Stories that Travel

Fire in Pescadaro, CA on August 18, 2020

As Fall 2020 quarters and semesters begin, I went on a family trip to Pescadaro, CA to celebrate my birthday. One of the largest forest fires in the state of California was there to greet us. As we were evacuated from our cabins on the Pacific Coast, the smoke followed. It followed us north to Half Moon Bay, then further north into San Francisco. It followed us through the fields between SF and Gilroy, and into Santa Barbara County. I could see my Brown brothers and sisters picking crops.

At some point during our adventure, my dad told my niece that my maternal grandfather once had him drive out to a specific field in the area. He wanted to see where the Vega family used to make camp while they picked crops during the Great Depression. In his grey-beard years, probably before his leg was amputated due to complications with diabetes, Henry/Enrique Vega still remembered the landscape he called home. He told my father, Mario Castaneda, that churches were segregated back then. Even at the local Catholic church, Mexicans [regardless of country of birth] could only go to Mass after 1 pm.

The door leading to the main courtyard of La Purisima Mission. The buildings are closed to the public due to COVID-19 safety measures.

This past week, we walked through La Purisima Mission in Lompoc, which is one of the only California missions with intact rancho lands. Today, the surrounding land is sparse in comparison to the 470 square miles of original ranch land. When the mission was founded in 1787, its inhabitants could not have imagined a neighborhood of interspersed tract homes and crops surrounding it like a protective cone. My brother, Mario Enrique, told his four year old son, Eli Henry, that “missions like La Purisima are where people like us were made.” People like us, who later came to identify as Chicana/o/x, Mexican American, and Latin American. Yet, not all indigenous peoples in Old Mexico became subsumed by Spanish conquest and forced assimilation. Some indigenous tribes outlived the Spanish mission system and circumvented assimilation into a Spanish “new world” paradigm. La Purisima Mission was built on Chumash lands. Today, the federally recognized Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians holds reservation lands founded in 1901.

A tree between the main buildings of La Purisima Mission and the pens for the sheep, horses, and donkeys living there today.

While the Spanish Mission system worked to subjugate indigenous tribes, and support the colonizing project of “new race” building through mestizaje, tribal peoples of Old Mexico had to also contend with later Euro-American colonization. In North America, Mexico, Central America, and South America, many indigenous peoples circumvented colonial erasure and were able to engage a practice of survivance which has held tribal knowledge and traditions for future generations.

La Purisima Mission in Lompoc, CA

Eli asked us where the Native Americans who had lived at La Purisima Mission had gone. We told him that many, many had died from disease and violence. We told him that some of the Chumash now live at the reservation and in nearby Santa Barbara. I told him that my sister/his aunt, Gabriella, had worked for an American Indian health center while she was in college at UCSB. I told him there were still living indigenous peoples of California, and that some lived not far from our aunt in Goleta. We talked about how he can learn about our family and the communities around us: asking questions, reading, and internet research. He nodded his head and said, “that’s good.”

Henry (Enrique) Vega, Army Air Corps Radio Operator, WWII (likely in Burma)

That afternoon, my aunt in Goleta texted us a photograph of our family patriarch. In the picture below, Henry/Enrique Vega is likely in Burma. He served there as an Army Air Corps Radio Operator during WWII. He survived the war. When I was growing up, he ran his own construction company and played harmonica in the garden. I miss my grandparents every day, and I wish my husband had known them. Storytelling is one way I can share my family’s history, which is part of the history of Chicano/a California. Re-discovering California with my family reminds me what legacies I can remember, heal, share, and create.

Henry (Enrique) Vega at far right.
Second from right is Ray Ornelas of Oxnard (my mother’s godfather)

This month of local travels and working-from-home have reminded me to not depend on libraries to hold our history for us. In the 2019 photograph below, I am at the Mortlock Chamber in Adelaide, Australia. In every city I visit, I try to go to the largest library and explore their buildings, collections, and get to know the city’s readers. There are often gaps in the knowledge a library can and will hold. In this particular library, Aboriginal family history resources are few in comparison to the high number of Euro-Australian resources. Lack of non-Western cultural archives is a global problem for a wide array of ethnic minority groups. And, in general, family histories are often lost after 2-3 generations.

Clarissa Castaneda at the Mortlock Chamber at State Library South Australia in Adelaide, which houses a Family History Collection

Write down your family stories, and attach them to the landscapes around you. We are not separate from the land and the stories it holds. Make time to learn about the history of the city and state you live in, and its indigenous peoples. We are not separate from where our grandparents, great grandparents, and aunties and uncles through time have slept and labored. Sometimes these legacies can be challenging to deal with, as Henry Louis Gates, Jr. often shows us in Finding Your Roots. There are too many histories only a generation away from being lost. Write the most important ones down, so that your great grandchildren can someday nod their heads and say, “that’s good.”

This post has been a departure from my Latin American children’s literature recommendations. I will share my final recommendation on Monday, September 7th. This week, I want to suggest that we support the Latin American communities around us, especially farmworkers communities being negatively impacted by COVID-19 at disproportionately high numbers, and children being illegally held by ICE. Here is a list of organizations you can consider donating to and/or volunteering with.

United Farm Worker’s Union

California Farmworkers Foundation)

Navajo Nation COVID-19 Response

Hispanics in Philanthropy

SAG-AFTRA Foundation COVID-19 Fund

Restaurant Workers Community Foundation

National Council for Behavioral Health COVID-19 Fund

Arts Fund ongoing COVID-19 recovery efforts

NAACP COVID-19 Resource Building

RAICES Texas

ACLU

Minority Humanitarian Foundation

United We Dream

American Friends Service Community

Al Otro Lado

Texas Civil Rights Project

Pueblo Sin Fronteras

Published by Clarissa Castaneda, PhD

Clarissa Castaneda, PhD is a scholar of Latin American literature and cultures, indigenous literatures and cultures, visual and material cultures, archive theory, and poetics. Her dissertation, Latinidades and the Repository Function of the Poetic (2020), is available via ProQuest. And, “Indigenous Libretto and Aural Memory in The Sun Dance and El Circo Anahuac” is available in Displaced: Literature of Indigeneity, Migration, and Trauma (Routledge 2020). Dr. Castaneda has recently lectured for the English departments at Cal Poly Pomona and University California Riverside. In addition to research, academic writing, and teaching, she is a poet and musician.

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