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San Estevan de Rey Mission Church

Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

July 12, 1596 A.D.  The Spanish galleon San Felipe set sail from Manila to Acapulco, carrying Franciscan friars and cargoes to Spain’s new colonies in the Americas. The ship ran into typhoons and was disabled, it drifted towards Japan and ended up in Shikoku. The local daimyo Chosokabe turned out to be unfriendly to the foreigners and confiscated the cargoes. Perhaps as a veiled threat during negotiation, a senior crew member boasted about the Spanish colonial empire, and hinted that Spain conquered her colonies by sending Christian missionaries to convert the natives, followed by conquistadors. When the powerful Shogun Hideyoshi learned about that, he ordered Franciscan missionaries in Japan to be arrested. Seven months later, six Franciscan friars along with twenty Japanese Catholic tertiaries were crucified on a hill in Nagasaki. Within a few years, Japan would enter the Edo period, imposing Sakoku (closed country) policy with strict controls over foreign trades and religions, until commodore Mathew Perry re-opened her doors to the West three centuries later.

1598 A.D.  While these were happening in Japan, the King of Spain Phillip II directed conquistador Don Juan de Onate to conduct raids against Native American Pueblos as part of the campaign to colonize Santa Fe de Neuvo Mexico (present New Mexico). The Acoma Pueblo fought back and killed twelve of the invaders. The following year, Onate attacked with a bigger force armed with a cannon. What followed was a horrific blood bath. Five hundred Acoma men along with three hundred women and children were killed. Those who survived were taken prisoners. Penalties included slavery for the women and amputation of a foot or hand for the men. The Puebloans were forced to convert to Catholicism and forbidden to practice their traditional religions.

The San Estevan de Rey Mission Church was built on top of the Acoma mesa. Using enslaved natives, timber was transported from Mount Taylor 40 miles away, tons of materials were carried up a steep trail onto the mesa. Like many missions built on pueblo lands, the mission was built with defense in mind. Its massive structure included a residence for the priest. The main walls were up to 7-ft thick; windows and balcony were set high up the walls. It was a magnificent architecture, yet all these defensive measures did not prevent the resident priest from being killed during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt against Spanish subjugation.


Enchanted Mesa from Acoma  Photo  Tim Wong

December 26, 1992 A.D.  Kuro-e drove past a road crew picking up thousands of paper bags and candle stubs, left-over farolitos lining both sides of the long road during Christmas. The road led towards an imposing mesa surrounded by sheer cliffs. On top was the Acoma Pueblo - People of the White Rock - also known as the Sky City. Kuro-e stopped at the visitor’s center to join several others to visit the pueblo.

A shuttle van took the group to the top of the mesa via a steep dirt road. A young guide with a round face named Jay met them and started the tour with a reminder, “Remember people live here, please respect the residents’ privacy.” Jay led the group past blocks of connected adobe houses, recounting the pueblo history as if reading from a textbook. The group stopped in front of a rectangular house with no door or windows, an white wooden double-ladder leaning against the roof. Jay explained, “This building is a ceremonial kiva, accessed from the rooftop. Some of you may have seen underground kivas in other pueblos. The ground here is too hard to dig, so our kivas were built above ground.” Kuro-e noticed a hole in the wall behind the ladder and asked about it. Jay looked a little surprised, he paused for a moment before answering, “In our traditions, women do not enter the kiva, that hole is for communicating with the men inside.” The tour ended at a cemetery surrounded by a low earthen wall in front of a tall and massive church with a commanding panoramic view of the surrounding country.

Many Native people had gathered outside the church, women wrapped in wool blankets, elderly men sitting around a bonfire, aroma of juniper smokes filled the air. They seemed to be waiting for something. Suddenly, the heavy wooden door of the church swung open. People started streaming into the church. Kuro-e followed. The interior was empty except for two rows of folding chairs lining the perimeter of the room. Elders found their chairs and sat down, facing the center. Kuro-e squeezed behind some chairs and stood with others against the walls. As more people were streaming in, some waved across the room to relatives and friends, young children played on the floor in the center. Kuro-e struck up a conversation with a grey-haired woman from Germany next to her. Neither of them knew what was going to happen. Looking around, she noted that the altar was decorated with old Christian religious paintings, but the walls were painted with Native symbols of corn plants and rain clouds. After standing for a long while, she started to feel cold and folded her arms tight against her chest.

That was when she heard the faint ethereal rhythmic jingles that seemed to come from nowhere. The crowd suddenly fell silent. The jingling grew louder and closer, now joined by rhythmic drumbeats and chanting. All of a sudden, the room echoed with deafening drumbeats - boom, boom, boom – as the singers marched through the entrance chanting. Two columns of dancers streamed in, men in ceremonial clothing - white leather skirts with blue and turquoise motifs, decked out with peacock and eagle feathers, pink and orange chrysanthemums. Some donned fox skins in white, grey, or brown. They were followed by women in beautiful white dress with colorful trims and motifs, silver bells tied to their arms and ankles jingling with the dance tempo. The dancers moved in unison, arms swaying, feet stamping with the drumbeats, circling the room one way then the other. The atmosphere was electrifying, the audience mesmerized. The dance went on for a long time. A shaft of afternoon sunlight broke through a high window and shone on the face of a seated elder Native woman wrapped in a colorful scrawl, who appeared to be in a trance. Kuro-e closed her eyes, transported to a time long ago, a time before the church was built, before Columbus ever set sail for the New World.

The drumming and dancing abruptly stopped. That brought Kuro-e back to the present. The dancers filed out of the church in silence, their expression stoic. The audience remained quiet and respectful, no one moved or applauded, the only sound being the jingling from the dancers' silver bells, fading away. This was not a show. This was a ceremony, an affirmation that despite centuries of outside meddling and suppression, their ancient culture had endured.


Rectangular kiva with double-ladder 

Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano 

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