INTERVIEW: Rubén Mendoza, Archaeologist, Professor, and Curator of Mission San Juan Bautista
Dr. Rubén Mendoza is Director of the Institute for Archaeological Science, Technology, and Visualization at California State University, Monterey Bay. He is an influential scholar, a much-loved professor, and a tireless explorer of past eras whose work has earned him numerous awards, honors, and major grants. Dr. Mendoza’s expertise ranges far in time and space, with notable research conducted in California, the Southwest, and throughout Mesoamerica. At the California missions alone, he has led major investigations in Soledad, Carmel, San Miguel, and San Juan Bautista, where he also serves as the mission’s Curator. Read our interview of Dr. Mendoza to discover more about his extraordinary life and work, and a bit about mission “ghosts” as well!
How did you decide to become an archaeologist?
My interest in becoming an archaeologist was first kindled in grade school as the result of a 4thgrade fieldtrip from Fresno, California, to Old Mission San Juan Bautista and Monterey. During that excursion, my interest in early California history was born. I saw ancient buildings, cowboys on horseback, and Indians afoot in the Plaza [of San Juan Bautista], not to mention my first ever sighting of the Pacific Ocean with its marine life. Upon returning from that field trip to San Juan Bautista, I developed an unusual obsession with tracking down and reading history magazines devoted to the old West. Before that time, I had little interest in school, and as there was little in the way of reading materials in my childhood home, I didn’t have much of an interest in reading either.
San Juan Bautista, as such, awakened in me an intense interest in historic photographs and stories about Cowboys and Indians, and this in turn led me to build a scale model replica of the Old Mission community in the form of twenty-two wooden buildings crafted from tomato boxes collected in the alleys and landfills of Bakersfield, California. Each of the diminutive buildings was fully furnished, and detailed to approximate what I remembered of the Old Mission town. Some three years later, a chance trip to Mexico City and the ancient ruins of Teotihuacan, Mexico redirected my interest in California history into one devoted almost entirely to the art history and architecture of ancient Mexico and the US Southwest.
What do you most like about your work?
As a professor I particularly enjoy working collaboratively to awaken my students’ interests and appreciation for the history and traditions of their adopted communities. Given the rich cultural and historical traditions of the Monterey Bay, it never ceases to amaze me that so many know so little about the truly epic local and regional histories and cultures of the region. As an archaeologist, I love the thrill of taking my students to the edge of their sense of adventure, and introducing them to the world of scientific discovery; and perhaps more importantly, self-discovery and professional development. To that end, I feel that I have been blessed with the opportunity to make so many historically and scientifically important discoveries with my students; and that at the forefront of those teams making such discoveries. The process of training, mentoring, and encouraging students through both authentic forms of archaeological fieldwork and/or other forms of professional interaction is perhaps the most rewarding part of my job.
What was, for you, the most surprising discovery you made so far at Old Mission San Juan Bautista? How did you make the discovery?
When I think of discovery, I think of it in a multitude of distinct ways. Discovery at the Old Mission over the past few years has subsumed both the recovery of long lost archaeological features and artifacts; and secondarily, the revelation of new ideas, events, and ways of life and belief.
Where archaeology and excavation are concerned, one of our most important discoveries to date was that of the recovery of the “Mother Church” or Chapel of 1797. It was constructed by the soldiers of the Royal Presidio of Monterey in anticipation of its dedication by Father President Fermín Francisco de Lasuén in June of 1797. My research team discovered the foundations of the “Mother Church” on July 28th of 2009, exactly one year to the day of our discovery of the original Serra Chapel of 1772 at the Royal Presidio or San Carlos Cathedral in July of 2008. Along with the foundation footings, roof tiles, and other materials, we recovered two Spanish period cannon balls in the ruins of the church.
Where other significant “archaeological” discoveries at the Old Mission are concerned, we also recovered the original Mission Well of 1797, the Torreon or South Tower of 1800, the Granary of 1798, and that of 1802, the foundations footings of the Northwest Convento of 1800, the Victorian Bell Tower of 1867-75, Saint John’s Asylum of 1865, and those of the planned North Bell Tower of 1812. Each and every one of these discoveries has lent itself to the development of a comprehensive architectural history of Mission period buildings at Old Mission San Juan Bautista.
Perhaps the most publicized discoveries made at the Old Mission to date are those pertaining to the solar illumination of the main altar and tabernacle on the midwinter solstice sunrise of each year. First noted by former pastor Father Edward Fitz-Henry in 1997, and initially documented by way of professional papers and publications by me in 2000 through 2005, and since, we have made many other important discoveries from colonial era churches from throughout the Americas as a result.
This past January of 2012, I revisited my observations of the past many years and realized that the projected date of the illumination was intended to fall squarely on Epiphany, or about January 6th of each year. On this latter day, the window of light frames the saint in the lower left hand portion of the main altar reredos, or altar screen, and then transits across the altar and then frames the main altar tabernacle within which the Host or Eucharist is contained. Through the course of this single day, a total of seven separate and distinct and liturgically significant illuminations follow, with that of the illumination of Saint John the Baptist occurring at precisely noon, and a subsequent series of illuminations at the location of the Mission era Nativity scene, and three of the paintings of the Via Crucis or Stations of the Cross.
If you could tell 4th graders only one reason you think it’s valuable to study the missions of California, which one would it be?
The Missions are a crossroads of the earliest California cultures and traditions, and therefore serve as the stuff of legend and as repositories of the earliest cultural memories and histories of the many diverse peoples who settled this place we call home. Therefore, the status of the Missions as the crucibles of the earliest forms of California’s cultural identity is for me paramount. And as such, the study of the old missions serves as a particularly direct means by which to study our collective identities and heritage. Every time I lead a 4th grade mission tour through the Old Mission, I tell the children about how San Juan Bautista inspired my interest in history, and how that in turn prompted my career and life choices since.
Do you believe in ghosts?
While I can’t say that I believe in ghosts per se, I do believe that all that we have been or seek to become remains with us through the span of all times and places. Whether we call such manifestations a “ghostly” presence, or the consequence of a parallel universe, or Dark Matter, or the supernatural gets us into semantics that none of us are prepared to address realistically.
What I do know is that a dear friend of mine has recorded some particularly unusual phenomena by way of infrared security cameras; and having reviewed said footage from a host of old California missions, I must admit that there is clearly something afoot that is not easily explained.
If so, have you ever seen one? What happened?
As noted, of that “ghostly” video footage that I have seen for myself, some of the most convincing is that identified with the grave of Fray Estevan Tapis on the altar at Old Mission San Juan Bautista; the Serra cell at Mission San Diego de Alcala; the sala at San Miguel; and that at Mission Santa Barbara.
In each instance, the apparitions, if we can call them that, appear in the infrared imagery as ghostly specters in wispy human form or as luminous orbs. And in several instances, they have been registered via motion-detection-equipped security systems in locations identified with the dead, and with tragedies.
How one goes about explaining such phenomena is really quite problematic. At San Juan Bautista, a couple of contractors working in the Old Mission’s convento attic back in 2006 were startled upon spying footprints forming in the dust and moving away from them as though someone had just walked leisurely past them within that darkened attic space. One of the men had assumed that the footprints that passed within a couple of feet of his work area were those of his partner, until of course he realized that his partner had already departed the attic. The one man was too shaken to return to his workstation without the company of his crew.
You are also a professor at the California State University of Monterey Bay. Do your students study to become archaeologists there? Do they get to work with you at the missions? Do you like teaching people to become archaeologists?
Yes, I have students that come from across the country to study and train in archaeology here on the Monterey Bay. They come to the program because I have an active year-round undergraduate field program in Mission archaeology, and much of what I do in otherwise traditional classroom settings entails hands on practicums. The practicums or labs span the gamut from garbology and modern material culture studies through to flintknapping, Spanish colonial ceramics analysis, studies of taphonomy or forensic decomposition, museum exhibitions development, basic faunal analysis, historic preservation and conservation, and archaeological field studies in and about the California missions.
I believe that the very best education combines book learning with hands on field studies, and as such I endeavor to place my students in authentic project-based field experiences. To date, my students have experienced the excitement of discovery that comes with a host of significant findings at Missions San Juan Bautista, San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, Nuestra Señora de la Soledad, San Miguel Arcángel, and the Royal Presidio of San Carlos de Monterey. I have in addition led my students into archaeological investigations of 7,000 to 11,000 year old prehistoric sites in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains west of Denver, Colorado; and the pre-Columbian sites of the Cañada de la Virgen located in Guanajuato, Mexico; and the Pyramid of Cholula, Puebla, Mexico.
With that said, you could say that I am truly passionate about archaeology and field studies in particular. My passion for my studies is heightened by my all abiding concern and genuine interest in supporting my students in their interests. Because archaeology encompasses so many dimensions of the human experience, and requires challenges that are often far more demanding than many are willing to undertake in order to establish them in a career…archaeology is not for everyone. If what you seek is a 9:00 to 5:00 pm job that results from a minimalist approach to one’s education, then archaeology is definitely not your cup of tea. Archaeology demands people absolutely committed and passionate, adventurous and daring, about their studies and career choices. It is this latter group of people that I most wish to cultivate, mentor, and lead into this ever growing field of dreams.
Your work deals with how people lived in the past. Why does this matter to you?
Learning about how people lived in the past provides an important context for more fully understanding what we have become, or will become. Virtually all that we are is rooted in our past and in the lives of our forbearers. Therefore, I search for the remains of the ancestors in order to more fully understand who I am and what it took to guide me to this particular place and time in history. Much of what we construe to represent the truth of the human condition lies buried in the sands of time, and if looked at strictly through the lens of culture, what we deem to represent civilization – i.e., agriculture, urban centers, and metal tools – constitutes less than 1% of the complete human story. Therefore, studying the past permits us to reflect on the other 99% of what we are, have become, and how. Archaeology as such provides the optimal strategy and mirror for such reflections and considerations.
Does your understanding of the past shape the way you see life in the present? Do you have an example of how you see something in your everyday surroundings differently from the way other people seem to look at it?
Most definitely, much of what I see in the contemporary world is shaped and filtered by way of the influences of anthropology and archaeology. Having studied the archaeology and prehistory of world civilizations, such anthropologically informed understandings of humanity and the human condition shape my experience of the present. When I walk the streets of major cities, such as Manhattan or San Francisco, I often find myself visualizing in the present the peoples of many of the abandoned ancient cities that I have explored over the years. This forces me to reflect on the triumphs and catastrophic failures that led to the rise and/or abandonment of some of the greatest cities of antiquity.
In the artifacts and technologies of the present, I see the cultural origins and historical patterns that brought the gifts of civilization into the present. While we often take for granted the invention of much of what we construe as “modern” science and technology, my studies have permitted me to trace the origins of such well into antiquity. Our failure to more fully comprehend these rich cultural legacies and sources often permits us to embrace an ethnocentric view of the past, and one that does not warrant the arrogance of the present toward the peoples of the past.
Perhaps the most interesting way in which I visualize my everyday surroundings is that which permits me
to visualize and project what will remain of individual buildings, monuments, and communities with the passage of time. It is not uncommon for me to visualize heritage monuments such as that of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, or the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, and imagine their gradual decline and deterioration through the course of the centuries. Imagining what archaeologists might find of a long abandoned American city 500 years into the future is a constant source of interest to me. This mental “time travel” permits me to visualize the totality of the archaeological sites of the past in ways that permit me to more fully interpret their remains and ruins in the present.
Take for example my current project at Mission Nuestra Señora de la Soledad. During recent efforts to interpret the architectural history of the site, I used surface remains, and archaeologically recovered materials, to permit me to fully visualize the site in its heyday at circa 1812. As a result, I directed my students to probe the soils in the fields south of the Mission Soledad convento buildings, and it was there that we discovered the remains of the Neophyte Housing Area that once housed the Native Californians attached to the Mission proper. There, the Esselen and Salinan peoples erected their own residential compound or quadrangle, and one far larger than that that once housed the missionaries themselves. Upon recovering the first such evidence, I then found myself standing in the fields and looking north across the expanse of what once constituted the ancient settlement, and in those moments visualized the totality of Native Californians, missionaries, animals, tools, and buildings that once occupied those spaces. This thereby prompted my continued work, and that has borne much in the way of new revelations that further serve to corroborate my visualizations of the peoples and traditions of Mission Soledad.
As an archaeologist, you lead an active life, often outside and literally rolling up your sleeves to work with a team. As a scholar, you also lead a reflective life, working alone in libraries and writing books and articles. Is it hard to “shift gears” from one kind of work to the other?
For me the transition from the field to the lab and/or writing desk, and vice versa, is largely seamless, particularly as I see it all as a continuous experience…as a labor of love that encompasses some blood, sweat, many rewards, much excitement, and some tears. While in the earliest years of my career it was often difficult to transition from the excitement and team-based world of field archaeology to the solitude of the writing desk, archives room, or library, that is clearly no longer the case. I now look forward to every opportunity to advance the science, and have learned to easily take up the pen or the trowel as the occasion demands.
The latest technologies, particularly voice-activated transcription, now permit me to prepare notes or draft manuscripts on the fly. Many of my manuscripts are drafted on writing retreats in conference hotels or monastic settings, and these in cities far from my home base. Given my long experience writing on the run, I can now pretty much write and compose narratives in virtually any setting.
If you could be transported back in time to any mission in California, which one would it be and when? What would you try to find out there? I mean, is there a pressing question about the mission era that you could solve if time travel were possible?
While I have many pressing questions regarding the California and Southwest missions that I’d love to explore via “time travel,” for me the site that I have long studied and have been most passionate about in that regard is that of Old Mission San Juan Bautista. Given that I recently crafted a thoroughgoing architectural history of the site’s early history, and to that end recruited a graphic artist to assist me with visualizing the whole of the 1826 complex, it is that period that I would most love to see. At that time, Fray Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta, the noted friar and linguist, would have completed work on the build-out of the church and convento, as well as the Neophyte Housing Area; and his multiple hand-wrought treatises on Native Californian languages of the Monterey and San Francisco Bay regions would have been completed.
Were I granted the opportunity to meet with Fray Arroyo, I would seek to conduct an interview about his role in the construction of the Old Mission church and convento of San Juan Bautista. I would walk the whole of the Old Mission complex, including ancillary buildings, and travel to nearby Indian villages and rancherias in order to explore and visualize the totality of life in that time. One of my most pressing questions would be that related to the orientation of the church and how that may have been intended to capture the midwinter solstice or Epiphany sunrise. In other words, why was the church oriented as it was, and was this in any way related to the “Instrucciones” published by Saint Charles of Borromeo? Another question that I might ask of Father Arroyo would have to do with his interpretations of native belief systems and their differences or similarities to that of Catholic doctrine and or practice.
In the final analysis, I would be most interested in obtaining a firsthand Native Californian or Mutsun/Yokut perspective on their impressions of the missionaries and their lives in the Mission.
What is your own ethnic heritage? Do you think it has influenced your interest in uncovering facts about the missions during the mission era?
I am a descendant who can claim both American Indian and European roots on both sides of my family tree. On my father’s side of the family, my grandmother was of north Mexican or Sonoran Yaqui Indian descent, and my grandfather was the product of a long line of Spanish criollo or Mexican-born Spaniards who worked as bookkeepers to the Viceroyalty of New Spain. Whereas my grandmother was orphaned at an early age and knew poverty firsthand, my grandfather was born of privilege into a family with immense wealth and property.
On my mother’s side, my grandfather was an Hispanic cowboy on the family ranch, a Spanish land grant property, located in the former New Mexico Territory identified with the town of St. Johns, Arizona. I’ve traced my grandfather’s forbearers well into the early 18th century in New Mexico. My maternal grandmother was the granddaughter of Don Abraham Gonzalez Casavantes, the Mexican provisional and constitutional governor of the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. Gonzalez, who was the friend and political mentor of Francisco “Pancho” Villa, and was assassinated in the wake of the execution of the 33rd Mexican President Francisco Ignacio Madero González in 1913.
My heritage has clearly played a profound role in directing my interests and studies of the California and Southwest missions. My Indian forbearers invariably came into contact with, or were the product of the many mission Indian communities of northern Mexico and the Southwestern US. The missions in turn influenced the architectural and social traditions of many an Hispanic settlement, including those within which my Indian, Hispanic, and mestizo ancestors lived, toiled, and prospered. Given that I have longed viewed myself as a scholar of the Native American experience, my studies of the California and Southwest missions are ultimately an extension of my desire to more fully understand and appreciate my indigenous roots.
Professional and amateur historians alike note that there are lots of mission myths that pass for facts. If you could
correct once and for all a mission “fiction” that people keep repeating as if it were true, which one would it be?
Perhaps one of the most persistent, egregious, and politicized of those misconceptions that plague our understandings of the Mission Era are those that continue to characterize the missions as plantations defined by the enslavement of native peoples. One need only carefully examine those Mission Era documents penned by the friars and other settlers to obtain a richer and more nuanced view of how it was that Native Californians adapted to the changing conditions of the time. These same accounts similarly reveal just how it was that mission neophytes and their so-called gentile counterparts were self-governed and active agents in their own destinies. One such account consists of a handbook on how to found and manage a mission; and it is there that it is made clear that the neophytes had the right to select their own alcaldes or magistrates with the judicial and administrative authority to preside over the rights of their fellow neophytes. It is the myth, otherwise identified with that brand of Christophobic nihilism that serves to minimize or denigrate the contributions of Native Californians and missionaries in the California mission, that I would most like to address and challenge with the public.
This interview was conducted by email and completed on August 7, 2012. Thank you Dr. Rubén Mendoza for your illuminating remarks, and for adding your learned perspective to our Trail Blog.
Come meet Dr. Mendoza at Old Mission San Juan Bautista on September 5, 2012 when he will lead The California Mission Ride team and members of the public on special daytime and nighttime tours of the mission. Professor Mendoza will also preside over other events and a joyful reception honoring artists, writers, and photographers of San Juan Bautista. Follow the Calendar page of our website for updates and details.
For further information about Professor Mendoza, see the following Internet sources:
Click here for more information about the solstice research at Old Mission San Juan Bautista.
Rubén Mendoza is co-author, with David J. McLaughlin, of a wonderful sourcebook that also serves as a handy guide for visitors to the missions: The California Missions Sourcebook: Key Information, Dramatic Images, and Fascinating Anecdotes Covering All Twenty-One Missions (2009).
For other recent publications by Dr. Mendoza, please link to the following:
Updated August 10, 2012: Dr. Mendoza’s interview was updated to include the word “Cbristophobic” in place of another word.