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The year was 1771. In what is now San Gabriel, California, a menacing group of armed Tongva Native Americans approached a group of Spanish missionaries and soldiers. A bloody battle seemed inevitable. But of the padres unrolled a painting of “Our Lady of Sorrows” (La Dolorosa) for all to see, and the natives were so moved by its beauty that they laid down their weapons and allowed the Spanish expedition to establish a mission.

So goes the legend behind the founding of the San Gabriel Mission. I visited the historic grounds on Saturday with fellow Ambassador Leah and the rest of my classmates in FA-140 (Cultural Guide to Los Angeles). The mission was our first local cultural destination and only a twenty minute drive from campus.

Our teacher had informed us that up until 1834 (when the Mexican government secularized the mission and allowed the natives to leave), many Tongva Indians had been enslaved and forced to convert to Christianity, and another 6000 had died.  But this was easy to forget while walking with our docent through the serene grounds full of native vegetation and grape vines once used to make wine. Some reminders of the Tongvas’ toil remain – the vats used to make wax and the large pool for treating cattle hides still stand. The museum curator, an elderly man who bore more than a passing resemblance to Santa Claus, pointed out the highlights of the mission’s museum. A robe and a prayer book used by Father Junipero Serra, the famous founder of the entire California mission chain, were both on display, as were many religious paintings made by Indian neophytes (converts). The museum also holds a first edition of Don Quixote from 1640, which the curator explained was the priests’ leisure reading, and huge books of Gregorian chants printed on sheepskin.

Finally, our group visited the main building of the mission – the historic chapel. The San Gabriel Mission was one of the very few missions that was not completely abandoned after the 1830s, so the original altarpiece has survived and is still on display. A small but nevertheless hugely important feature of the chapel is none other than La Dolorosa, the 300-year old Spanish painting that awed the Tongvas and allowed the Spanish fathers to establish the mission several centuries ago.

I learned far more about missions and gained a greater appreciation for the struggle of the natives on that day than I ever could have during my 4th grade field trip to the San Juan Capistrano mission. The students in my carpool stayed after most of the class left to speak further with the friendly curator, and he allowed us to ring the largest of the mission’s six bells. It didn’t quite match up to the Victory Bell in volume, but that could be because the Victory Bell is over a century younger. All in all, the trip served as yet another reminder of the history that surrounds us even in the middle of the densely urban cityscape that is Los Angeles.

Look for more stories of my trips with FA 140 soon! Next up is a walking tour of early Los Angeles lynching sites which ends at Olvera Street, the main avenue of the first early 19th-century town that eventually grew into LA.


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