Years spent exploring the Americas and documenting Pre-Columbian civilizations’ remains eventually brought my work back to Southern California. Through my travels I saw how advanced these societies had become, only to be confronted with the complications that few knew about or understood. Growing up in Whittier as a product of California’s public school system, I inherited the notion that American History started with a blank slate at 1492 and in fourth grade received the romanticized indoctrination of the Alta California mission system. It wasn’t until I started grappling with the colonial underpinnings of this continent that I realized my work with the past segued from the historical to the contemporary—colonization significantly accounting for why these societies were destroyed and why their legacies continued to be suppressed.
My subsequent exploration of the Alta California missions system exposed layers of complexity and irony. How could Mission San Antonio de Padua, sitting so rustically idyllic in the rolling green hills of central California, be the home of a mass grave of Natives? How could these architecturally simple yet striking places be the vehicles of cultural destruction and, ironically, salvation? How does Junípero Serra propagate such a sprawling system, yet harm the people he was trying to save? How do we understand the pain and suffering inflicted in and around these missions, yet still celebrate modern Quinceñeras or weddings in them?
It is easy to be seduced by the romanticized façades of these places, but even more important to understand their complexities and relevance for understanding contemporary California, the land where we dwell. Native history and the missions matter: from the role the missions played in the destruction of Native lives and culture during the Spanish conquest and colonization of Alta California, to the mission revival, and their function as expressions of faith today. We must look at these places and understand their complexities and contradictions, in hopes of more critical conversations that might serve as vehicles of understanding California.
This photographic essay is part two of a diptych on the Alta California missions. For part one, see Matthew Gush and Robert M. Senkewicz, “Seeing California’s Missions Today.”
Matthew Gush is the university photographer at California State University, Fullerton, and is the Boom California 2017-2018 Photographer in Residence. His work focuses on Pre-Columbian Native America and chronicles interjections of Colonial Empires. For more of his work see https://www.humanexp.co/.
Copyright: © 2018 Matthew Gush. 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/.