Busting the Myths of California’s Missions

2.	Elias Castillo reading an excerpt from his book A Cross of Thrones. Photo by Serginho Roosblad2. Elias Castillo reading an excerpt from his book A Cross of Thrones. Photo by Serginho Roosblad

The historical “myths” of the Spanish missions in California were heavily critiqued at a presentation on Thursday evening, as the organizer Lisa Ruth Elliot from Shaping SF framed the evening as a way to “open the conversations that are not happening” around the histories of Native Americans in California.

A crowd of about 50 people at the Eric Quezada Center for Culture and Politics at 518 Valencia St. sat nearly motionless as they listened for almost two hours as U.C. Santa Cruz scholar Lisbeth Haas, Valentin Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun tribe, and author Elias Castillo unpacked the lived experiences of Indians in missions between 1769 and 1833.

“Ninety percent of Californians don’t know what really happened in the missions,” Castillo said. The three-time Pulitzer Prize nominee wrote a book, A Cross of Thrones, debunking the myths that Native Americans lived in peace with the Franciscan friars at the missions. “It was absolutely horrible,” he said. “It was a genocidal campaign started by the Vatican.”

Rose Aguilar (host), Elias Castillo, Valentin Lopez and Lisbeth Haas.Photo by Serginho Roosblad

Rose Aguilar (host), Elias Castillo, Valentin Lopez and Lisbeth Haas. Photo by Serginho Roosblad

Panel member Lopez added that it was not the Franciscans and Jesuits who started the missions. According to him, it was the papal bulls, official decrees from the Pope, that started the cycle of historical violence when “all indigenous people” were declared “enemies of Christ,” as the Vatican wanted to “make sure that all new lands became Catholic.”

Stories of native people enjoying their new life in the missions — such as at Mission Dolores, the first mission in what was to become San Francisco and located two blocks from where the presentation was held — are, according to the experts, “fabricated.”

Castillo said that romanticizing of Native American history started with the California immigration boom of the 1880s. “Land developers and people in real estate found these abandoned missions and decided they looked good.”

What followed was the rebuilding of the missions, co-financed by the Big Four railroad tycoons, and “a myth creation of the missions by the land developers,” designed to draw buyers to California. The California Board of Education “fell for this story, and the Catholic church was happy with this narrative,” Castillo said.

A big part of the discussion between the panelists centered around ways to deal with the current historical amnesia. “To start” Lisbeth Haas said. “We need to remap the understating of the missions. Descendants need to have a say how the missions are represented.”

Lopez went further, saying he “will not accept an apology.”

Rather than getting a “sorry” by the perpetrators, he demanded a confession by former colonizers, the United States, the state of California, and the Vatican. “A confession of their crimes. For our people to heal, we need to the truth,” Lopez said.

Valentin Lopez: “For our people to heal, we need to the truth.” Photo by Serginho Roosblad

Valentin Lopez: “For our people to heal, we need to the truth.” Photo by Serginho Roosblad

And this “truth,” which in the eyes of Castillo is “similar to what the Nazis did in Europe,” need to be educated. “Don’t tell 4th graders — they’ll have nightmares. But teach 9th graders,” the author said.

As soon as the floor was opened for discussion, Sean Burns, who teaches social history at U.C. Berkeley, stressed the importance of telling children the history of Native Americans at a young age and not when they get to 9th grade.

“I’ve started teaching my three-year-old,” Burns said afterwards. “I’m not telling him about the horrendous things that happened, but that there were people living here for thousands of years before the missionaries came. It’s important, because it’s a history that’s under told.”

Barbara Reuch, who came to the event out of curiosity, said that “we’re going to lose it all, if we don’t take action now.”

She drew parallels to the Black Lives Matter movement that, in her eyes, is doing similar work by educating people about the history of African Americans in the United States. “But it’s the young people, that’s what excites me.”

However, the age of people was not the main focus of the evening for Lisa Ruth Elliot, but to “have a critical approach to society and how we live together, [and] also how we got a Bay Area the way it is today.”

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