Early morning sunlight bounced off the Gulf of California, the water so blue you could lose yourself in it. The day was bright with a cloudless sky as I took the turn west into the Sierra de la Giganta mountain range, rising dramatically from the gulf shores. I had lodging at a delightful Inn in Loreto with the intent to visit the second mission on what is known as "The Royal Road," an historic corridor that follows north along the ancient route of the Spanish missions. The first mission was built in Loreto. A spring was found there and it created a natural selection site for building. Loreto was also the first Spanish settlement on the Baja peninsula. The second mission, San Fransisco Javier, is called "The Jewel of the Missions of Baja California" because of its beauty. It was completed in 1758.
The two lane road rapidly became switchbacks with steep long climbs around ancient volcanic stone. The arroyos were deep with signs of roaring flood waters now dry. It wasn't long before I began to wonder what drove the padres to face climbing into these mountains with all their precious religious icons. It had to be the greatest of passions to take their belief to a people who had lived here for thousands of years. The first people were the Guaycura Indians who shared their cultural borders with the Cochimies. The Franciscans would not have understood the people's spirit or how they believed, yet the padres forged ahead with the best of intentions into the unknown.
The terrain continued even more challenging with great grumbles of boulders that during heavy rains slide down the mountainside taking out huge sections of road. Never the less the going was good and the by-passes well done. Gripping the hillsides were the delicate and graceful Palo Blanco trees clustered with the Pitaya Dulce, also known as Organ Pipe Cactus. Pitaya has a humorous history. The interaction between the pious padres and the free-spirited Indigenous had some lighter sides it seems. The padres recorded the Pitaya fruit ripening and its harvest. It was bright red, sweet and very luscious. Pitaya gathering lasted for several months and the celebration within the tribal regions was lively. Being hunter/gathers they collected, ate, dried and fermented the fruit for the two month period. Since it was such a cause for celebration, many of the clans would come together. The young women of marrying age had to be very careful during this time. When combining youth with a sensuousness life in nature, then adding the fermented Pitaya juice, the romance that followed is not hard to imagine. However, this helped the unions to happen outside the small family units. When the padres first witnessed this euphoria of the people; the eating, drinking, dancing and lovemaking, it must have been tempting to criticize something so lascivious and different than their way of life. With a bit of humor, I wondered how the Indians would have written about the experience, if they had had a written language.
Onward and upward the road leveled out into open ranch land. Lazy winter streams wandered through palm and mesquite, pooling in white granite stone smoothed by millenniums of running water. It would have been a delight for the indigenous, as well as the padres to have this source of water to sustain life. Later, fruit trees and grapevines for the sacramental wine were brought in adding to the diet of deer, fowl and native plants. Today, this region is a developing wine country and very young at this point, but you can find a regional wine produced from the mission vines.
Entering the quiet sun-washed community of San Javier the peace seemed to permeate everything. The mission stood massive within the humble village. It was as if the need to approach with reverence was a gift bestowed by all the old ones who still lived in memory. On December 1st, 2nd, and 3rd, thousands of pilgrims find their way to the festival that honors this historic site. In 2013 a recorded 6,000 people made the trek. In a small town such as this, available parking and places to stay cannot handle a crowd of this size. Once the town fills, the faithful park on the road coming up the mountainside and walk, making this a true pilgrimage.
In silence, I stepped through the doorway made from heavy hand-carved wood and still claiming its original hinges. The stone floor is worn smooth by countless feet over the last 250 years. A stunning raredos behind the altar is covered in gold leaf from floor to ceiling. Carved figures of wood and stone were also covered in gold. These were done by skilled native artisans. To get the full effect, I sat in one of the pews. It was then I could see overhead the astounding labor, the skilled architecture to create the hand-carved arches and soaring cupola. My mind could not comprehend how the heavy blocks could have come together at the apex of the arch without falling. Looking closely at the stone work which was carved out of the mountains, the process and the precision was reminiscent of the Egyptian pyramids. And again, I was reminded that this was accomplished by the native hands that carved and carried each piece to build the mission skyward.
Stepping out of the cool shadowy interior into the white light of afternoon, the impact of the experience stayed with me. On the drive back down the mountain through the winding steep canyons, I had time for musing. I thought for all the mission's glory, the true beauty of what I had just seen was the statement of human accomplishment - the union between the padres with their fierce passion for God and the innocence of the indigenous craftsmen. Misión San Francisco Javier is a tribute to both.
Martina's email: mteomaya(at)gmail.com