Thursday, November 4, 2021

San Carlos Day Mass, 142 Years Ago Today


One hundred and forty-two years ago today, on San Carlos Day, November 4 1879, Rev. Angelo Casanova led a small group of local Catholics from Monterey to the ruins of San Carlos mission to celebrate a mass on the occasion of St. Carlos de Borromeo’s name day. 

Both author Robert Louis Stevenson and his son-in-law, artist Joseph Strong, attended. Later, each man recorded the event in their own genre. Stevenson describes the elderly Indian man leading the service as “An Indian, stone-blind and about eighty years of age, [who] conducts the singing” and adds that he and the other Indians,  “…have the Gregorian music at their finger-ends, and pronounce the Latin so correctly that I could follow the meaning as they sang.” 

Strong made a sketch of the mass (above); at the center is an elderly Indian man.  Barefoot, legs spread, knees slightly bent, a shock of white hair streaming past his shoulders, the man stands just off-center and just behind Fr. Casanova. He claims space in tattered coat and pants.  With one hand, he plants a long cane on the flagstones; with the other, he holds the hand of a young Indian boy—perhaps a guide, an altar boy, or perhaps leading the child to baptism, as suggested in some records.

Steven Hackel, in his book Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis, asserts that “little is known” about the elderly Indian beyond his name: “Old Ventura”; Sydney and Margerite Temple note:

while James Sandos writes,

However, based on oral and written records of that time, I am certain that “Old Ventura” is my great-great-great-great uncle, Ventura Cantua/Soto (he used both surnames, at different times in his life), who was trained as a Cantor at San Carlos (Carmel) Mission.

Ventura's story emerges from the oral narratives of Isabel Meadows, supplemented with historical documents and ethnographic materials. At a time when the life expectancy of a child born into the missions was 7-9 years, Ventura lives from 1816-1883 -- not the "eighty years" Stevenson imagined, but still a startling sixty-seven years. 

Spanning the Spanish Mission, Mexican Rancho and American Eras, Ventura’s long life gives us an intimate look at the brutal treatment of Indigenous masculinity throughout all three invasions and the violent imposition of hegemonic masculinity, particularly the patriarchal teachings of the colonizing Catholic Church. Much of what we think of as Historical Trauma comes to us today through these mostly unknown experiences of Indigenous men at a time when, as Anthony Correale writes, “…both cultural identity and masculine identity are repressed and warped by imperialism.”

I'm thinking about you today, Ventura.

I'm thinking about the ways Indigenous men’s suffering and identity fragmentation became a part of who we are today, a remnant of missionization that, like many other scars, we cannot – and perhaps should not – erase. 

“I want to suggest that we can rethink our relation to scars, including emotional and physical scars," Sara Ahmed writes. She reminds us that we have normalized what a "good" scar is; it is one that is hard to see, preferably invisible; after all, isn't that the goal of a good surgeon? Yet this kind of "good" scar "does not remind us of the wounding." Ahmed says this as if being reminded of the wounding were a good thing. As if it were a kind of writing, a teaching, that we must pay attention to. 

It's true, we’ve been taught that if we can erase our scars, make them invisible to ourselves and everyone else, that would be "healing." That would be the end of shame, fear and despair.

And yet, Ahmed continues, "A good scar is one that sticks out, a lumpy sign on the skin.  It’s not that the wound is exposed or that the skin is bleeding.  But the scar is a sign of the injury: a good scar allows healing, it even covers over, but the covering always exposes the injury, reminding us of how it shapes the body ….”

How multi-faceted scars are! To simultaneously heal, cover, expose, remind; aren’t these the actions of a teacher?

“This kind of good scar reminds us that recovering from injustice cannot be about covering over injuries, which are effects of that injustice, signs of an unjust contact between our bodies and others," Ahmed insists. 

I am drawn to that phrase, “unjust contact” – contact we did not want or ask for; contact that is invasive, appropriative, criminal.  Yes, scars do so much work: they remind us that even as we recover from those wounds of unjust contact, we must not forget what caused them, we must remember in order to protect ourselves and others against future wounding.  We are holey beings, stitched together by our scars, by which I mean our experiences, our knowledges, a kind of testimony that is literally written on our bodies. 

Ventura, at this distance of time and experience, maybe all I can do is excavate, expose, and witness your experience, your efforts to survive. Honor who you tried to be: son, father, grandfather, cantor, choirmaster, a man, who -- blind, aged, poor, traumatized -- was able to sing an entire Mass in Latin at the end of your life despite all the violence visited upon you, and despite all the violence that passed through you, and on into our family and community. 

I'm trying to find the story you were meant to tell. I'm trying to read your scars, because they are the same scars written on our own bodies, today.