On The Trail Of Junipero Serra

I just registered for the City of Los Angeles 225th Anniversary Celebration Walk! All nine miles of it, from San Gabriel Mission to downtown L.A. I’m starting to study and try to really understand, more and more, the history of Old California. Y’know, back in the days when it had only just proved not to be an island. I’ve always been fascinated with the history of Los Angeles, the American city, and how it went from being an American colony city to being a unique sprawling metropolis. But with the city celebrating it’s 225th year, I think it’s time to catch up a bit more with the Spanish and the Californios between now and Labor Day.

I started this on Saturday, when the boyfriend and I went to San Juan Capistrano. We were in Anaheim already for Bats Day, and I wanted to go on a history nerd expedition to one of the twenty-one Franciscan missions. California has a romanticized Spanish/Mexican history, which hasn’t continued unbroken, but rather, has resurfaced in the early 20th century. Carey McWilliams has a whole chapter on it in “Southern California: An Island On The Land”, but that book’s not with me right now, and I think it’s another entry anyways. The point is – we all know California’s history, but do we really see through the tourist attraction version to what the past actually meant? What is the reality of early Los Angeles history, versus the collective memory that the city has created?

serra.jpgThe mission at San Juan Capistrano is, of course, one of the twenty-one missions founded by Fray Junipero Serro (that’s him at right). Each one is a day’s travel apart. Most of them are, of course, on El Camino Real, the old Spanish road that so entrances me.

San Juan Capistrano was as beautiful as the brochures promised, by the way. The gardens were in full flower, the butterflies were rampant, and the adobe walls kept the insides of the mission cool for when all the lovely sunshine became too much. We spent a couple hours wandering around the courtyards, through the ruins of the church, past the rooms of artifacts that had been found on the site.

And it wasn’t that I really learned much new information – once you’ve done Olvera Street a couple times, you absorb a lot of early SoCal history – but it was just seeing it in its working context that intrigued me. The adobe molds used to make the bricks by hand that built the mission, the gardens that had to be hand-tilled or tilled with oxen (which is not as easy as it looks), the tanneries for the hides that provided the trade money to keep the theocracy of early California going – all of it done by hand, in a part of the world with no other infrastructure or cities.

I can sort of imagine what it would have been like to be one of the eleven families making that walk from San Gabriel down into the porcuincula around the L.A. river, 225 years ago. But I still want to experience it. Unfortunately, it’s a little more difficult to close one’s eyes, and imagine a time long gone, while walking through Lincoln Heights than it is while walking through the “jewel of the Franciscan ruins”, as I was on Saturday. I still think it will be a great experience though, especially since there will be so many people walking together on that morning. And, most importantly to me, it will be a chance to experience history a bit more as it really happened, instead of how we perceive the experiences of the city’s earliest settlers, from across two hundred twenty five years…and a completely different Americanized culture.

8 thoughts on “On The Trail Of Junipero Serra”

  1. Damn you, Jillian! I filled out the form, and clicked send! Damnit! Nine miles? NINE MILES! My feet are already blistering psychosomatically… whatever that means!

  2. The nine miles are easy when you have water stations every few miles. My suggestion is to take it slow in the beginning and use the “downhill’ portion when you first enter the City of LA from Alhambra as a means to move forward.

  3. Please, Markland. I’ve hiked further than nine miles on forced marches with Girl Guides of Canada. A big tough guy like you should be able to do it. ;-)

  4. Jillian, you will love the walk. They even have busses to pick you up if you get a little tired. You will be able to chat with descendents of the early Rancho families. But, you will have to try to walk around the politicians trying to get a photo/ops. The box lunch at the end of the walk is nice and the music and characters representing Californios. Do go see the Chinese/American museum. Go to the third floor and then walk down.

  5. markland and jillian…maybe we should put together another blogging.la team for this…i’m signed up as well. brite spot for pre-walk “protein” anyone??

  6. Did you grow up in California? This is what 4th grade social science is all about. They even make the kids build elaborate missions and since there are several nearby missions and other historic homesteads, we visit those too. I always thought it was fun, but I’m a history nerd, especially when it comes to LA and Mexico.

    I think you need to do more than Olvera Street to absorb SoCal history. Each neighborhood and region has gone through a lot of changes in relatively short periods of time.

  7. I’m from British Columbia, so, like every kid between Portland and Vancouver, BC, we covered Pacific Northwest native tribes (mostly the Salish and the Haida) and How The Hudson’s Bay Company Set Up Forts In Western Canada. We built little forts in 4th grade instead, and model totem poles. I think the First Nations also got SLIGHTLY less screwed over in the Northwest than in the rest of America – just because the white colonists showed up later.

    I totally agree that there is much more to SoCal history than Olvera Street, and I do have a shelf of a dozen books to that effect that I’ve been reading for the last couple years, trying to figure out what makes L.A., LA. There’s a particularly good one on East Los Angeles, History of a Barrio, that you might be interested in (and which I think I picked up for about $3 secondhand on Amazon.com). I have all the major books, from Carey McWilliams to “City of Quartz”, plus three or four more that deal specifically with race and perspective and re-imagined civic memory of Los Angeles as being Anglo-Centric.

    But with regards to the Olvera Street comment – it’s just that the exhibits at San Juan Capistrano covered the same ground as the ones downtown. Here are the Indians sifting acorn meal, here are the priests teaching – it was very basic. It’s fascinating to see what daily life was like in an era that we take for granted as a backdrop in California, but the same basic presentation is in every museum in SoCal.

  8. Some people (particulary Native American activists) criticize the romanticization of California history, the missions, Serra and all that stuff. They’re not too happy with Serra.

    I know we definitely didn’t cover enough history/culture of Native Americans in school. It’s a shame. You wouldn’t think that California (or the US for that matter) has so many distinct tribes.

    I had the opportunity to take a class on LA history, with a focus on the Chicana/o experience when I was an undergrad. I loved it. (I can probably dig up the syllabus if you’re interested)

    I don’t have the Romo “History of a Barrio” book you recommended, but I have some others on my bookshelf in my small but growing collection of LA/Southern California history books.

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