By Blair Tellersby
When sightseers tour the centuries-old Spanish mission tucked off Highway 1 in Carmel-by-the-Sea, it’s likely they’ll admire the red-tiled roofs, the chapel’s aesthetic facade, the prominent dome bell tower, the exquisite gardens or the vast collection of liturgical art. For Louise Ramirez – a former Gilroy resident and Tribal Chairwoman of the Monterey-indigenous Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation – the landscape is far from romantic.
Her gaze drifts to the right of the sanctuary, where an adobe archway and wrought iron gate mark the portal to a mass grave filled with thousands of Ramirez’s ancestors. Most are buried in unmarked sites; more remains have been found scattered about the property.“The missions were our jails. They were where our people were enslaved, murdered, stuffed in the walls as insulation, tortured and raped,” Ramirez, 61, said.The cemetery archway is the first thing Ramirez, who now lives in San Jose, sees when she studies the Carmel Mission Express Mail stamp recently unveiled by the U.S. Postal Service.Created in “honor of nearly 250 years of California history,” the design is one of 20 to 25 stamps seen to fruition each year out of an average 50,000 ideas submitted to the U.S. Postal Service annually.A special ceremony commemorating the stamp’s first day of issue took place on 28th Feb 2012 at the historic Roman Catholic mission built in 1771, located 45 miles southwest of Gilroy where it overlooks the ocean in Monterey County. It served as headquarters for Father Junipero Serra, who was buried beneath the chapel’s floor when he died in 1784. Today, the Carmel Mission has been designated a National Historic Landmark and is an active parish of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Monterey.
Citing “discomfort and concern with the unveiling of the stamp” in a Feb. 16 letter addressed to U.S. Postmaster General Patrick Donahue, Ramirez isn’t the only one who feels the mission is undeserving of a positive limelight. Her concerns are echoed by Valentin Lopez, 60, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.While the Mutsun tribe is principally associated with Mission San Juan Bautista and the surrounding areas of Gilroy and Hollister, Lopez explains the Carmel Mission, “like the other Franciscan missions in California, was actively involved with the massacre and genocide of California Indians.”In a Feb. 8 letter to Postmaster Donahue, Lopez underlines the attempted, and in many cases successful, eradication of Native American languages, religious beliefs, social, political, ecological and cultural practices.“That the federal government can even contemplate commemorating such an institution … is especially offensive to those whose ancestors were subjected to the harsh conditions of Mission Carmel,” wrote Lopez, who lives near Sacramento.On behalf of the Mutsun, Lopez requested in his letter that the stamp not be released, and that “no honor be accorded to Mission Carmel.”As of Monday, Ramirez and Lopez said the postmaster had not responded to their letters. In attempts to contact Donahue, the Dispatch was referred to Augustine Ruiz, postal spokesman for the Bay Valley District who said the concerns expressed by Ruiz and Lopez are “perfectly understandable.”However, the U.S. Postal Service has no plans to halt the stamp’s release, he said.
The U.S. Postal Service’s release of a stamp 26 years ago honoring Father Junipero Serra, who is buried in the chapel floor of Mission Carmel, was also source of outrage for Native Americans, Lopez noted.“That’s why I was surprised to see this,” he said. “I thought they would have learned from (Serra’s) stamp.”Ruiz acknowledged the U.S. Postal Office will never be able to make everyone happy when it comes tothe development of new stamps. The selection process involves a citizen’s stamp advisory committee, which is made up of about 12 private citizens from “all walks of life” from around the country, Ramirez said.“While it does have some controversy, we realize that and wanted to make sure that everyone was included in the ceremony,” said Ruiz, referring to today’s event. “That’s why I reached out to Louise.”Above all, honoring her heritage through education and outreach is Ramirez’s eternal objective.“We’ve been in this situation before, and we feel that education is more important than not doing it,” said Ramirez, of her decision to speak at Mission Carmel today. “Nobody is going to know we’re here unless we take advantage of the opportunity to speak with the public.”(Source-gilroydispatch)