The factual history of this battle for the survival of the mission Indians of Alta California provides the backdrop to the fictional story of Paco Palido, a half-blood.
Paco Palido (“pale one”) is the child of a native woman raped by a Spanish solider. When his village is destroyed and his mother killed, the boy is “saved” by a Franciscan priest.
Now, ten years later, Paco serves as a mission guard. He is deeply troubled. Is he an unbaptized Christian or pagan? Who are “his people”? While Serra and Neve treat him as a potential neophyte (baptized Indian), others see in him “good Spanish blood contaminated with heathen filth.” (The question of whether heathens were animals and therefore had no souls was a theological debate that raged at this time.)
For Captain Felipe de Neve, the military representative of King Carlos in Alta California, Palido is an excellent, trustworthy mission soldier. In this position, Palido is privy to the political manipulations and violent confrontations the military and religious authorities in Alta California.
Palido also witnesses the violence of Spanish soldiers toward the native women. Two soldiers in particular, Sergeant Camacho and Corporal Francisco Cordero (actual historical figures) regard the natives as soulless heathen unwilling and unable to be tamed. As such, they use the natives, particularly the women, like wild animals available for personal sport.
Throughout, Paco is plagued by the recurring vision of his native mother, an unbaptized heathen now, according to the padres, in Hell. It is this that has preventing him from accepting baptism.,. He searches for his “home,” the place where he truly belongs.
Paco’s spiritual crisis intensifies in an encounter with the Chumash Indians of Santa Barbara. When participating in a powerful tribal ceremony, Paco “talks” to the spirit of his dead mother.
Two young women now occupy Paco’s thoughts: Maria, a submissive, domesticated baptized mission Indian, and Ifapi, a “wild” Chumash Indian and member of a warring tribe steadfastly refusing Christianization.
Meeting Ifapi and her tribe creates the ultimate spiritual answer for Paco. He has found his home. He is among his people.
But, before returning home to the Chumash, Paco has one last task. With the Spanish leaving Alta California, a decision must be made about the “neophytes” in the mission. King Carlos and Captain de Neve order the Indians be returned to their tribal ways. Paco travels to each of the mission, ensuring this order is carried out. But Serra bitterly opposes this, insisting that God will protect the indigenous peoples should they remain in the missions. Ultimately, using brilliant political subterfuge, Serra finds a way to obey the King’s order while disobeying it. Serra wins and gains sainthood, Neve loses and dies in relative obscurity. And the California Indians are left to face the onslaught of the white men from the Eas