Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Diorama at Mission Dolores Comes Alive at Night

The Diorama at Mission Dolores Comes Alive at Night

If you are looking for San Francisco de Asis, you’re too late. That kind soul -
gentle protector of animals and children - gave up, departed long ago;

I take my name from the creek nearby, Arroyo de los Dolores, the haunted place
where La Llorona slit her children's throats, threw their dear bodies

into a river rather than give them up to Spaniards.  At night, sincere docents
tidy the cash register, lock up rosaries, turn out lights, set the alarm, go home

still mumbling, All that history. Such a legacy. Our amazing heritage.
As if their inner workings haven't completely unwound yet.

I'm accustomed to the darkness of this sanctuary, the secret sounds
made by shifting foundations, unspoken testimonies. I listen hard,

hear the tiny wordless voices of brown plastic Indians rise
from the glassed-in diorama just outside in the courtyard: children

in painted-on white shirts laugh with exhaustion as they play eternal tag
on #10 sandpaper "earth", men in loincloths push at yoked oxen still plowing

the same plywood furrow after all these years. I imagine the Padre's benevolent
"Fuscia Explosion" Revlon smile, his grip on a leather bag full of mysteries

as he strides forever beneath the precarious sugar-cube archway.
I want to gather my dusty skirts up in hands cracked with time,

shake loose these tired walls, but docents long ago shackled my
adobe with iron clasps and screws - for my own safety, they said. So

I endure the dull thud of paper mache bells in the campanario,
frayed twine ropes pulled by boys naked as monkeys. I recognize the chrome rattle

of the soldado de cuero's sword, his horse's paperclip bridle and stirrups,
the screams of Indian women taken behind bushes made of discarded Easter

basket grass and raped, followed by a Latin chant or shivering plainsong
pater noster or salve regina from ten obedient Indians, kneeling,

hot-glued to the burlap floor of the small church sanctuary.
Nothing ever changes inside this glass tank, no weather penetrates,

a coffin as perfect as any Sleeping Beauty's in a Grimm European tale.
How hard it must be for the women to grind corn by hand for decades

without ever revealing a proud brown breast to innocent school children!
How painful, to always prepare food but never eat. What agony to endure

the hungry howls of limbless babies encased in matchstick cradleboards
but never suckle them to sleep. Indian men, hands welded to the plow,

strain their forced-front eyes to find wives kept in the women's compound, but
their mouths were sealed shut at the factory, vocal cords never cast at all.

Near dawn the racket finally dies down, drowned out by streetcars and busses.
The docents open up, take donations, tell their stories. All that history.

Such a legacy. Our amazing heritage. They show off the diorama's details.
A good example, visiting parents tell their fourth graders, see what you can do

with fingernail polish and toilet paper tubes, scrap fabric, glue, recycled junk?
Mom chuckles, My project wasn't this good, but we didn't have mail-order Indians

back then. It's a California rite of passage, Dad says seriously, someday your kids
will be part of this tradition too. I sigh, desperate to scratch at the termites

beneath my rotting oak ribs. I am Our Lady of Sorrows.
All I can do is listen.

--Deborah A. Miranda

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