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San Diego de Alcalá, the first of the 21 colonial Spanish California missions, was founded in 1769, when the state fell under the orbit of the Kingdom of Spain. At the time, the Spanish Empire still included much of South America and a wide swath of land on the North American continent. The mission today is located in San Diego, a sprawling southern California metropolis, and it attracts visitors from the world over. It is worth a visit.
I have visited about a half-dozen of the missions in the Golden State. I like them because of their architecture and testament to history, when the continent was not yet fully conquered by European powers and the growing American nation.
The mission was supposed to serve the Catholic Church and convert native peoples from their local faiths to the new religion hailing from Europe. The mission gives a weak showing of its Native American past, with a display of the Kumeyaay peoples traditional homes and culture in the main plaza–it is as if someone realized recently that the people converted actually had meaningful stories and narratives to the larger mission story. The Kumeyaay peoples had lived on the lands for more than 10,000 years before the Spanish arrived. The Franciscan friars who first ran the mission came to settle the area, grow crops, and convert the non-Christian indigenous people. It was, after all, a mission with very clear religious purpose.
According to the mission’s own records, nearly 800 indigenous residents attacked the mission on Nov. 4, 1775, less than a year before the U.S. revolutionaries were declaring a new nation on the East Coast and fighting another empire–that of Great Britain. The native attackers reportedly burned the mission down and massacred a number of residents and Father Jayme. He became, according to the Catholic tradition, “California’s first Catholic martyr.” Whether a person killed by native residents fighting against a foreign colonial empire is truly a martyr is not for me to decide. I do not think the native residents saw members of the mission as benign, nor perceived the Catholic Church as friendly. Indigenous peoples in the Americas did not spark armed uprisings without good reason. Public health threats from disease, reported rapes by soldiers, and threats to local religious traditions all fueled the attack.
The mission was rebuilt, more as a fortress. After Mexico became independent and after the Union army occupied it during the Civil War, it fell into disrepair. It was not until 1931 when the mission was rebuilt, according to how it likely looked during its early heyday. Today it is still home to an active Catholic parish.