Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Thursday, June 24, 2004

Letter from California-June 14, 2004

Every spring in California, school children all over the state are required take a box full of Popsicle sticks and build something that symbolizes the history of the state of California: a Spanish-style mission.
How can one building represent the history of a whole state? Right about the time that folks in Massachusetts and South Carolina started dumping tea in harbors, Spanish priests in Mexico thought it was time to move north and civilize the natives with a chain of outposts starting in the south and gradually moving north. The natives, not consulted on whether or not they were interested in the project, generally met the priests with a combination of kindness and suspicion, but their cooperation and labor ended up being critical in building the mission buildings and churches. In fact, if you’ve ever seen a “mission” style building (or a Taco Bell restaurant for that matter), you can tip your hat to those priests and the Native Americans who helped them.
Eventually, towns grew up around the churches, houses, and markets that defined these missions. San Diego became the first mission town. Then came places like San Jose, Santa Cruz, San Francisco and lesser-known places like San Gabriel and San Juan Bautista. It’s just an ordinary list of a few of the larger towns in California, but funnily enough, it tends to have a different sound in the ear if I translate those names from Spanish into English:

Saint Joseph, Holy Cross, Saint Francis, Saint Gabriel the Archangel, Saint John the Baptist.

The priests dedicated each of these missions to a saint or in the name of some important part of Christianity.
Then, there was this other place: El Pueblo de neustro senora la Reina de Los Angeles. English translation: The City of our Lady the Queen of the Angels. Any guesses who they were talking about? That’s right, the Holy Mother herself, Mary.
Think of it. About 250 years ago, a handful of priests and soldiers gathered a few hundred natives and built a small scattering of buildings which have turned into a metropolitan area of 10,000,000 known all around the world as L.A. Without that mission, life would have continued for the Spanish and the natives, but there wouldn’t be a city here. In other words, it’s impossible to talk about the history of Los Angeles without talking about the role of that mission.
Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union began its fight against the County of Los Angeles. What diabolical assault on our freedoms has L.A. County perpetrated now? Has someone been imprisoned without a fair trial? Perhaps someone publishing opinions criticizing the County Supervisors had their offices raided and shut down? Have the County’s police officers been systematically abusing their power by forcing small businesses to pay them off for protection? No? Nothing like that?
Not quite. You see, the County of L.A., like many counties, has a seal, and on that seal are many things, including oil wells, a Spanish Galleon, a Roman goddess, something that looks like a croissant, a tic tac toe board, a no-bake cookie recipe, Fonzie’s jacket from Happy Days, and a silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock. Alright, maybe I just thought I saw those last few things, but it has a lot of things. One of them is a tiny, tiny cross. It seems that the ACLU thinks that having a cross on the seal is part of L.A.’s super-secret plan to force Christianity on its citizens. My first intelligent, finely honed argument against this is simple: what-ever!
Upon further reflection, however, I have some deeper thoughts. It’s important for an American state, county or city not to push a religion on the people. I’ll prove it to you. Imagine that your town or county somehow voted a group of devout Snake Handlers into office. Shortly after they took over, it was decided there would be designated Snake Handling time at the beginning of every school day. Even if you could request that your child not actually have to handle the snakes, you’d probably still want it stopped.
On the other hand, the reason the founding fathers thought it was important to say that the government shouldn’t be allowed to make an official religion was not because they didn’t want any religion but because they wanted to see to it that people were free to practice the way they wanted. They were afraid that without this, governments could start making citizens show their faith in God by wearing a water moccasin as a fashion accessory every morning before Algebra class. That’s so far from wanting to make sure that no religious symbol ever appears in public that it hardly seems like I would have to explain it.
Apparently, it’s not as obvious to others as it is to me. Add to that one more simple fact: take away the missions, represented by the cross on the seal, and there is no city or county of Los Angeles. No mission, no L.A., no Hollywood. A world without movies! Almost too horrible to imagine.
But since we do have the movie business, maybe we can just give the script of history a little rewrite: about 250 years ago, a small band of movie producers came to this area and, with the help of native technicians, built a small studio. Eventually, a city grew, but since Los Angeles means, of course “The Angels”, we’ll have to rewrite that as well.
How about Los Angulos? It sounds similar and translates to, “The Angles” which, as a city name, is completely meaningless.
Just the way the ACLU would like it.


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