Father Quintana

What is noteworthy… is not so much the story of a priest felled by native hands as much as the nature of the two differing accounts of his death from which the epigraphs above are drawn.

Marissa López
UCLA

Father Quintana was a very learned man. He was also a very strict disciplinarian and for that reason he was hated by wayward Indians who formed a conspiracy against his life.
– Mariano Vallejo, Recuerdos, II. 9-10

When the conspirators were planning to kill Father Quintana they gathered in the house of Julián the gardener … The man who worked inside the plaza of the mission, named Donato, was punished by Father Quintana with a whip with wire. With each blow it cut his buttocks. [Donato] organized a gathering of fourteen men … All of them gathered in the house of Julián to plan how they could avoid the cruel punishments of Father Quintana … That was Saturday. It should be noted that the Father wanted all the people to gather in the plaza on the following Sunday in order to test the whip that he had made with pieces of wire to see if it was to his liking.” – From the reminiscences of Lorenzo Asisara, an Indian born at Mission Santa Cruz, whose father was a witness to Quintana’s murder, in Lands of Promise and Despair: Chronicles of Early California; eds. Beebe and Senkewicz (285-6)Mission Santa Cruz (La Misión de la Exaltación de la Santa Cruz/The Mission of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross) was founded on September 25, 1791 by Father Fermín Lasuen. Like other missions, Santa Cruz comprised a curious blend of Catholic goodwill and racial violence, a combination that enabled a system of coercive labor and cultural erasure that would only continue after the missions were secularized in 1821 following Mexico’s independence from Spain. Resistance from the mission Indians took various forms, as Beebe and Senkewicz note, including refusing to work, for which “laziness” Indians were often whipped.Such treatment often met with strong response, unsurprisingly. The murder of Father Quintana at Mission Santa Cruz in 1812 is not unique. Indians often violently resisted Spanish and Church authority, though usually as part of a large- scale attack or uprising. However there are, as Beebe and Senkewicz document, other instances of targeted violence such as Father Quintana’s murder. What is noteworthy in this instance is not so much the story of a priest felled by native hands as much as the nature of the two differing accounts of his death from which the epigraphs above are drawn.The most interesting difference between the two accounts – their conditions of production – is in fundamental ways a similarity. Both narratives were gathered as part of San Francisco historian Hubert H. Bancroft’s project of recording Californian and Western American history. Bancroft hired assistants to travel throughout California collecting oral histories from eye-witnesses to California’s early years, people like José María Amador, a former Mexican soldier within whose interview Asisara’s account is embedded, and Mariano Vallejo, former Mexican military commander of Alta California and one of its largest land holders. Asisara happened to be present at Amador’s interview; he was not a sought after interlocutor, which is why his account is relegated to a footnote within Amador’s. By contrast, Vallejo was a man of such importance that his Recuerdos take up five volumes. He dictated to Bancroft’s assistants but then edited and rewrote his transcripts, producing a document far different from oral histories like Amador’s. Mexican California’s social and racial hierarchies shape the material difference between Asisara’s and Vallejo’s narratives, but at the end of the day they are both suppressed voices haunting an Anglo American archive.Asisara’s and Vallejo’s formal conditions correspond to questions of content: they are fundamentally similar with slight, but significant differences. Both agree, and are corroborated by other accounts, that Quintana was attacked by a group, strangled and castrated. Vallejo says the castration happened while Quintana was upright and alive, while Asisara’s account is vague here. He suggests strangulation as the cause of death with a postmortem castration; Vallejo, on the other hand, stipulates castration as the cause of death. Both describe Quintana as lured into the woods at night by an Indian seeking last rites for an ill spouse. Vallejo claims it was the wife who feigned illness while the husband sought Quintana, while in Asisara’s account it is the wife who comes up with the idea for her husband to feign illness.Asisara’s account has slightly more credibility on these finer details because, though it is essentially hearsay, his father participated in the plot and, so claims Asisara, told his son the story only a few years later. Vallejo, though he purports often throughout his Recuerdos to be writing objective history, describes in this account things he could not possibly have seen or known such as Quintana’s walk to the Indian’s house, full of lush details about the woods at night and Quintana’s fear as he lifts the buckskin door to the native dwelling.Such relatively minor differences as the above surround other substantial and thought provoking differences, however. For example, Asisara is careful to name each of the conspirators. He identifies them by their occupation – Julián is a gardener, Antonio is the cook, Lino is a page, etc. – and from his account the reader gleans a sense of these neophytes’ personalities. Donato is “full of rage” while Lino is “more capable and wiser” (285). In Vallejo’s story they are all, literally, just Indians. Before jumping to easy conclusions here, though, we should also note that Asisara calls the initial meeting of the conspirators a “gathering of fourteen men” (285) while in the very same paragraph describing how Julían’s wife (who notably remains nameless in Asisara’s rendition) devised and was a full participant in the plan the Indians ultimately followed. In Valllejo’s account at least women are described as agentic actors. Asisara rhetorically buries women of color in the same way Thomas Savage, Bancroft’s assistant, buried Asisara’s story within Amador’s.Engaging in such close readings of texts like Vallejo’s and Asisara’s is always going to be a dicey proposition, though, because of the compromised conditions of their production. The apparent differences between Vallejo’s and Asisara’s account, however, do reveal the not-so-subtle tensions between Californios and indigenous Californians that are often occluded in histories that seek to establish Chicano or Latino indigeneity in the Americas.As with the observation that Indians remain nameless in Vallejo’s account, however, the assertion of Californio and Indigenous conflict is comfortably familiar yet undermined upon closer reading. Vallejo follows the story of Quintana’s murder with a discussion of Mexico’s first, independent constitution, the Acta Constitutive of 1824, and its deleterious effects upon the indigenous population. He expresses deep sympathy with Indians who “were studiously kept in a condition of barbarism and ignorance.” The Indian of Vallejo’s time was “unacquainted with the delights of education and looks upon the laws with indifference, for he well knows that when the time comes to put them into effect, they are twisted about in such a way that he always gets the worst of it.” He goes on to describe the deplorable, physical conditions in which most Indians he encountered found themselves, and notes that the Acta, “which was to raise [the Indian] to the dignity of a free man,” in fact worsened their conditions and contributed to their population decline. “Their numbers at that time [1824] exceeded seven millions, but today scarcely reach four million” (Recuerdos, II. 34 – 5) . Vallejo seems never to have appreciated the full irony of his observations; it was left to later generations to note that the real tragedy for Californios like Vallejo came in the wake of the Mexican American War (1846- 48) which left them landless and rendered them indios in the Anglo American imagination.


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