Junipero Serra
Indians in Their
Birthday Suits
Carlos Amantea
Several years ago, the missions of [Baja] California were accused at the Court of Madrid of trading with the English. Yet there is nothing in California except wacke [composite dirt and stone] and other worthless rocks, and it produces nothing but thorns. If the English would accept these and in return import, above all other things, wood and shade, rain and rivers; then to be sure, a trade of great advantage for California could be established with Great Britain. Otherwise, there is nothing to trade. Wood and water, stones and thorns, are four elements of which California has an unbelievable scarcity of the first two and a great surplus of the others. Nothing is so common in California as rocks and thorns, nothing so rare as moisture, wood, and cool shade. It is not recessary to be afraid of drowning in California, but it is easy to die of thirst.
--- "Observations in Lower California"
by Fr. Johann Jakob Bægert (1771)


...the Old Gentile (Indian) did not flee. It was soon evident from his actions that he neither cared nor feared any one or any thing. During his talk with us, in the very midst of all the people, he squatted down, and having no clothing to remove he proceeded to relieve the demands of nature even as he kept on talking! And when he finished, he was as happy as he was relieved!
--- The Journal of Padre Serra
May 20, 1769

In the midst of the bone-desert lava-flow lies the oasis of San Ignacio, the clear and lovely lake at dusk, surrounded by tule and palm trees. The mission, dating from 1786, is exquisitely designed, decorated with several irregular points atop the structure --- a half-dozen giant strawberries, and a dozen or so round windows here and there, surrounded by faded red rings and diamond-shaped workings. There is the usual huge, wooden door, with elaborate black-metal hinges. It's dark and cool inside.

"When the Spanish padres came through," I tell my friends, "their first thought was to build a mission." The Indians were perfectly content to go around eating their piñoles and sweet cactus and mescal, dressed up in their birthday suits, but the Spaniards wanted to have some symbol of their proper religion --- they wanted to clothe the land (and the Indians) --- so they caused thirty missions to be built thoughout the 800 miles of Baja California. They, like the city planners of the urban United States, had a definite (and intractable) edifice complex.

The missions were all the same: imposing, cool, with tall ceilings --- always relief from the blasting heat outside --- but always with the feeling of prison, with twelve-foot heavy doors, the black metal bars and hinges.

§     §     §

The next day, as we drive west and north of San Ignacio, I catch myself thinking about Padre Junipero Serra. We're going along the same trail he took, although at a slightly different speed. The good father marched north from Loreto --- a hundred miles below Mulegé --- between March 28 and July 1, 1769. He and his followers went by foot across some of the most parched, dry, inhospitable, burning hills, arroyos, and mountains in the world.

But to read his words, one would never think that he was trudging along through a wasteland, with his soldiers, a few burros and Indians, and the newly appointed Governor Portola. In fact, reading his entries, one would think we were on the road to Paradise. Which --- romantic that he was --- perhaps was true.

At San Andres he wrote:

On May 16th, he paused at

And on June 13:

Even at those places where there was absolutely no water, he could find something of interest, such as on June 2, when he reported the discovery of "Rose Canyon:"

Was he as deranged as Columbus --- to whom he bears no little spiritual resemblance? Or was he just an optimistic talespinner? Maybe the father had a necessary supply of bunkum in his soul, something appropriate to other salesmen that were to appear in Alta California a hundred years later.

It may have had to do with the fact that if he were to report honestly on the barrenness of the countryside, it would be the end of any and all further exploration or interest from the Spanish Crown. By sending back glowing reports of verdant fields and potable water --- even hinting at a good silver mine just waiting to be worked --- Serra was making sure that his own stupendous efforts on this godforsaken peninsula would not be in vain.

Perhaps it is wrong to call him a liar. Perhaps it is best to think of him as a romantic, the Don Quixote of the desert, a man who was able to find flowers and trees and good, sweet water where no one before (or since) ever has been able to do so. There has to be something daft, indeed, about one who presumes to walk eight-hundred miles up one of the most barren peninsulas in the world, claiming all the while that it is in the service of The Divine ("I have undertaken this journey to the Ports and San Diego and Monterey, for the greater glory of God and the conversion of heathen to our Holy Catholic Faith," he wrote).

Serra's tale is not only one of romantic tale telling. It has the feel, as well, of tragedy to come. Not for the Spaniards, certainly --- they had the cross and the musket to protect them. It was the ruinous, events that would soon enough befall the Indians, the happy "Gentiles" that the Spaniards met. For them, the crossing of paths was as much as if they had met Mr. Death himself. Instead of the crucifix, it would, perhaps, have been more appropriate for Serra to carry a Death's Head on his breast. For he, the soldiers, the priests, and the Spaniards who followed over the next decades were to leave behind them virulent diseases --- mostly syphilis -- that killed off 50,000 Indians and laid waste to a whole innocent culture. In less than a century, the Indians who roamed Baja California would be reduced to 2,000 in number by a corruption of flesh presented, gratis, by Padre Serra and his followers.

This is a priest's report from a mere fifteen years later:

A special gift of the soldiery, the camp followers, and the religionists of Spain.

For that reason, Serra's descriptions of the "Gentiles" is especially piquant --- for it was the last time that they would be so free and alive, so free of the European sicknesses. Their innocence has the hue of tragedy because they were so eager to contact these strangers, showing them their naïve way with possessions.

Excellent conceit: wanting "all the clothes that he wore." We'd be the last to think of Serra as obsessed, but he mentions a dozen times that the Indians were as naked as on the day of their birth:

Lo! the poor Indian. And denizens from Civilization came to them, and would clothe them, and tell them right from wrong. And there would be nothing to fear:

Fall into the apostolic net. The naked Heathen. Now saved by the Holy Church. Beasts now saved by the bald man with the piercing eyes and the heavy cloak. "The Father would be their best friend." "There was nothing to fear." Nothing to fear.

They are fat and big now, big enough so that the Spaniards think of turning them into soldiers, an Army of the Cross. Lo, the poor Indian! So happy and fun-loving, so curious about these interesting people from another land, men with their burros (how the Indians loved playing with them) and these funny shaped coarse materials they called "clothes." Lo, the poor Indian, who, in such a short period of time, would be devastated by the sicknesses that ran through the hearts of the holy Spaniards. It was only a century-and-a-half later that Arthur North was to write:

Those Indians who did not die, who became part of the missions --- the few who were not murdered by the social diseases out of Civilization --- would be treated so wretchedly with scourge and rod meted out by the Spaniards that one commentor opined that the Indians would most certainly be better off dead rather than saved.

That sweet infant with such a short time to live.

--- From The Blob That Ate Oaxaca
C. A. Amantea

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