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Photograph by r.r. jones
An unlikely alliance: The Mission San Juan Bautista plays a key role in Santa Cruz culture.


Writer Don Rothman ponders the mysterious bond between modern Santa Cruz and historic Mission San Juan Bautista.

By Don Rothman

I DROVE to San Juan Bautista for the final Cabrillo Music Festival concert on a Sunday night several weeks ago. It was a rousing, loud, stimulating performance of four modern pieces. But the real charge for me was the gathering of so many people, many of whom I know, in and around the mission church.

We began watching for familiar faces at Los Jardines, the restaurant started by music festival supporter and artist Manny Santana decades ago, where we've often eaten. Walking from there to the huge 19th-century village square in front of the mission, the twilight cooled by fog and tinged by the slight scent of smoke from the Lockheed fire, we returned to a friendly place where our young children once romped around on the grass.

Standing at the lookout above the San Andreas Fault, across farms that lay in a valley of orderly beauty, we are also peering down at the original El Camino Real, the trail used by Spanish missionaries as they enforced their faith and religious practices on the Ohlone and other native people living in what became California.

The San Juan Bautista Mission church is a stunning building, a palimpsest of both this history of zealotry and of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo, whose final scene takes place in the belfry of the mission and in a studio facsimile. One cannot be there without seeing through these competing, overlapping scrims.

The facade of the mission church reminds me of New Mexico, Georgia O'Keefe's flat pastels and Ansel Adams' patiently earned hard-edged shadows with their memento mori evanescence. My eye searches the orifices of the belfry for evidence of details in the stucco texture brought into relief by the inevitable progress of dark shadows. I sit on a stone bench covered with piqué assiette, tesserae of colored glass and tile adjacent to rose bushes that grow improbably from dry sandy soil. The benches orient me to pay attention to the failing light on the vertical white column of flatness above the mission entrance--yet other evidence of how interested the mission's architects are in scripting experience, pointing out fault lines and sight lines, promoting inscriptions and offering an understated peek into a rugged graveyard where poor brown-skinned people lie buried, a reminder, by its locked gate, that not everything in history is accessible.

I am in a place used for prayer, modern music concerts and a sort of mediation of the two in the form of El Teatro Campesino, whose winter shows, La Pastorella and La Virgen de Tepeac, fill the polished umber clay tiled inner sanctum with a raucous reenactment of mystery, miracle, and the affirmation of music and dance as the tools of our salvation.

The mission, like a theater, is adorned with statues of saints and disciples, accompanied by their iconic animals: ram, sheep, lion. Like unlettered pilgrims before the talking walls of churches throughout the world, visitors here are reminded by these images of loyal faith; educated college graduates are awed by the simple dignity of sacred iconography and the naïve wonder many are denied.

I sit in awe of the spectacle on the walls, in the alcoves, the rough-hewn pulpit--empty tonight--that juts out above the congregation, the conductor, the renowned Marin Alsop, standing on her three-tiered podium, in her black slacks and jacket, leading a full orchestra whose members spill over from the nave into the side pockets of the resounding apsidals.

Throughout this concert, I see only a few violinists and some percussionists, because most of us are sitting at the same level. The music explodes over us, but I pay most attention to the people sitting around me. Nothing can happen in this church, however, to distract one from the church itself. It's always been this way for me in Mission San Juan Bautista, which is why I have always felt that the performances here pose no threat to the Catholic mass.

Nonetheless, when John Corigliano's music was performed here one summer in the Cabrillo Festival, the new priest, it was rumored, had trouble with the possible defilement of his church by modern compositions. Dressed in black, Corigliano looked like a priest as an acquaintance of mine approached him during intermission. Asking him how he was enjoying his new position as leader of the church, my acquaintance was embarrassed when Corigliano, redolent with Brooklyn accent, burst into loud laughter. As they parted, the composer promised to regale his New York friends with a California story to top all California stories.

Inside the mission, I am no longer in the California I know. It is no longer the present, either, although the time/space I occupy is more mythic than historical, even when my mind drifts to the bodies in the adjacent locked graveyard and to our own children 25 years ago playing on a kite-filled lawn, or to my mother accompanying me to a performance of Beethoven's Ninth, my mother and father-in-law enjoying a concert with the golden, rolling hills of California in the distance. My own memories become as immense as myth.

This is a site of reunions, not just in memory, but for neighbors and friends who have driven the 40 minutes south from Santa Cruz. These people annually renew their membership in a culture that includes San Juan Bautista as a site of mediation. The Catholic Church opens its old wooden doors to new, orchestral music, and to a largely secular audience who live forty miles away in a university town known more for its green politics, its gay and lesbian activism and its resistance to reckless growth than for its piety.

But we meet here, as we meet our diverse neighbors at performances of Shakespeare plays, drawn together by a desire to experience art in each other's presence. San Juan Bautista represents a moment of centrifugal force in our summer community. For decades, the final two concerts have occurred outside of town, as though the energy generated for two weeks in the WPA-era Civic Auditorium explodes beyond the north-south borders that so often seem impermeable.

The final concert transcends our city boundaries, and the caravans of music lovers that head south on the final Sunday witness an old trail. Instead of seeking converts or trying to save pagan souls along the Camino, we are looking for a different kind of transcendence and a different sort of camaraderie from the missionaries. To achieve both, it occurs to me, we need to leave our homes and be welcomed into art's sanctuary.

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