Recently I began recording a series of interviews for a new podcast I will be launching as part of California Frontier. For one of the first interviews, I had the pleasure of visiting Greg Bernal Smestad. Greg has made it his mission to preserve and maintain the heritage his ancestors, who came to California with the Anza expedition in the 1770s. For Greg, this is something of vital importance, because it means preserving an identity — not just facts or dates, but the memory of the whole way of life, one that is easily caricatured, or reduced to a series of clichés.
When I went to see Greg, I was struck by three things. The first was his hospitality. We made me feel welcome as a guest and sent me home with fruits and vegetables from his garden. Hospitality is a trait of the old Californios, according to Greg, and it was something that was passed down to him from his grandmother, a direct descendant of the people who walked hundreds of miles from Sonora to Alta California.
The second thing was the deep well of knowledge that he seemed to draw from in telling his story. Greg learned a great deal of family lore and wisdom from his maternal grandmother, who had kept alive the memory of her antepasados. But he wasn’t content with just learning what he learned from her. Instead, he has enriched what she taught him with the study of primary documents from archives all over California, Spain and Mexico.
The third was his passion. Greg’s passion involves many of the things that make the study of the California frontier so fascinating: an interest in topics such as the arts, music, archaeology, languages, history, as well as a web human relationships, from academics, to museum curators to native people, to history buffs to genealogists. These are the types of people I intend to profile through the podcast, and I am really looking forward to sharing these conversations with you.
One of Greg’s concerns is that the story of Alta California is often reduced to a series of binary oppositions: Spanish vs. indigenous, missionaries vs. soldiers, Anglo-Americans vs. Latinos. Let’s be clear — throughout the pre-statehood era, there was plenty of conflict. Even the great native ethnologist Pablo Tac mentions wars among Indian tribes prior to the coming of the Spanish. Yet strong bonds of trade, family, friendship and love also existed between and among all these groups of people. That story is seldom told, perhaps because it is a little more complicated, and it forces us to look at the light and shadow in our own lives and relationships, and not settle into comfortable divisions.
I recently saw La Virgen del Tepeyac, a long-standing production of the story of Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe. The play is produced every other year in the old Mission San Juan Bautista by Teatro Campesino for the last four decades. Teatro Campesino’s beautifully-produced version, while remaining mostly faithful to the original story, has a strong social justice orientation focussed on the rights of Native peoples and their oppression at the hands of the Spanish conquistadors. But the image of the Virgin with the indigenous face was dear to all the people Alta California: indigenous, mestizo, African and Spanish. Since the beginning, La Guadalupana accompanied settlers, soldiers, sailors, and missionaries all throughout the west coast of North America. Hers was a face that united them all: Junípero Serra prayed at her shrine in Mexico City when he first arrived in the Americas, and her image can be seen on the façade of the royal Presidio chapel in Monterey. Despite divisions, the Virgin of Guadalupe continues to exist as an image of an ideal of common bonds between people of all ethnicities and social classes, and ideal that has existed since the earliest days of the California frontier. The ideal still persists, and it is still worth working towards.
While I was visiting Greg, I learned that he has Portuguese, indigenous and Norwegian ancestors. All of these cultures and histories combine to make one person, as they do in so many of us. The mission of CaliforniaFrontier.net is to tell the stories of real people, places and events, and to go beyond the clichés or simplistic, divisive narratives. I think the podcast interviews will help us tell those stories, and I am sure you will enjoy them. Keep an eye out for more announcements.
In the meantime, I wish you and yours all the best for the holidays and for a wonderful 2017!