July 19, 2021

#08-110: Ramona, a Tale of Mission Days

black-and-white illustration of a crumbling old Spanish-style church, with a bell tower at the left end and a long, Moorish-looking, buttressed wall
Mission San Gabriel, where Ramona's parents were said to be married
(from page 60 of the novel at Google Books)

Note: Helen Hunt Jackson's novel Ramona tells of the trials of a half-Indian orphan girl in the days of the California missions.

Get Ready: Do you know where California cities like San Francisco, San Diego, and San Jose get their names?

"Ramona, I hear the mission bells above!
"Ramona, they're ringing out our song of love!"

That song, from 1928, was part of a genuine Southern California phenomenon. Helen Hunt Jackson published her novel Ramona, about a half-Indian orphan girl of that name, in 1884. Since then it has been the namesake of schools, streets, a freeway, and a town. It spurred a tourism boom when the railway opened to Los Angeles from the east, and has been featured in no fewer than five films, a Mexican telenovela, and the song quoted above.

A version has also been performed as a "pageant" yearly since 1923 (with few exceptions), put on by local residents in an outdoor setting. (Those exceptions are: 1933, due to the Great Depression; 1942, during World War II; and 2020, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.)

To understand this story, which has encouraged so much creativity, we need to take a quick look at the history of California, which would become the third-largest state in the U.S., with the largest population.

Despite the presence of many Native American groups (one of which would have contributed to the fictional Ramona's heritage), the coastal areas of California were "settled" by the Spanish. The Franciscan fathers planted a series of 21 "missions"--churches with the ability to grow food, manufacture small goods by hand, and house (some would say "incarcerate") local peoples.

Major cities like San Diego, San Jose, and San Francisco are named for the missions founded there. And Los Angeles was established as a civil "pueblo" ("town") by a group of settlers setting out from nearby Mission San Gabriel (where the novel says Ramona's parents, a Scottish sea captain and an Indian woman, were married).

Life in the missions doesn't sound so romantic, does it? But late in the 19th century, after California became a state, there was a movement to romanticize the efforts of the "kindly old padres" (never mind the many verified stories of physical abuse) and restore the crumbling adobe buildings they had built.

Into this scene came Massachusetts-born Jackson (a former classmate of Emily Dickinson), who fashioned the story from encounters with people she met and places she visited on tours of the state. She was particularly moved by the plight of California's natives, whose population had plunged precipitously in the years after statehood, and she hoped to portray the Indian experience "in a way to move people's hearts."

In a way, she tried to do for native Californians what Dickens had done for London's poor. Her orphaned Ramona was adopted by an unloving Spanish foster mother, who disapproved of her mixed heritage, and of her relationship with a full-blooded Indian, Alessandro, son of the tribal chief. Ramona runs off with Alessandro, and returns two years later, the widowed mother of an infant child, also (confusingly) named Ramona.

Ramona's foster-brother Felipe, who always loved her, finds her and marries her. Though the two have several children together, the younger Ramona is always their favorite.


Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ramona

Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. adobe
  2. Franciscan
  3. full-blooded
  4. incarcerate
  5. padres
  6. pageant
  7. plight
  8. precipitously
  9. spurred
  10. telenovela

  1. very suddenly
  2. Spanish for "fathers"
  3. a tv drama in Spanish
  4. incited; urged on
  5. an elaborate public performance
  6. of unmixed ancestry
  7. mud used for making bricks
  8. an unfortunate condition
  9. a Catholic religious order
  10. lock up; put in jail

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for July 19, 2021

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. g; 2. i; 3. f; 4. j; 5. b; 6. e; 7. h; 8. a; 9. d; 10. c