Who among us does not wish for comfort? Once held, security is hard to release without the hollow feeling of desperate abandonment taking a fierce hold. Cold and scared, the newly destitute must wonder if it would have been better to have never known the wonders of a full belly, the delicate softness of silk or the freedom of travel and choice.
At least this is how I have long imagined and empathized with the forgotten fall of my Californio ancestors who lost their land, their way of life, and their privileged standing when California became a state of the union. Years of digging into the historic annals that depict their habits, clothing, character, prestige, intelligence and eventual vulnerability have fueled a longing to assuage this wound and restore their dignity through the only way I know how. Words. I tried to put these ghosts to rest through my published books (Latino Writer’s and Journalists and Rogelia’s House of Magic), two unfinished books (Born in Blood and Hauntingly Familiar) and a screenplay Standing Against the Storm: Toypurina’s Legend.
And still I shed tears for their pain.
You can’t imagine the swirl of emotions I felt watching Romeo and Juliet (playing now through November) at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, which placed the centuries old tale in Alta California in 1840s. As soon as I saw the silver buttons down the men’s pants, colorful sash at the hips and distinctive hat, plus the women’s full silken skirts and mantillas, I knew this was a family story come to life. I smiled broadly as if truly present to a Californio fiesta with the music that somehow has carried its tune in my heart for 200 years. I sighed when I saw the father daughter relationship between Don Capulet and Juliet that so reminds me of my grandfather and his love and protection. And the one book I still intend to breathe life into.
The American flag caught my breath though and it has stayed there, as a wall to a fresh set of tears.
From the program:
“The intimidating US occupation inevitably helps to aggravate the simmering feud between the two great families. For prominent Don Capulet, a marriage between his daughter and a respected American officer would prove highly advantageous in the face of the onslaught of the New Order. Conversely, for any ambitious American, an alliance with an aristocratic Californio family, with its wealth and political influence, would be a profitable coup.”
I must admit it is hard for me to ask for empathy via storytelling for privileged gentry. Perhaps I’m drawn to this attempt because I know as Americans we are the same. Children in our own land pick fruits and vegetables for our table, but enjoy none because it is too expensive. Children half way across the world wipe their desk clean of coal dust from the energy generated so that we may continue to use far more than our share of resources.
I want to get off this pedestal. But I fear the fall.