(Photo by Rick DelVecchio/Catholic San Francisco)
Above, Vincent Medina is pictured in the Mission Dolores Museum, where he is assistant curator and is dedicated to telling the story of the mission from the perspective of Native Americans.
Ohlone descendant and devout Catholic tells painful truths about Mission days
September 5th, 2012
By Dana Perrigan
Vincent Medina has a passion for the truth.
As a 10-year-old boy visiting one of the California missions with his class 15 years ago, he recalls being told how the Spanish – working harmoniously with the “peaceful, happy Indians” – established a string of missions from Sonoma to San Diego in the late 1700s.
“Even as a fourth grader,” says Medina, “I knew that was pretty messed up to say.”
As the assistant curator and guide at Mission Dolores for the past three years, Medina – a descendant of the very Ohlone Indians who built the San Francisco mission – has presented a different version of events to his tour groups than the one he heard as a boy.
“Our church wants to be able to tell the truth,” Medina told a group of about 35 students from San Francisco State University on a bright July morning. “They know a lot of horrible things happened here. But the truth sets us free. I’m very fortunate because we have the approval of our pastor.”
“I am very supportive of his work here,” says Father Arturo Albano, who incorporates Indian prayers into the liturgy during the yearly celebration at Mission Dolores. “It’s important to present the other side of the mission story, from the viewpoint of the Indians. Most missions only present the perspective of the Spanish.”
The truth, says Medina – a devout Catholic who received his first Communion at Mission Dolores – is that the Spanish strove to transform Indians into Spaniards. They baptized them, gave them new names. They enslaved them, and forced them to perform heavy labor. They occasionally punished them with beatings, and worked to eradicate their culture and replace it with their own.
They failed. Today, Medina lives with his family in Castro Valley – a half-mile from where his ancestors once lived. The Ohlone language, Chochenyo, is still spoken in homes. The old stories are still told. His mother still cooks with acorn flour – even if she sometimes orders it on the Internet. They socialize with some of the several thousand Ohlone presently living in the Bay Area.
“So there’s a lot of pressure on me from my family to meet a good Ohlone girl,” Medina says with a laugh.
Medina begins the tour, which lasts about an hour and 15 minutes, in the cemetery adjacent to the Old Mission. A path meanders through short rows of weathered grave stones sheltered by trees and adorned with flowers. While thousands of Indians were buried here, Medina informs the group, their wooden grave markers were used by San Franciscans as firewood following the 1906 earthquake.
After stopping off at a small enclosed museum containing drawings, paintings and artifacts, the students are led into the basilica, whose sides are lined with stained glass windows depicting the 21 California missions. The tour ends, later, in the Old Mission church, with an opportunity for visitors to ring one of the three original mission bells before heading out the door.
While the Ohlone managed to preserve much of their culture, many of those currently living in the Bay Area – including Medina’s parents and grandparents – continue to practice the Catholicism the Spanish introduced them to. While many others practice the native religion, Kuksu, still others – as has been done in some South American and African nations – practice a hybrid of Catholicism and their native religion.
Reconciling Catholicism with the way their ancestors were treated by the Spanish, says Medina, is difficult for some Ohlones.
“It is hard to reconcile,” he says. “I still go through struggles internally sometimes.”
For Andrew Galvan, curator at Mission Dolores and, like Medina, an Ohlone Indian whose ancestors lived and died at the San Francisco mission, a little perspective is necessary.
“What happened in the past isn’t what is happening in the church today,” says Galvan, a Catholic whose older brother is a priest. “The missionaries were well intentioned, but they weren’t anthropologists. Father Junipero Serra was a very, very good person in a very, very bad system.”
A great admirer of Serra – whose 300th birthday will be celebrated by the church next year – Galvan is a board member of The Serra Cause, a group whose goal is having the Franciscan friar promoted to sainthood.
Founded in 1776 by Lt. Joaquin Moraga and Father Francisco Palou, Mission Dolores was the sixth religious settlement in the state. It played a prominent role as a religious, cultural and social institution from its inception until 1834, when the Mexican government enacted secularization laws that greatly reduced the church’s holdings. In its heyday, about 1,000 Indians, overseen by a few priests, lived and worked at the Mission. By 1842, however, there were only eight Christian Indians living there.
Both Galvan and Medina are involved in a tribe-wide movement to revitalize the Ohlone language.
Using the handwritten records kept by the Spanish, they are also working on a project that will result in the names of the 6,000 Indians – the majority of them Ohlone – buried at Mission Dolores being digitally projected onto the Mission’s walls.
“It’s important to talk about it so that it doesn’t happen again,” says Medina. “And to give recognition to those who lived and died here.”
Standing in the Old Mission church, Medina points to the ceiling, which was originally painted more than 200 years ago by his ancestors in an ancient Ohlone chevron pattern using three colors sacred to the Indians.
“It’s a very strong message,” says Medina. “They weren’t going to give up their culture. People here fought as much as they could to keep their culture. This is a very special and sacred place for me. I can imagine my ancestors standing here being baptized, being married.”
VISITING MISSION DOLORES: Located at the corner of 16th and Dolores streets, Mission Dolores is open daily, excluding Christmas, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, from 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (May 1-Oct. 31); and from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. (Nov. 1-April 30).
Docent-led tours are available for groups of 10 or more. Reservations should be made from four to six weeks in advance. For more information, call the curator at (415) 621-8203.
From September 7, 2012 issue of Catholic San Francisco.