LOS ANGELES (CN) — Josh Andujo, a member of California’s indigenous Gabrielino-Tongva, regularly visits Mission San Gabriel Arcángel to burn sage in its tree-lined cemetery and to sing traditional prayers in its verdant courtyard.
The elaborate bell tower of the fortress-like church, with its adobe walls five feet thick, hovers above a one-time colonial outpost that at its zenith stretched across 100,000 acres.
Andujo comes here with other members of his tribe to honor his ancestors who lived under often brutal conditions of the Spanish colonial program and whose remains are interred in a mass grave beneath the property.
The ceremonies at the 249-year old mission are a way for Andujo to commemorate the lives of his great-grandparents who are buried under the mission alongside an estimated 6,000 other indigenous people.
“There’s lots of dark history there. We want to let our ancestors know we’re here,” Andujo said. “We go to the cemetery, we light our sage, we sing our songs. We work to keep the old traditions alive.”
When a fire tore through the 215-year old church at Mission San Gabriel in the early morning of July 11, Andujo and other people throughout the nation were shocked and bewildered.
But the flames also reanimated centuries-long critiques of Mission San Gabriel and the other structures that both shaped colonial-era California and brought harm to indigenous communities.
The mission — founded in 1771 in what is now the city of San Gabriel, north of Los Angeles — is one of California’s most iconic landmarks, part of a string of 21 Spanish missions that attract millions of visitors each year.
San Gabriel was the fourth colonial mission established by Spain to protect its interest in Alta California against the advances of Russian and British forces.
Established between 1769 and 1823, California’s missions — many of them accessible via Highway 101, dubbed el camino real, or the royal road — have shaped the state for centuries and have long been important spiritual nodes for Catholics in the region and beyond.
Part of what draws visitors to missions is the colonial-era style that inspired later California architecture, according to researcher Damian Bacich of California State University, San José.
“In a place like California, that tends to focus on the present, they harken back to the past, to historic religious buildings in Europe,” said Bacich, who also runs the California Frontier Project. “Unlike other historical monuments, they’re living communities where people still come together to worship.”
David Bolton, director of California Missions Foundation, said the Spanish mission system left its imprint on California’s politics and art, too.
Mission San Gabriel played a role in founding what is today the nation’s second largest city, when a group of mission residents departed the compound to establish the city of Los Angeles in 1781, Bolton noted.
The Stations of the Cross, painted by Native American artist Uriarte, are foundational works of art held at the Mission San Gabriel Museum. The pieces escaped the recent fire having been removed during renovations that had been ongoing.
Unfortunately, statues of Saint Gabriel the Archangel, Saint Francis of Assisi and others on the main altar of the church were damaged in the fire. Bolton, who received Spanish knighthood last year, said the damaged works demonstrate the importance of preserving the missions, presidios and other Spanish colonial structures.
But for California’s indigenous communities, Spain’s mission system also represents repression of language and culture, and enslavement under the colonial project of Spain and the Catholic Church. Bolton says the true intent of Spain’s missions has not yet been fully articulated in the public realm or understood in the context of their era.