The Trial of California’s Missions

Spring 2019; Avery Review, issue 41.
Excerpted, full text available here.


Missions on Trial

As monuments, missions preserve California’s Spanish colonial past and embody false ideas of racial superiority. Is the verdict then to execute them, as Ines Weizman would propose?  Or to abandon the Mission Model Project? Or, perhaps, leave the missions to fall into their own ruin in exile?  The legacy and aesthetics of the California missions is too entrenched in popular vernacular to be abandoned. Instead, an iconoclasm can be produced through critical modeling practices and artistic interventions of the site.

Missions are already preserved outside of their structure and within the cultural identity of California. Their aesthetic legacies are embedded in Taco Bell logos and in the Stanford University campus. Throughout the state and country, the syncretism of California Mission Style has further bastardized itself. The tectonic heft of the mission walls, which often span a thickness of four feet or greater, is superficially reproduced as wood-framed and gypsum walls sprayed with stucco. As with the sugar cube and foam-core models, these abstractions are significant. The heft is comprised of hundreds of handmade adobe bricks produced by indigenous laborers forced to work in inhumane conditions. The heavy, indelicate ornaments framing walls and windows reveal that the fabricators were not skilled European craftsmen, but indigenous people producing simulacra of the missionaries’ recollections of Spanish landscapes.[i]  California mission style is necessarily a de-refinement.

But it is not just their style that is reproduced and preserved. Though the HABS documents end at the property lines established in the 1930s, the missions were connected rhizomatically through a network of agricultural landscapes. One mission could own hundreds of acres and thousands of indigenous people to work the land. The systems enacted in this landscape have continued to spread. Brown people continue to work the fields and their social positions have not improved. Farm labor and migratory laws continue to devalorize and dehumanize people. The missions draw no parallels or connections from their histories to current conditions. In fact, they monumentalize ideas of a kindly padre and his docile brown workforce. This settler-colonial mentality continues through the rhetoric and treatment of Central-American workforces.

Unlike other monuments, missions cannot be scurried away to museum storage spaces, where embarrassing colonial histories can be preserved out of sight. And ironically, the few that do attack the pedagogy inherent in mission preservation aim not at the building itself, but the statues around it.[ii]  The vandals (artists? critics?) who perpetrated these acts repeatedly opted to let the architecture be. Jorge Otero-Pailos argues that, “Architecture is saved from obsolescence and appears contemporary as it is framed and reframed by preservation as culturally significant.”[iii]  As the statues are newer entries, they are not viewed as part of what is culturally significant-- even a vandal will make that distinction.

            A true iconoclasm of the missions fundamentally requires a reckoning with the building and the program it houses. If we are to examine and argue about its cultural significance then it is not enough to execute the missions-- history has shown us that this only serves to martyrize buildings.[iv]It is also not enough to exile the missions-- ruin seems to only make them more romantic. Artistic interventions and critical models should address and challenge the structure. Social and local networks, like the Catholic Church, the Mission Preservation Foundation, and elected community officials, should embrace a re-appropriation of the missions and the modeling project. If California’s missions can be appropriated to benefit colonial history, they can also be used to challenge that history.

            The stakes are clear—California’s brown communities continue to be disenfranchised by a history that suppresses their role. Instead of preserving the constructed mission histories and superficially addressing concerns about brown bodies and narratives, missions should invite criticism and revisionism. Their programs should be reconfigured to help elevate the communities they have alienated. The drawings and models, which dehumanized these spaces, should now be re-examined by artists and students in order to find and produce proper representation. The state’s pedagogy should address the contemporary conditions the missions produce, instead of historicizing and abstracting negative conditions.[v]The missions continue to be central sites in California, so they must participate as true community spaces and cultural centers, not static, crystalized museums. Their walls should not be treated and reproduced as boundaries of exclusion, guarding an unknown value. Rather, they should be permeable membranes, in flux and relation to the people. Students and artists alike should be empowered to engage with the buildings, find their faults, find their beauty, and determine whether they are guilty or innocent. In order to move forward, the buildings must be held accountable.