blissful isolation from the issues and tensions that dominated the rest of the Spanish Empire.
Second, people. One of the most striking things about the photographs and paintings that were created concerning the California missions during the latter part of the nineteenth century by artists like Carlton Watkins and Edwin Deakin, is that they were generally bereft of people. The focus is on the structures, generally in various states of disrepair, but hearkening back to their days of glory and prosperity. In this, these later artists were quite different from artists who portrayed the missions who had had actual experience with them. People like Louis Choris, Ferdinand Deppe, and Edward Vischer always foregrounded indigenous, Spanish, and Mexican people in their portrayal of the missions. They knew what contemporary pastoral ministers will be happy to tell you: The “church” is not the building, but the people.
The logical, and sad, outcome of all of this was the fourth grade project that Matthew Gush describes in his introductory essay that follows this one. The focus of that project for elementary school children was on getting the buildings right, the angles precise, the bell towers in the correct place, that sort of thing. When I first learned of this project many years ago, I was as puzzled as I originally had been when I saw that supermarkets looked like churches. After all, we had never made sugar cube models of the Empire State building or the George Washington Bridge when I was in grammar school in New York. When the nuns at St. Columba on West 25th Street showed us New York pictures, they were always pictures of people—of immigrants crowding onto the deck of a boat and weeping for joy when they first saw the Statue of Liberty, of crowds in Times Square celebrating the end of World War II, or of Lou Gehrig saying goodbye at Yankee Stadium. The message was that New York was its people. That was a quite different message from the one that was contained in the fourth grade exercise, that California was its buildings.
Fortunately, this fourth grade project has been discontinued in California schools. I myself hope that its abandonment will lead to the abandonment of another California cottage industry: Picture books, travel guides, and brochures that are filled with “honey shots” of mission façades set against a pure blue sky, bell towers dominating the landscape, and incredibly lush gardens. These productions, in other words, are filled with images of California’s missions that bear absolutely no resemblance to the actual missions that existed from 1769 into the 1840s. These pictures, just like the fourth grade project, do not offer any indication that the California missions were overwhelmingly indigenous locations. Two priests, a handful of soldiers, and hundreds or thousands of native peoples populated the spaces. These venues were places that were as varied, diverse, and contradictory as the three centuries of Spanish colonialism that gave birth to them had been. They were places of pain and joy, of suffering and hope, of violence and survival, of death and birth. Matthew Gush’s photos, which deliberately focus on these places from unusual angles, invite us to enter these locations from different places of our minds. He includes the people who currently worship in these churches, and whose presence demonstrates that the California missions continue to be re-created anew in each generation. Matthew does not tell us in his essay why he decided to begin photographing these missions, but I for one am very glad that he did.
- Photography and image descriptions by Matthew Gush; essay by Robert M. Senkewicz.
This is part one of a diptych on the California missions. For part two, see Matthew Gush, “RE-Present: Seeing California Missions Through A Contemporary Lens.”
Matthew Gush is the university photographer at California State University, Fullerton, and is the Boom California 2017-2018 Photographer in Residence. For more of his work see https://www.humanexp.co/.
Robert M. Senkewicz is professor of History at Santa Clara University. With Rose Marie Beebe he has written a number of books on pre-U.S. California, including most recently, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, and a contribution to Steven W. Hackel, ed., The Worlds of Junipero Serra Historical Contexts and Cultural Representations (UC Press, 2018).
Copyright: © 2018 Matthew Gush and Robert M. Senkewicz. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.