A sharp chill cuts through the balmy air on Tuesday morning (February 28) as a sizable crowd assembles at an iconic landmark for a ceremony marking the issue of an express mail stamp honoring the Carmel Mission on the northern California coast. Recognized for its dome-shaped bell tower and star-shaped window, and as the burial place of Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California mission system, the Carmel Mission draws some 150,000 tourists annually. In vivid colors reminiscent of a vintage poster, the new stamp depicts the façade of the church and a courtyard ringed by verdant flowers. It commemorates a place, not the thousands of native people who lived and died there.
Before the ceremony, I am invited to join Louise J. Miranda Ramirez, tribal chairwoman of the Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen Nation, as she conducts a blessing over the “graves of the ancestors” in the cemetery behind the basilica. This small plot of land includes headstones for the Spanish priests buried here and a series of gravesites, ringed by abalone shells, “in memory of the Christian Indians” stacked in pits between 1771 and 1833. The Indians are anonymous, the priests named. A few yards away, Father Serra is interred in a large crypt.
“These graves for the Indians are just decorative and symbolic,” says Ramirez, as she burns a sage stick and sprinkles tobacco over the ground. “Thousands of Indians are buried in the mission’s grounds. Everywhere we walk there are bodies beneath us.” As we follow her around the small cemetery, she studies the ground carefully, stooping every few minutes to pick up items at her feet. “Look,” she says, “these are human bones dug up by gophers. I’ve asked them to bring in soil and cover the graves with some protection, but they don’t do anything.” It’s hard for me to look at the pieces of bone. Ramirez is almost matter-of-fact. “I do this every time I come here, every time.”
We return to the courtyard for the stamp’s dedication. Louise Miranda Ramirez takes her place on the stage next to the other speakers. Each is given five minutes for their talk. The scripted ceremony goes according to plan until it’s her turn to speak.
Bishop Richard Garcia blesses the new stamp and observes that the mission’s land is also “sacred to native peoples,” but unlike Bishop Francis Quinn during a mass in San Raphael in 2007, he does not apologize for “imposing a European Catholicism upon the natives.”
A representative for the U.S. Postal Service talks about “similarities between the missions of early California and our colonial Post Offices, especially how they both served to connect and bind people together.” He’s impressed by the “efficiency” of the missions, how they delivered information on time. But he doesn’t discuss how the missions destroyed the very effective communication systems of native peoples and attempted to erase languages thousands of years old.
An aide to Congressman Sam Farr describes her boss’ love of stamp collecting. She recalls her children’s 4th grade mission project and encourages everybody to “buy this historical stamp.” Not a word about the slave labor that built the mission or the lives and cultures stamped out by the mission system.
The U. S. Postal Service consulted a California State professor, Ruben Mendoza, to make sure that the commemorative stamp is faithful to Carmel Mission’s provenance. He speaks today about the influence of European architecture and how Monterey was the “epicenter of the Christianization of California.” But the Postal Service did not consult Heyday publisher Malcolm Margolin, who also would have pointed out that, while the mission’s architecture has been faithfully restored, “the human details are invariably omitted: the sight of men and women in irons, the sound of the whip, the misery of the Indians.”
The president of the Carmel Mission Foundation gives a fund-raising pitch, asking for help in raising five million dollars to make the basilica earthquake-safe. But he doesn’t mention the pittance it would cost to decently re-bury the exposed human remains and cover the ground of the cemetery with a layer of protective soil.
Then, it’s Louise Miranda Ramirez’s turn to talk about “200+ Years in Five Minutes.” She’s here to represent the more than six hundred tribal members of Esselen and Carmeleno descent, to speak for “the thousands of Ancestors buried under our feet in a mass grave.” The kids in the audience stop fidgeting and pay attention. “I am here for our Ancestors that are disturbed by the laying of new sewer pipes on their graves. I am the voice for the Ancestors disturbed by the rodents digging up their remains.” Some adults in the audience shift uneasily in their seats. “I am here for the few thousand Ancestors who did survive so that we could be here today. I am here for our children, our history.”
Louise Miranda Ramirez ends her talk with a chant: “We are here, we exist/We are here, we exist/ We will always exist here.” She also says a few subversive words in her native Esselen. Only a few people in the audience understand that she is asking “the Creator and Priest to return our homeland to our people.”
At the end of the speeches, a large replica of the new stamp is unveiled on the stage. The Master of Ceremonies asks all the speakers to gather around the stamp for a publicity photo. Louise Miranda Ramirez steps out of the picture in silent protest.