The California Mission Projects: A Whitewashed Education

Julia Kemp

My memory of the fourth-grade mission project is one filled with popsicle sticks, white clay walls, and roses. Looking back, I see a mythologized fairy tale about the holy spaniards that came to California and worked together with the Native Americans to build a beautiful church. I realized that I was never quite told the true nature of the missions. I never quite knew the horrors of the spread of disease, the enslavement, and the deaths of so many native people. I began to wonder whether or not the Mission Projects should be taught in elementary school or if they should be taught the way that they are. The Missions were a huge historical part of California history, but they are taught with a disregard for the horrors of the Native Americans living in the Missions. The mythology and romanticism of the state’s Spanish mission era only silenced and erased the bloody past of the California missions.

When I visited La Purísima Mission in fourth grade, I remember learning little if anything about the lives of Native Americans in the mission. If I did learn anything, it was overshadowed by the facts about the rose garden or the demonstrations of candle and pottery making. I remember making bricks out of mud and clay just like the Native Americans made them, but I don’t remember learning about the forceful labor that the Native Americans were required to perform, or the harsh treatment they endured. One thing I do remember very distinctly is that the friar that led La Purísima was buried under the altar of the mission, and we spent a while discussing his lifetime and his great achievements. However, when we passed the vast graveyard filled with unmarked graves of the countless Native Americans that died, we barely discussed it. 

Like how the history of Thanksgiving has been unmasked as inaccurate,  I think that it is important to view the California Mission Projects in a new light. Still, the big question remains: should Mission Projects still be taught in schools and should they be taught the same way? Personally, I think that it is extremely important to know the history of the country and the state, but I think that it is even more important to know the truth of history and not to romanticize or to minimize the destruction of the Mission Projects and deaths of so many people. If the Mission Projects were to continue in elementary schools, they should be taught without the fairy tale. The whitewashed history of the California Mission Project silences the horrors of our past and does nothing to prevent the horrors happening today or in the future.