Friday, February 28, 2014

CA History - Juana Briones Exhibit

We went to the California Historical Society's exhibit on Juana Briones and had a tour in Spanish and English, courtesy of two volunteer docents.  She's a fascinating woman, really the emblem of an era of change.  Her parents were early immigrants to California, both half African, half Spanish.  They were part of an expedition that took a year to walk from Sonora in northern Mexico to Santa Cruz.  When she was ten, Mexico took over this part of California.  She married at 18 at Mission Dolores and was one of the few people living in the tiny town of Yerba Buena, what is now San Francisco.  We glimpsed what life was likely like living on a frontier, learning to cook and to be a healer from both Mission priests and Native Americans.  She had 11 children, three of whom died of measles, and an abusive husband, whom she left.  She owned a dairy in what now is Washington Square and a ranch in what is now Palo Alto.  She was one of 66 women granted land grants from the Mexican government and one of the only to have her grant acknowledged when the American government took over control of California in 1846.  She saw the gold rush and the incredibly rapid change that came with that and lived through the changes wrought by the silver rush, the transcontinental railroad, and more.  She likely saw Ralston Hall built and even the house that we live in, come to think of it, since she lived into the 1880s, when our house was built.

I knew enough about her to have been really anticipating this tour with pleasure.  As an exhibit, it was a bit static and some of the artifacts were a stretch to include (i.e. a side saddle that could have been like one she used).  But other artifacts brought the history we've been studying to life, like actual lithographs from Russian Ludwig Choris, who was one of the characters a mom in our group played at Ft. Ross.  And to see the actual Mexican grants, which almost look like a child's drawing on a napkin, compared to the much more official American documents brought that historic conflict more sharply into focus as well.

We were asked later why she was worth knowing about.  We came up with two answers:  I said that she represented some very interesting, brave, and tough female pioneers whose personal narratives were fascinating parts of early CA history.  Another mom reflected on the "three flags" element of her personal story, the experience of being a living witness to so much history.  What it takes to survive and thrive in such an environment is a story of resiliency, one we'll draw from in ongoing reflections.

A wall from her rancho; all that is left
Fanciful depictions of her parents, not looking at all like they are African and Spanish.  Hmmm...
Mexican Land Grant (looking pretty informal)
American Land Grant (a formality difference)
Learning about local plants used for healing

There was clear bias in the presentation; nothing overtly offensive, but with blame cast and accolades given selectively.  K noticed and we had an interesting conversation about primary and secondary sources and assessing critically the perspective being shared.

Overall, a rich and interesting learning experience!  So grateful to the friends who set it up and the docent volunteer time.

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