(This is the last post in the CALIFORNIO series. You can read the four earlier posts by clicking on each title: Californio, Facebook Friends & Cousins, Searching for the Garcias, and Following Felipe.)
I’ve come to Monterey to find a grave.
Two graves, to be precise – the graves belonging to my fifth great-grandparents. Felipe Santiago Garcia and Maria Petra Lugo Garcia are both buried at Mission San Carlos cemetery at the Royal Presidio Chapel. They are two of only 119 people who are buried there, at a church that was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1770, on the shores of Monterey Bay. It was supposed to be the cornerstone of Serra’s first California Mission, but a year later Mission San Carlos was relocated to Carmel, a site where more indigenous tribes lived, making it easier for Serra to convert them to Christianity. The small church left behind in Monterey remained as a Royal Chapel for the soldiers guarding the new Spanish Presidio of Monterey.
Felipe was one of those soldiers.
Monterey was where Felipe was first stationed as un soldado de cuera, and where Petra set up their first home as man and wife. They would eventually travel to many other missions and presidios when Felipe would be re-assigned by his commanding officers to new posts. Missions were being built up and down the coast of California, from San Diego to San Francisco. Felipe was sent wherever soldiers were needed, for whatever reason they were needed at that location. But when he was finally ready to retire, Felipe came back to Monterey – the place he looked at as his one true home.
After a lifetime of service for his country, as a retired soldier, Felipe was given land. He became a farmer. He had his own home, and acres that belonged only to him and his family. Several of his nine sons remained in Monterey to help him. But still, there was much work to be done. When his 6th son, Jose Antonio died, his 8th son, Inocente, petitioned the Governor so he could be released from the military to go home to his family in Monterey “…in order to take care of what little property they had.” When Petra got ill and eventually died in 1817, it was only natural that she be buried at the Royal Presidio church that her husband had protected as a soldier, and where they had worshipped as a family. And when it was Felipe’s time to pass on, as a retired soldier of that Presidio, there was no other final resting place (or greater honor) than burial at the small church he had helped to build, and guard. It was Spain’s payback to him for dedicating his life to his country. In 1822, Felipe Santiago Garcia died and was buried at the Royal Presidio Cathedral.
And now, in 2013, I can’t find him.
I can’t find Petra either. I know this for a fact because I’ve travelled four hours, 241 miles (at $4.39 a gallon for gas), from Goleta to Monterey, and I not only can’t find the graves of the Garcias, but I don’t see a cemetery at all. There isn’t one headstone in sight. Not one.
We Spend The Day Searching.
Arriving at the Presidio Chapel in the middle of noon mass, we find every office and the Heritage Center locked up and currently unavailable to the public until mass is over. Not the best timing. But after a quick search on our iPhone we discover the main Catholic cemetery is just a few blocks away, and head over there to find out some answers.
The people at the San Carlos Catholic Cemetery office very graciously search their computer records for Felipe and Petra Garcia’s names. Although the cemetery certainly has its share of old (and fascinating) graves, there’s nothing as ancient as 1817 or 1822. Felipe and Petra aren’t listed in the computer.
“They would have been buried up at the Presidio Chapel,” they inform us.
Murder in Monterey, 1855
They send us back to the Presidio Chapel, where now it’s lunchtime; offices and the Heritage Center are still locked up. The only person who seems to be working is the janitor, and we follow him as he carries mop and pail into the vestibule of the church. When we ask him about the Presidio cemetery and where the graves might be located, he tries to send us back over to the Catholic cemetery we just visited.
“They’re supposed to be here,” I tell the janitor. “They told us at the Catholic cemetery to come back to the Chapel,” I explain, trying not to sound too exasperated.
“Well, they might be under the floor,” the janitor suggests, and leads us all the way to the back of the church where a large wooden information booth is tucked into a corner. We help him push the booth out of the way, and magically an old square of marble with hard-to-read letters carved on it appears. The janitor is right – there are people buried under the church floor.
“But those are Pachecos,” he informs us, just as I was getting optimistic. “You can’t hardly read the names, but the Pachecos have people buried here. Are you a Pacheco?”
He sends us back to the Heritage Center, and when I try the locked door again, I notice the operating hours are only for a couple of days a week because of cutbacks. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those days, and we’re scheduled to leave Monterey tomorrow. Oh well, at least I tried. Giving up, I turn away and we start to head back to the car. But then, I notice a woman exiting from the office.
“Excuse me! Can I ask you something?”
She stops to listen. And (poor woman) I proceed to tell her my long story about the search for the Garcias. Maybe she thinks I’m crazy or just takes pity on me, but she offers me a glimmer of hope by saying, “If your Felipe was an early soldier in Monterey, then by all means, he would be buried here.” Even though the museum is officially closed, she asks me to come inside as she starts to look up information.
Her name is Fay and she is the kindest and most patient woman I’ve ever met. I try to limit my questions but I have a lot.
“You need to speak to our archivist,” she tells me. And she hands me a card with Father Carl Faria’s name on it. “He’ll have your answers,” she says with a smile.
A Priest With All The Answers
It’s a week before I can connect with Father Faria because he’s on a cruise. But when I reach him and tell him I’m looking for Felipe Santiago Garcia’s grave, he hesitates.
“…Do you know a David Gonzalez from Florida?” he asks me.
I tell him no and ask him why.
“He was just this moment in my office looking for Felipe Santiago Garcia’s grave.”
“Felipe was his fifth great-grandfather too.”
What are the odds? Am I the only one who thinks this is little strange? Two cousins who don’t know each other on opposite ends of the country looking for the same ancestor at exactly the same moment?
“What did you tell him?” I ask the good Father.
He explains to me everything he just told my Gonzalez cousin: Yes, it’s true that both Felipe and his wife, Petra, were buried at the Presidio Cathedral. He gives me their burial numbers that were written in the church book that Father Serra first started. It’s a record of all baptisms, marriages, and deaths, and Petra is #2225 in the book; Felipe is #2428. Father Faria tells me that the book itself has recently been sent to the Huntington Library for an exhibit commemorating Father Serra’s 300th birthday.
“You can go there and see where it’s written – the names of your fifth great-grandparents.”
But what about their graves?
“We’re not exactly sure where they are,” he admits, sheepishly.
“They were buried here, at the Presidio Chapel, but we can only guess at the location. Somewhere on the church grounds,” he explains. There’s a Catholic school that has been built on the land, a road that was expanded, and even part of a small strip mall, and all are on land owned by the Church. “They could be anywhere in those areas,” he tells me. “They expanded the road just behind the church in 1940, and they found quite a lot of bones. There were no markers so they were buried, all of them together, in a common grave at the Catholic cemetery,” he explains.
But why weren’t there any headstones on the original graves?
“The grave markers were all wooden – made from the bark of trees,” he tells me. “By the time the Americans came, most had broken apart and crumpled, like dust into the ground.”
We come from the dirt, we go back to the dirt.
I can’t help but think of my father, and our family saying.
Losing One Thing, Finding Another
I don’t know what I would have done had I found Felipe and Petra’s graves. Would I have brought flowers to leave there? Or knelt and said a quick “Hail Mary?” Maybe I just would’ve sat a moment in silence, reflecting on this amazing couple that traveled over 1400 miles, on horseback and mule, across desert, through scorching heat and relentless rainstorms, with no permanent shelter – risking their lives to the elements, bears and mountains lions, and sometimes, hostile indigenous tribes – the first of our bloodlines to come here to California. It somehow seems wrong that when people die their graves just disappear, and there aren’t any words to acknowledge they were here, that they lived, they contributed; and their families, thousands of descendants (both sharing their name or not) are scattered around the country, from Florida to California. And maybe a lot of those descendants know nothing about the people who came before them, who struggled and survived, and worked so hard to make a new land their home.
Even though I wasn’t able to find Felipe and Petra, I found something else there in Monterey. With every one of my footsteps following after them, I started to see Felipe and Petra in my imagination. What they looked like, how they sounded, and what dreams they must have had. They were newlyweds going into the unknown, and not sure they would even survive the journey. And as I saw them, I also started to see their son, Carlos, and their grandson, Hilarion, and what their lives might have been like as California grew and changed along with each generation of Garcias. But mostly, it is Rosa, whose voice I can hear the strongest – a tiny old woman who used to sit at her kitchen table, counting out beans into five stacks – one stack for each one of her children. The beans represented the money she had saved for them. Money in five banks that once a week she would visit – taking along with her the young grandson who would translate because even in the 1920s Rosa still didn’t speak English. She didn’t write and she didn’t read and on her own will she marked an “X” because she didn’t know how to write her name. But she managed to save and to give to the next generation – money, and more importantly, land. Land to build their own homes where they would raise the next generation, and the one after that.
A family’s history is like a palimpsest – a parchment that is written on over and over again, with some of the earlier writing still visible, even after it’s been erased. Although one generation’s story has been written, that next generation writes its own story, layered over the last, whether they are aware of it or not. There are times when the generations intersect, in what they desire, or what they believe. What one generation strives for, and perhaps never accomplishes might be passed along to the next generation, and perhaps in that particular layer, and in that unique time, dreams – the ones that may have started long ago – might now be realized.
There’s a story about the Garcia family that I’d like to write. But I have to go inward now – into my imagination – to find that story. It parallels the tale of early California which is rich, multi-cultural, and hasn’t been told in many books at all. I know this because I’ve been looking for those books as I’ve been writing these Californio posts. Although there are non-fiction and academic works, I want to delve deeper, and sometimes the only way to do that is through fiction. Who were the Californios? And how did they evolve from their identities as Espanioles, Mexicans, Anglos, and Indigenous tribes, into the people who would become known as Californios? I can research these questions, and learn the knowledge, or I can experience it with my heart and soul. I’d rather do the latter.
Toni Morrison once wrote, “Write the books you want to read.” Californio is a book I really want to read. But since it’s not written, I guess that means I have to try to write it.
When I take a screenplay assignment in Hollywood, I always do it with the proviso that I will only work on one project at a time. Writing, for me, is like being pregnant, and my creative womb can only accommodate one pregnancy at a time. So while I’m writing the book, this blog will have to be silent for awhile. I’ll take breaks every now and then, and when I do I’ll post a little something here. Maybe to share how Californio is going, or maybe just to change the topic completely. But I’ll always be reachable. If any of you have questions about anything we’ve talked about here, you can always leave me a comment on the blog. I’ll read it and write back to you.
But it might take me a little while.
I’m off to Californio.