Urban sketchers from Los Angeles, San Clemente and San Diego met the first Saturday of this year to sketch and paint at the mission in San Juan Capistrano. Hard to believe it, but I had never been there before. I’d been to the missions in San Jose, Santa Clara, Carmel (Mission San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo), San Juan Bautista, San Miguel, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara. Once I got to the San Juan Capistrano mission I circumnavigated the outside of the building—very impressed with the details of the old architecture. I came across one interesting wall that was not part of the original structure. It had been fabricated with some kind of man made material and it had several nesting sites for birds around the top—more about that in a bit. Then I wandered into the huge inner courtyard. There were almost too many amazing vistas (Spanish word—more about the Spanish connection later…) as I contemplated a subject for a watercolor. So, I found a random stone bench in the shade, sat down and set up my paints. Then I went to work making the colors and details of the bougainvillea and prickly pear cactus you see here “sing in the foreground” with the pink walls and terra cotta roof of the mission as the supporting players. It was a typical winter day, around 70 degrees (This is California, so don’t hate me…) with a hazy white cloudy sky. Perfect in every way!
As a kid growing up in California we learned in school that the Spanish Empire wanted to colonize California and they had built 21 missions here from 1769 to 1833. These “churches” went from San Diego to San Francisco. (Actually, Spain’s desire to colonize both North and South America started with Columbus in 1492. Just sayin’.) As I was raised in Silcon Valley, we took field trips to our nearest missions—Santa Clara and San Jose. It seemed to me we learned the following about our California missions: they were the oldest structures in California, it was important to where each one was and what it looked like, Native Americans seemed to be hanging around each mission and of course there was Father Junipero Serra. Father Serra was a Catholic Franciscan friar who was credited for founding/building the first nine structures, as well as one church in what’s now Baja California (Mexico). Other Franciscan friars completed the other 12. At the time he seemed to me to be of a kind of mythic, larger than life, “father” figure. I’m not Catholic, so calling someone “Father So and So” was kind of puzzling to me. There were pictures of him in our school books—with his heavy brown cassock, huge cross hanging from his neck, and a bald head with a tiny fringe of bangs. He was never depicted smiling and he really didn’t look like he could have been anyone’s father. But I pictured Father Serra as the one who took care of the Native Americans and literally built those first missions. So that meant that Mission San Juan Capsitrano, where I was sitting, was one of his creations. (In school we had heard of San Juan Capistrano because it was very famous. Every winter masses of cliff swallows migrated from Argentina to build mud nests in the roofline of that old mission.) But of course Father Serra didn’t actually build anything. He just had his Native American Catholic converts do the heavy lifting. And from what I have read about him since I was in school, he was not much of a “father” figure to the Native Americans in his subjugated California flock. So, I guess because I went to a secular public school we didn’t dwell much on why Catholic Spain went to such trouble building churches to spread Catholicism in the new world, and in turn convert the heathen Native American Californians into Catholic Spanish subjects.
As I said we learned that these were the oldest permanent structures in our state. And they are truly the oldest. However, we weren’t taught that Native Americans had been living in these same areas for countless generations without needing permanent structures to do so. And maybe these indigenous people weren’t exactly happy about being forced to become Catholics and build Spanish churches on land that wasn’t really owned by anyone, certainly not the Spanish. Spain rained king in California for a long time. However, Spain’s hold on their huge Spanish Empire began to crumble in California in 1848, when gold was discovered near Sacramento. And when California became a state in the US in 1850 Spain’s plan to colonize California finally came to an end. (If you look at a map of the western United States before 1850 you can see how huge the Spanish Empire was at the time.) There are so many cities and streets named from that early Spanish occupation of California. Names like: Los Angeles, Santa Clara, Junipero Blvd., Sepulveda Blvd, Los Alamitos, El Camino and so on and so on.
So, looking around at this beautiful building I am left to wonder what I am really looking at. I mean, I learned in school that each California missions was made with great timbers and hundreds and hundreds of stacked adobe bricks. (I’m sure the original timbers had to be replaced. Termite infestations are common in wooden structures here and can eventually bring down the mightiest buildings. And oh yeah, earthquakes can also be a problem for California’s oldest structures.). And we are no longer under Spanish rule, and this church (nor any of the others for that matter) will necessarily convert someone to Catholicism against his or her will. Seemed a kind of simple, but punitive, rule of law back then. Spain welcomed you to live here, as long as you went to their church and gave them your immortal soul. Simple, but very restricting I think. Now we have laws that describe who is allowed to come into the United States via California or Texas and who is not. And our current politicians and lawmakers can’t seem to figure this out, without it feeling so very punitive to some who wish to come here and stay. In fact, I think it would be easier to come to California if you were a cliff swallow and could fly in every spring. Of course that would mean your journey would have started in Argentina and you would have flown thousands of miles to get here. But that’s not all, in 6 months you would make the same journey in reverse, back to Argentina. Yikes! But at least people would be glad to see you come and sorry to see you go. There’s even a song about the birds comings and goings and it’s called “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.” And there is actually a pretty good rendition of this song as sung by The Inkspots. Check it out on Youtube.
Last word on Mission San Juan Capistrano:
It seems that the large numbers of cliff swallows haven’t been returning to Capistrano in recent years. Scientists have installed swallow walls on the outside of the original mission. I saw one when I was there with my sketching friends. It’s a freestanding wall of plaster with a “mission like” arch at the top. And all around the rim of this arch are pre-fab swallow houses for the birds to nest in. It also appears that in the early spring, the sounds of swallows are played over some kind of speaker system all throughout the mission. Bet it sounds kind of cool. I hope this helps them come back to Capistrano. Gotta love California! It’s for the birds!