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?
The 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.