The Journal of San Diego History
Fall 2000, Volume 46, Number 4
Gregg Hennessey, Editor

Book Review

Raymond G. Starr, Book Review Editor

Mission Memoirs: A Collection of Photographs, Illustrations, and Twentieth-century Reflections on California’s Past.

By Terry Ruscin, San Diego: Sunbelt Publications, 1999. Map, photographs, glossary, index, xi + 203 Pg. $50.00 Hardcover.

Reviewed by James A. Sandos, Farquhar Professor of the Southwest at the University of Redlands and author of “Between Crucifix and Lance: Indian-White Relations in California, 1769-1848,” in Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush, edited by Ramón Guttiérrez and Richard Orsi (1998).

This is an extremely handsome, oversized coffee-table book containing beautiful color along with some sepia tinted black and white photographs of all twenty-one California missions, four presidios, four asistencias (mission chapels) and two estancias (ranches). Many of these photographs have a transparent parchment-like overlay bearing artwork or an inscription that gives the image behind it the appearance of emerging from a mist. “Any nostalgic outcomes,” photographer/author Ruscin writes, “are exactly what I envisioned for this photographic essay (p. x).” His deeply felt writing conveys his personal experience while visiting these sites and those experiences are frequently religious. At mission San Juan Capistrano, for example, he attended an evening Mass and noted that “the sacred Latin hymns, the fragrance of melting candle wax, and the brilliance of the reredos [altar screen] filled my senses and soothed my soul.” Then after watching Juaneño Indians take communion followed by an expression of their greetings to earth, sky, moon, and sun Ruscin wrote: “I could feel Fray [Junípero] Serra’s benediction. And in that evening’s uplifting union of cultures, I felt closer than ever to the spirit of his mission endeavors (p. 73).”

Ruscin’s writing, and indeed this book, lies within the romantic tradition of the late nineteenth century begun by Helen Hunt Jackson in “Father Junipero and His Work,” [The Century Magazine, 26 (May-June 1883)] and popularized still further in her Ramona (1884). As Kevin Starr observed, in this view “grateful Indians, happy as peasants in an Italian opera, knelt dutifully before the Franciscans to receive the baptism of a superior culture, while in the background the angelus tolled from a swallow guarded campanile and a choir of friars intoned the Te Deum.”[Inventing the Dream (1985), p. 58]. While Ruscin updates his work by dedicating the book to Native Californians and including Indian place names beside the Spanish-named sites of occupation, he does not recognize any tension in mission life or any Indian opposition to evangelization and colonization. Thus at mission San Luis Obispo, for example, he notes the use of tile for roofing because “[f]lames easily and frequently torched the earlier-style tule (reed) roofs (p. 57)” while omitting the fact that Indians did the torching. At mission San Diego he describes in a note that Padre Luís Jayme “was brutally murdered during an Indian attack (p. 12).” That is certainly the Franciscan view. Readers of this journal familiar with Richard Carrico’s article “Sociopolitical Aspects of the 1775 Revolt at Mission San Diego de Alcalá: An Ethnohistorical Approach,” Journal of San Diego History 43 (Summer, 1997)] know that Kumeyaay and Tipai Indians from at least fifteen villages participated in the sacking of the mission and through it rationally expressed their rejection of Spanish occupation with its accompanying thefts, rapes, transmission of disease and threat of forced imprisonment. Through the murder of Padre Jayme by beating him to death Indians also expressed their rejection of Christianity and the mission. Padre Serra, however, chose to ignore Indian agency in this and instead attributed the attack to Satan’s influence which required not the abandonment of the enterprise but a redoubling of Franciscan effort.

This effort Ruscin applauds. Nowhere in his bibliography can one find works critical of the missions by, say, Sherburne F. Cook, Edward D. Castillo, or Robert L. Jackson. Even when mission critics are referenced their ideas do not inform the text. Nowhere will be heard a discouraging word and, given the controversy over the missions this past fifteen years associated with the attempt to make Serra a saint, this distilled, halcyon picture contributes further to confusion about the missions.

Confusion about the California missions exists, in part, because many writers rearrange materials to suit a personal aesthetic. Ruscin follows suit not only with his photographs, taken when people were not around, but also in his text. At one point he describes his journey to Mission Santa Inés above Santa Barbara in the late 1990s. Because Highway 101, the coastal route, was closed for repairs he took the road through San Marcos Pass, drove past Lake Cachuma, saw a couple of ranch houses and “no sight of tract housing.”(p 163) Ruscin does not tell the reader but he is describing travel along Highway 154 proceeding northwest from Santa Barbara. His seamless narrative then records acres of “orchards and fields of snapdragons, watercress, and vegetables” that covered the “splendorous valley with color and pattern.”(p 165) He motors into the Danish village of Solvang and just beyond it to the mission. This is a “geography” of convenience jumbled for effect. His initial description on Highway 154 would have brought him to a turnoff heading west, toward Santa Inés, a road that passes vineyards, a hang-glider operation, the ever expanding Chumash Indian bingo casino, a trailer park, a secondary school, and the market with the best tri-tip roast in that area (Santa Inés valley marinade versus Santa Maria style). Then he would pass the mission, before reaching Solvang. Ruscin does not relate that because after having driven the scenic part of Highway 154 he switches to a description approaching the mission along Highway 246, from the reverse direction, driving east from the supposedly closed Highway 101. When he does this he confusedly places the flower fields of Lompoc immediately before Solvang when they are fifteen miles behind him. He also ignores the strip-malls lining the road from Buellton toward Solvang. But his effect is to site the mission in a still rural, or at least non-urban, environment. His geography, in this instance at least, is imaginary and perpetuates confusion in the mind of the uninitiated.

I hope that his overall story is not equally confusing. Pointing out historical errors is pointless because this is not a history book even though those unfamiliar with the mission past will undoubtedly draw their history from it. But one error must be corrected. The Latin proverb in vino veritas (in wine there is truth) Ruscin, or his editor, misattributes to the Greek philosopher Plato when it belongs to the Roman writer Pliny the Elder. Perhaps the Roman sage would agree that Mission Memoirs will read more easily if accompanied by a glass of that vino.