Times Past

Ahead of SLO Responds benefit, a look at the area’s historic connection to Puerto Rico

Damage from Hurricane Maria near where Father Junipero Serra, founder of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, landed at the 1749 in Old San Juan in 1749.
Damage from Hurricane Maria near where Father Junipero Serra, founder of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, landed at the 1749 in Old San Juan in 1749.

“Talk less; save saliva!” was the advice given by Father Junípero Serra, founder of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, to grumblers aboard the Villasota on its 50-day voyage from Cadiz, Spain to Puerto Rico.

They nearly exhausted the supply of water two weeks before reaching Puerto Rico. The ration was cut to little more than a quart a day. Serra gave this advice, “I have found a good remedy against feeling thirsty; and that is, to eat little, to talk less and so save my saliva.”

The other Franciscans on board were upset because the captain prohibited them from making a chocolate beverage from their meager supply of water. But Serra endured these privations and rejoiced on Oct. 18, 1749 when he heard the watch cry out, “La tierra!”

The Villasota entered the inner harbor of San Juan, Puerto Rico. A pueblo of about 4,000, it had abundant banana and papaya growing along the streets. The population was a mixture of Spaniards, Indians, black Africans, French and English. “The new race” of mestizos and mulattos that had evolved on the island astonished the Franciscan and Dominican priests coming off the ship.

San Juan was slightly smaller than Serra’s birthplace of Petra on the island of Mallorca. But the homes and other buildings were limited to one story in height and flat roofs because of the frequency of earthquakes and tropical storms.

Water was collected from the frequent rainstorms in cisterns at each dwelling and business. The island had gone without priests for nine years.

Serra’s superior, Father Manuel Cardon, directed him to lead a rosary in the chapel of La Concepción. Serra astonished Cardon and the other travel-weary friars by announcing that he would “begin a mission so long as the ship remains in the harbor.”

A “mission” in this sense was a dawn-to-dusk retreat with hymns, motivational sermons and devotional exercises. The little chapel couldn’t accommodate the crowd, so Serra’s “mission” had to be moved to the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista.

The retreat lasted two weeks. With all 20 priests hearing confession, Serra’s companion and biographer, Francisco Palóu, wrote that the entire populace of San Juan confessed.

The Franciscan academic had become a missionary, following a path that would take him to the remote Sierra Gorda region of Mexico and eventually to San Luis Obispo.

Another link between San Juan and SLO is about to happen. In September 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. Estimated fatalities range between 547 and several thousand. The island’s infrastructure was destroyed. Hundreds of thousands are homeless.

I just made phone contact with Samuel Pagán, who lives in San Juan.

He is studying animation at a university that was about a 45-minute commute from his home. Now he needs to get up at 4 a.m. to avoid the congestion along damaged and often closed roads, and it still takes him 2-3 hours. Families travel long distances for drinkable water and then pay upwards of $30 for 5 gallons.

Craig Russell, a renowned expert on California mission music and music of the Americas, has organized “San Luis Obispo Responds,” a concert to benefit victims of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, the Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and the ensuing Monteceito mudslides.

Selections will include the music of Manuel de Sumaya, the most famous Mexican composer of the colonial period of New Spain, and music from the Bolivian Missions.

An amazing array of musicians, including Damon Castillo, Canzona Women’s Ensemble, Central Coast Children’s Choir, Vocal Arts Ensemble and vocalist Kathryn Summersett, will join Inga Swearingen with Guy Budd and Louie Ortega 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23.

Tickets cost $25, and all revenue will be donated to United Way, Direct Relief, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief. Donations at www.pacslo.org/online/article/sloresponds may be designated to go to Puerto Rican and/or Thomas Fire relief.

Tickets can be purchased at www.pacslo.org, the Cal Poly Ticket Office or by phone, 805-756-4849.

This column is by Liz and Dan Krieger. Liz is a retired children’s librarian, and Dan is Professor of History, Emeritus at Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo. He is past President of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at slohistory@gmail.com.