Alta California - A Movie Script

Lynn H. Elliott

"To justify their plans, they took preexisting notions of their own centrality reinforced by their self-interested interpretation of the bible [my emphasis], and created a hierarchy of who could do what, who could own what, who was on top ["upper rung peoples from Europe"] and who was on the bottom and who was in between."  (Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, p. 23)

I am an immigrant. My birth country is Wales. At the age of 24, I emigrated to the United States, my adopted country, intent of completing higher degrees (MA/PhD) at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I subsequently taught in the English Department (six years as Chair of English) at California State University, Chico. Throughout, I have continued to write plays, novels, and screenplays.

Being an immigrant, particularly in my 20s, I came with some preconceived ways of seeing. This hit home when taking a class on the history of my adopted country. European history is filled with plots, domination, power grabs, the “story” being written by the victors. Yet, in my American history class there was little of this. It consisted primarily of white men, landowners, and the Constitution. Women, slaves, indigenous peoples? There was little mention of these.

I set myself a task: name one indigenous California tribe.  Two, five.  I failed.  And yet before “first contact,” there were 500 distinct sub-tribes in California speaking 300 dialects of approximately 100 distinct languages.

What had happened? Where was the beginning of the demise for the indigenous California peoples?

And so, I returned to the Mission Period in California, the first sustained contact between the indigenouis population and Europeans.

3-minute Vimeo of ALTA CALIFORNIA

Even that name, "the Mission Period," overlays a time of violence and enforced religion.  It was a time when a single-minded and resolute priest (Serra, whose name is identified with early California history), reinforced  a particuar interpretration of the Bible upon the indigenous peoples.  Given this, established Spanish priests and soldiers on the top rung were able to do whatsoever they wanted to those on the lowest rung, the indigenous peoples of California.  

The "Mission Period" also negates any reference to Captain Felipe de Neve, California's forgotten hero, and Serra's opponent.

The Canonization of Padre Junipero Serra was met with a violent reaction by the indigenous peoples of California: statues were torn down and defaced, and a mission, San Gabriel, was torched.

California Assembly Bill 338 9/27/2021 authorizes the removal of a statue of Padre Juniper Serra in the Capitol Grounds to be replaced by an homage to the indigenous peoples of California.

In 2022 land was  returned to the Mechooda tribe, "Hastings" law school was  renamed (Serranus Clinton Hastings authorized the killing of Yuki Indians in Mendocino County), and nearly 650 offensive terms for Native American women were removed from geographical features and place names in California.


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In the foreground of ALTA CALIFORNIA is the fictional account of a young man Paco Palido's, existential quest for a home, a place he belongs, amidst the horrors of a dominating, foreign power whose enforced "religion" has assigned his unbaptized mother to their Hell.

When Paco Palido's mother is slaughtered and his tribe wiped out, the half-breed boy is “saved” by a Franciscan priest.  His years in the mission school and attempts to Christianize him are unsuccessful.  The necklace his mother gave him is more powerful than any Christian symbol.  Throughout Paco has a choice: rediscover the life and religion of his indigenous mother, or accept the enforced religion and lifestyle of the European, Catholic conquerors whose religion condemns his mother to Hell.

Now a mission guard, Paco denies continued to reject any attempts to convert him.  Witnessing repeated whippings, treatment of “neophytes” (baptized heathens) as animals, the haunting words of a local chief, and the recurrent ghostly visions of his mother "now in Christian Hell"—all reinforce Paco’s inner struggle: “civilized” versus “heathen.”

Throughout Paco tries  to find his people, those with whom he belongs.   Eventually, after being captured by the “wild” Chumash of the Santa Barbara area, Paco is saved from death by a traditional necklace given him by his mother.  In a powerful scene during a “Big Meeting Celebration,” Paco talks with the ghost of his mother.  He has finally found her, among his people.  He also finds a new love interest, Ifapi, a “wild” native, so different from the passive “neophytes” (baptized natives) of the missions.

Woven into Paco's story as setting and background  is historical truth: 

  1. the Christianization and eventual demise of California Indians,
  2. The repeated clashes--true but conveniently forgotten in many history books--between the secular authority (Captain Felipe de Never), and religious authority (Padre Junipero Serra).   
  3. Captain Felipe de Neve was the third governor to confront Serra.  The first two were ineffectual.  Captain de Neve, a favorite of King Carlos, was excellent both as a military man and bureaucrat.
  4. With the white men racing from the East, drawn by gold, and the Spaniards preparing to leave California, there was a question of what to do with the "neophytes" (baptized mission indians).  Captain Felipe De Neve and King Carlos, the secular authorities, have one solution: return them to their tribal ways.  Padre Serra has another: leave them in the mission; God will protect them there.  How Serra won that battle is both conveniently forgotten, masterful and intriguing.  He won, De Neve, King Carlos and, eventually, the mission indians lost--with devastating consequences.   (see Edwin A. Beilharz, Felipe de Neve: First Governor of California, California Historical Society, 1971, and A Cross of Thorns, Elias Castello, Craven Street Books, 2015).

We live in challenging times.  Political, economic, religious, historical, and scientific questions abound in our changing world.  Amidst these demands, we all seek a home, a place we belong.

"The greatest mystery is not that we have been flung at random between the

profusion of matter and the stars, but that within this prison we can

draw from ourselves images powerful enough to deny our nothingness." 

Andre Malraux