An American Vandal Abroad
I had from Mr. Twain a handbill announcing his lecture, “An American Vandal Abroad,” with hand-written details of time and place. My Castilian Spanish, with help from the Esperanto summary at the bottom, were sufficient to give me the gist. He would speak on “ and the Holy Lands… Doors open at 7 o’clock, the trouble to begin at 8.”
Mark Twain spoke in a drawling, twangy Spanish, referring frequently to a thick sheaf of notes in Spanish, translated from one of his London lectures, and reading passages from the Spanish edition of The Innocents Abroad. Marina Miranova was on hand at the side of the stage, to translate questions from the audience and the offhand remarks Mr. Twain made in English.
He did passably well on his own. He threw in many English and Esperanto words, even a few Russian and French terms. Some of his jokes fell flat, victims of translation and his Confederate accent. But his enthusiasm and warm, lively delivery carried him and the audience over the rough spots. The applause for Mr. Twain was sustained and sincere. However, on the landing in front of the hall during the interval, I talked to two Serran clerics who took issue with his remarks about missionaries. (In church on Sunday morning the missionaries will make you wish you were back with the mosquitoes.)
“He judges all missionaries by the Protestants,” priest number one complained to me. He had large bushy eyebrows that caught the light from the torches lining the jetty and cast ever-changing shadows over his cheeks.
Priest number two had a prominent nose with a rat-like hump in the middle. He pointed to the entablature above the door to the lecture hall. “This hall is named after ,” he explained. “He was the founder of our order and the greatest missionary of all time.”
“Didn’t he become pope?” I asked
“Eventually, yes,” the priest with the eyebrows replied, “But at first he was a humble Franciscan friar. Father Serra came to Mexico City in 1750, just another Spanish refugee like all the other religious dissidents, free thinkers, conversos Jews, and Moors fleeing the in Spain.”
“He was washing the floor in a chapel in Mexico city,” Father Ratnose chimed in, “When he had a vision. A voice told him to travel north and bring the good news to the Indians.”
“Is it a vision,” I had to ask, “If you don’t see anything? If you just hear a voice?”
They looked at me with pity, as if I had inadvertently made a scatological reference in an unfamiliar tongue.
“Serra was a different kind of missionary,” Father Eyebrows continued. “He considered the Indians people, just like white men. His idea of the good news included making sure the Indians had arable land, tools, and the time to use them. He fought the Viceroy’s friends who wanted to reserve the best land for themselves.”
Ratnose laughed. “Mexico city was very upset. The better he treated the Indians, the more he fell behind his superiors’ timetable. They wanted him to claim all of California for Spain, before Russia could grab it. Serra wanted to create heaven on earth. So naturally he was defrocked, excommunicated, and ordered back to Mexico City. And just as naturally, he declared himself Innocent the First, the first Western Pope.”
They cackled gleefully, savoring the joke.
I asked, “But how could he get away with that? Why didn’t they arrest him and drag him back?”
“You have to realize,” Eyebrows explained, “this was when Mexico was fighting for independence from Spain. Most of the Spanish soldiers in Alta California had been recalled to Mexico and replaced with native militia, who were loyal to Serra above all.”
“A detachment was sent from Mexico City to arrest Serra,” said Ratnose, “But they mysteriously disappeared. While Mexico was busy breaking away from Spain, Serra quietly walked off with Alta California, proclaiming it a Republic. His militias seized the large ranchos and broke them up. Serra instituted land reforms and some canny ex-Jesuits set up our courts. Now anyone can own land or hold office—Indians, merchants, blackamoors, Jews, cowboys, miners—whoever. There are even some white Protestant Americans farming the marshes down in San Rafael.”
“By the time Mexico City could spare troops to object,” Eyebrows concluded, “It was too late. They had been outflanked by the greatest missionary of all time.”
© Patrick Fanning, 2012