Thousands stroll across, listen to music, and sit and enjoy the ambiance surrounding the center of San Luis Obispo cast against the backdrop of California’s oldest mission in its original location. Mission Plaza is the modern update but its origins predate any local history. Indeed, buried beneath the determined march of progress, it survived to be revived as a reminder of its civic evolution from spiritual outpost to modern utilitarianism.

Here’s the story.

The year recorded on the Mission’s belfry — 1772 —- memorializes the date on September first of the establishment by Fra Junipero Serra of the fifth of an eventual 21 settlements devoted to both the conversion and civilization of the natives in the area. Part of an epic tale of imperial expansion and pious beliefs, the saga of California’s mission history still creates awe and anguish to modern readers.

Certainly, worthy of future investigation, the establishment of the remote sentinel of the Spanish empire between two streams (arroyos) “on the summit of a low hill” included hopes and dreams of development. On that fateful day, however, nearly 250 years ago, the Spaniards under the command of Captain Pedro Fages assembled, complied with the necessary founding rituals but were just as anxious to continue south for San Diego. The nagging daily hunger was directing a concentrated e ort to reach the original settlement along the bay and relief from the desperation of the pioneering settlers. The next day, dreams were entrusted to one padre, five soldiers and two native companions with little to sustain them except their ingenuity and zeal to awake to another day.

In a relatively short period of time — less than 80 years — the same location would transition to be ruled rst by a new nation, Mexico, and then statehood in the Union. During all this time, the structures and the land became a fundamental part of the community’s growth. As with most of history, it is the ground that holds mute testimony, artifacts and clues as to the past.

What is seen today masks the result of many years of constant struggle. Shelter began as primitive structures of poles, and branches called a ramada sheltered both man and beast. The immediate landscape provided the small trees to construct poles and brush to use as a cover. There were frequent trips to bring water from the nearby creeks to the nascent settlement.

Within two years of its founding, the small settlement first welcomed Juan Bautista de Anza as he and a few men charted a passage from the southwest across the deadly reaches of the desert to eventually reach the Spanish capital at Monterey. In 1776, as the eastern states entered a centennial of freedom from colonial rule, Anza and a band of pioneers were nearing the end of an incredible journey begun in October 1775.

The caravan’s arrival “was a matter for very great and mutual joy.” Assembled before the wood and adobe structures, chanting their praise and thanks to God, the dirt plaza hosted its first community celebration.

The church bells had announced the rare occasion as visitors found their way via today’s Price Canyon across the marsh to the huddle of huts known as Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa. The grandeur was in the accomplishment; not in the reception. With little rest and again with bells and a few musket bursts, the caravan continued only to halt as a feared, but unwarranted, uprising required attention.

Today, in recognition of one of America’s great pioneers, the de Anza trail markers commemorate a valiant and determined effort to settle a new land.

As the settlement’s population grew, so did the ability to construct
the necessary adobe bricks — by the thousands — to build a church and surrounding structures. There was no such delay in complying with the prescribed rituals of assembly and procession necessary in the spiritual quest toward eternity. The land was expected to produce a variety of crops and sustain animals, but it also served as a platform for the mis- sion’s inhabitants to celebrate and worship during the prescribed calen- dar of church life. It would also become since the 1970s part of today’s ambiance…the city’s plaza. While the various industries necessary for survival clustered about the interior mission area, its outer boundaries, especially facing the entrance to the church were necessary to reenact both the solemn and festive occasions for the growing population. There were many, including the submersion beneath progress.

After de Anza stopped to visit, the few inhabitants assembled around the primitive structures to watch most burn to the ground. Revenge for tribal insults brought natives from the tulares to seek retribu- tion at the ends of flaming arrows into the receptive dry brush and branches of the mission. Another story for another day, a much more serious and potentially fatal fire visited the community in 1920.

Much imagination is required to visualize the evolution of the dirt transforming itself through use to become a civic reception hall for both the sacred and secular requirements to celebrate the coming eternity as well as the more mundane necessities of conversation
and contact. As if a protective parent, the mission invited others to build their futures nearby as the mission settlement was transformed into the county seat (1850s). And it welcomed increasing numbers to settle in and about the small town that grew from an agricultural outpost to under thirty thousand residents by the 1970s.

By then, Progress had marched unabated across the mission’s front- age until beneath the pavement and buildings, bygone and forgotten days of life without cars, tra c and noise seemed an inevitable con- clusion to the space filled with history’s ghosts.

In a remarkable remembrance, rather than cursing the darkness for forgetting the past, there was a candle lit for its celebration.

Joe Carotenuti

Contact: jacarotenuti@gmail.com.