Alta California - A Movie Script

Lynn H. Elliott

"Before Columbus, your god did not exist in America!"

"They go inside a building to talk to their god.  We go out into the natural

world - and our Creator speaks to us'" (Lakota Man)

LOGLINE: In 1780 California, a mixed-blood scout, violently torn from his tribe, struggles to return to his people.

PACO PALIDO (fictional) is  the mixd-heritage scout central to "Alta California."   His story is divided into three sections: 

     1, The Madonna and child in the mission dissolve before PACO PALIDO’s eyes hurling him back to the Spanish attack on his native village where his mother was murdered before his eyes.  Paco, a mixed blood, is saved by a Franciscan friar, and taken to a boarding school.  Here he refuses to relinquish the "heathen" clamshell necklace given him by his mother in favor of a crucifix.  Nor does he accept baptism into the religion that condemns his unbaptized mother to its Hell.  Now a scout for Captain Felipe de Neve, Paco witnesses the soldiers’ continued mistreatment of the natives, even the baptized “neophytes,” and the continued disputes between Captain Felipe de Neve and Padre Junipero Serra.

     2, The clamshell necklace saves Paco when he is captured by the “heathen” Chumash Indians of Santa Barbara.  Here, a young woman, Ifapi, invites Paco to a ceremony where he meets the ghost of his dead mother.  Has Paco found his people once again?

     3, Paco has one final task on behalf of his people.  With the Spanish leaving California, what should become of the neophytes?  Remain in the missions, protected by God, Serra’s choice, or return them to their tribal ways, Neve and Paco’s?  Only one will win.  The “Good Padre" is determined! his way will win  The neophytes remain in the missions, making them easy prey to the advancing white men.  Paco returns to Ifapi and the Chumash.  He has found his lost home.

We, like Paco, are on an existential journey, struggling to find meaning in our lives.  Religious, political, social and other competing calls ring out demanding conformity.   In addition, recent actions and comments about the historical treatment of its indigenous peoples reinforce the importance of this story.  

"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)

Woven into Paco's story as setting and background  are  historical facts,  characters and truths: 

PADRE JUNIPERO SERRA (68), an historical figure.  Contemporaries describe him as proud, arrogant, determined to convert heathens, and refusal to compromise in his desire to convert the “savages.”   He was aware of how he was guilty of the sin of pride yet succumbed to it often.  The incident in which Serra slowly lowered his hands over a burning candle while performing Mass, and his frequent whipping of himself with chains, are recorded in historical books.  He is buried in the Mission, San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel, California. 

CAPTAIN (COMMANDANTE GENERAL) FELIPE de NEVE (60s), an historical figure.  Neve,  a descendant of a Spanish aristocratic family, served as fourth governor of the Californias.   He was tall, aristocratic, and powerful yet humane soldier, and King Carlos of Spain’s secular authority in Alta California.  Neve, Serra’s adversary, believed that all, even unbaptized, had basic, human rights.  He clashed often with Serra over attitude to natives, misspent monies, and authority over soldiers. 

Neve was married but, because of King Carlos’ trust in his bureaucratic expertise, Neve was shipped off to Mexico soon after his marriage.  Sadly, never once in the ensuing 27 years did he return to his wife in Spain.  He is buried in an unmarked grave, by his own choice, in Chihuahua, Mexico. 

Jean-Francois de la Perouse wrote that Neve “remonstrated against the practice of corporal punishment.”   He and Serra both died in 1784,

Neve wrote an ordinance (the Reglamento) “mandating the curtailment of the religious power of Fra Junipero Serra’s Franciscan missionaries.”  Some aspects of it are still the basis of today’s California laws.

Neve and Serra differered over what was to become of the "neophytes" (mission Indians) following the Spanish withdrawal.  Neve argued they should be returned to their tribal lands after voting for a "headman" to lead them.  Serra believed the neophytes should remain in the missions and that God would protect them.  History has answered who was correct.

Captain Felipe de Neve remains California’s forgotten figure.  There is a statue of him in Los Angeles, the settlement he founded. 

SERGEANT CAMACHO and CORPORAL CORDERO.  Actual historical figures.  Spanish soldiers who regarded all indigenous, even “neophytes” (baptized) as heathen animals, savages.  Historical accounts tell of women rushing to the hills if aware that these two soldiers were in a military column. 

Both desired to serve their time and return to Spain with soldiers’ pensions.


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, had one solution: return the natives to their tribal ways.  Padre Serra had another: leave them in the mission where God would protect them!  How Serra won that battle is both masterful, intriguing, Machiavellian, and conveniently forgotten.  Serra's victory was, however, devastating for the "neophytes" (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).

In 1851, California’s first Governor, Peter Burnett, told the Legislature to expect war “until the Indian race becomes extinct.”


Recounting California's dark history with respect to its indigenous peoples, Governot Gavin Newsom issued an apology in front of a group of Native American tribal elders on behalf of the State of California for a history of repression and violence.

Governor Newsom, in an emotional presentation, recited a published chronicle from the 19th century that listed a tally of Indian deaths, including an account of a white settler who chose to kill children with a revolver instead of a high-caliber shotgun because “it tore them up so bad.”

“It’s called genocide,” Governor Newsom said. “That’s what it was, a genocide. No other way to describe it. And that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books.”    June 18, 2019




"Serra's legacy in California has been reevaluated in recent decades in light of the many native peoples who were forced to live and work at the missions where they endured physical abuse.  Thousands died."  (Adam Beam, Associated Press, Chico E-R, November 15, 2022). 

"Junipero Serra was a brutal colonist.  So why did Pope Francis just make him a saint?"  VOX magazine, September 24, 2015. 


Reaction to the Canonization of Padre Junipero Serra by Pope Francis in 2015:

  1.  Statues of Serra were defaced and torn down.
  2. Mission San Gabriel was destroyed by fire.
  3. 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.  Serra's statue was replaced by that of William Franklin, Sr. who worked to preserve the [Miwok] culture including its traditional dances.
  4. In 2022 land was returned to the Mechoopda tribe.
  5. "Hastings" law school was renamed (Serranus Clinton Hastings authorized the killing of Yuki Indians in Mendocino County).
  6. Nearly 650 offensive terms for Native American women were removed from geographical features and place names in California.
  7. Governor Newsom of California has apologized to indigenous peoples of California for the state's "history of repression and violence."


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.

Paco is invited to return to the Chumash camp the next morning--ALONE!    Serra explodes when he hears that Neve has ordered that Paco will go alone.

I won’t be here in the morning. Do 
you think I wait for authorization from Captain de Neve while this—

Say it! This heathen who remains 
unbaptized! Whose mother was a savage, a whore whose soul burns in the everlasting flames of your Christian Hell. Eternal damnation. Say it!

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.