The Bells Toll. But for Whom?

California is home to some 500 bells like this one across from Carmel Mission. The bells started as a tourism campaign—to evoke a sentimental view of the state’s Spanish rancho past—but have evolved for many into a symbol of the era’s oppression.
California is home to some 500 bells like this one across from Carmel Mission. The bells started as a tourism campaign—to evoke a sentimental view of the state’s Spanish rancho past—but have evolved for many into a symbol of the era’s oppression.
The iconic Camino Real bells recall California’s checkered missionary past. What do they say about our future?

If you’ve driven California highway 101 or 82, you’ve seen them: cast-iron and concrete bells, standing miles apart like sentinels, from San Diego to Sonoma.

The road has another name—a once and future name—recalling cruelty carried out at a king’s command in the name of faith. California’s heritage was plowed in the path of El Camino Real, a road featuring bells that don’t actually ring, on a highway that didn’t actually begin in California. This camino began as interconnected trails bridging indigenous communities from central Mexico north to Alta California, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas and south into Central and South America. With the arrival of Spanish settlers, the trade route was transformed into El Camino Real—the king’s highway—which expanded the trails to connect Mexico City to Spain’s northern and southern settlements.

The modern story of El Camino Real and the bells that demarcate its path starts shortly before the 20th century, with the publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s romantic novel of Mexican California, Ramona. Set after the Mexican-American war, it tells the story of a beautiful orphan girl who is half Native American and half Scottish and her quest to claim both love and identity. Ramona was Jackson’s attempt to publicize the genocidal treatment of Native people at the hands of the government, but its sentimental depiction of Southern California as a land of gallant vaqueros and haciendas draped with bougainvillea also captured readers. The novel was an instant hit. And once again El Camino Real beckoned, not with promises of trade, faith, or gold but with starlit balconies and the echo of a strummed guitar.

With the popularization of the automobile some years later, seeing Ramona’s world—and visiting the 21 Spanish missions that dotted the state’s landscape—became much easier. But it took another writer, named Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes, to light the fire needed to refurbish the old camino. Her vision led to a picturesque tourism campaign in the early 1900s, funded in part by the Automobile Club of Southern California, the California Federation of Women’s Clubs, and the Native Daughters of the Golden West, to install mini bells along the highway. Now totaling approximately 500, the bells were meant to evoke a Spanish California where dreamy stories of romance and adventure wafted roadside to the sound of mariachi serenades. If the essence of El Camino Real is a combination of myth and historical fact, its legacy today is a paradoxical journey of reckoning and beauty created by those who resist the power of oppression.

A bell outside Mission Dolores in the heart of San Francisco.CHRIS HARDY
A bell outside Mission Dolores in the heart of San Francisco.

The reckoning was a long time coming, and it began with the publication in 2015 of Elias Castillo’s book, A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions, which retold the story of the cruelty and genocide suffered by California Native people at the hands of Spanish colonizers. While documentation of this history has existed since the missions were established, tribal leaders hailed Castillo’s investigative narrative as the first fully accurate and complete accounting of the mission atrocities. Valentin Lopez, chair of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band of the Costanoan/Ohlone Indians, told that history at UC Santa Cruz and connected it to a mission bell located on campus. As a result of news coverage, a movement to remove all the highway bells was energized. The first to go was the one at UC Santa Cruz.

This advocacy also affected a long-running component of the state’s fourth-grade curriculum: the California 4th Grade Mission Project, which required elementary school students to build a model mission. If you’re a Californian raising kids, it’s likely you know the pleasure of gluing hundreds of sugar cubes together to build adobe facsimiles, complete with tiny toy bells posted on popsicle sticks. In 2016, California’s Board of Education adopted a new framework for instruction of history and social science. Its guidance: say no to the Mission Project.

“Building missions from sugar cubes and popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many,” says the framework. Helen Hunt Jackson’s original vision in writing the story of Ramona was renewed. “Some American Indians have likened the mission projects to projects that require students to re-create plantations in the American South or concentration camps in Germany,” said Tuyen Tran, assistant director of the California History Social-Science Project.

Books like A Cross of Thorns and the journals of soldier-explorers like Jean François de Galaup, comte de La Perouse chronicle California’s early plantation culture, where, as La Perouse described in 1786, “men and women are collected by the sound of a bell; the resemblance [to a plantation] is so perfect that we have seen both men and women in irons…and the noise of the whip might have struck our ears.” Out of these acknowledgments an anti-bell movement emerged.

Others argue against removal. At academic conferences, in books like Gregory Orfalea’s 2014 biography of Junípero Serra, in op-eds, historical diaries, and modern liturgical apologies, and even in anthropological studies of the scientific illuminations of sunlight in mission architecture, consideration is asked for the cultural lessons mission history provides. This is our perennial question: Whose voice governs our acknowledgment of heritage and its ideas? If a fake bell falls out of favor, and no one is around to agree, does it make a righteous sound?

The cynic’s answer ignores history; the camino is a strip-malled transit artery in need of a bullet train. But El Camino Real bears witness to everything that makes us human—our dual capacity for cruelty and love, empathy and selfishness, grace and lack of mercy. It’s fair to ask what that testimony actually looks and sounds like.

For many drivers, a common place to see the bells is along California highway 101 or 82, or El Camino Real; this gold-painted bell sits in front of San Bruno City Hall.CHRIS HARDY
For many drivers, a common place to see the bells is along California highway 101 or 82, or El Camino Real; this gold-painted bell sits in front of San Bruno City Hall.

It’s a song of itself. It came from a blending of cultures and creativity by people who encountered one another through music and storytelling, through design and nature. It’s the memoir and poetry of Native American writer Deborah Miranda, or a play like Octavio Solis’s Mother Road, or “Yanga,” a new work for orchestra from Mexico’s Gabriela Ortiz. It’s reflective of a place and time like John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath or the sublime musical syncretism created by indigenous mission composers of the Mexican baroque period. The theatrical elements of the baroque mass—the music, the proscenium, the costumes, the curated pageantry—were intended to beguile Native people into adopting Christ. But their adaptations created new music so profound, even nonbelievers were moved.

The highway bells of El Camino Real are installed without clappers to prevent theft. This removal of their essence might symbolize America’s legacy of manifest destiny. Or it might offer another possibility—the idea of restoring voice. The highway bells were born out of Ramona’s story. And in the end, even as she finally claims peace with a new love, Jackson writes, even in a new world, “Ramona might well doubt her own identity.”

But old roads have a habit of reclaiming trampled identity or the memory of treasured stories. The bells of California’s missions had many purposes. They rang to call people to prayer, to mourn, to work, to form a community, to force a community, to imagine good and evil. And while the highway bells are silent, their call is perhaps the strongest: to come together and imagine a new path of reconciliation.

Marcela Davison Avilés wrote about The L Word for Alta, Winter 2020.


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