The Memory Keeper is the story of Tomás Romero, a native of the Acjachemen band, born in 1820 on San Juan Capistrano.
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Larry K. & Lorna Collins
The Memory Keeper is the story of Tomás Romero, a native of the Acjachemen band, whom the Spanish renamed Juaneño. Born in 1820 in San Juan Capistrano, Tomás attends the mission school where, in addition to the catechism, he learns to read, write, and cipher—uncommon for the Indians in San Juan at the time. Because Tomás assists the padres, he becomes aware of the world outside the small religious community.
During his lifetime, he experiences the rule of Spain, Mexico, and finally, the United States. He survives drought, floods, plagues, the secularization of the mission property, and its return to the church. He also marries, raises two children, makes many friends, and provides assistance to the priests. He becomes co-owner of a mercantile. Although his story is rich with local history, it is, in the end, an engaging family saga with characters who come alive on the pages.
In the end, only memories remain. They flit through my mind in fragments like elusive butterflies. I attempt to grasp them, but they flutter away quickly. I am in the winter of my life. I can feel it in my bones, in my breath, in the weakness of my muscles. I am an old man of nearly seventy years. I’ll soon be the first in my family to reach this milestone.
So many changes since my birth in San Juan Capistrano. So many people have come and disappeared. Faces flash through my mind clearly. Then they fade away.
My first memory is of my mother’s voice, gentle, soothing, rumbling as my head rests against her breast. I feel her warm breath on my cheek as she speaks. “Noshuun—my heart.” I’m cocooned in her arms, and I’m safe.
She speaks a language all but forgotten, certainly unknown to my own children and grandchildren. Now, at the end, I regret not passing Noyó’s language and her stories down to them.
But her ancient tales remain alive, captured in my heart. Along with the teachings of the church, they formed the foundations of who I became and how I raised my own family.
When I close my eyes, the memory of her voice returns.
“The all-powerful spirit, Nocuma, made the world, the sea, and all the plants, fishes, and animals. The world spun in Nocuma’s hands. Later, Nocuma created man, Ejoni, and woman, Ae, out of the earth.
“Much later, a leader came from the stars and taught them how to fish and hunt. He gave them laws, rites, and ceremonies, and danced before them in feathered clothing with his skin painted red and black. His name was Chinigchinich.
“Then he took the chief and the elders aside. ‘You will be called Publem. You will be the leaders of these peoples.’ He taught them how to heal and care for the sick. And he taught them to dance. He told them, ‘Do all these things in the name of Chinigchinich, which means all-powerful. He is everywhere. He knows everything. Chinigchinich made the people from the clay of the ground. You will dress in feathers and lead the dance. Paint your skin black using the charcoal of your fires, red from the red ochre, and white from the clay of the earth from which you were formed. Dance at all your grand feasts. Build a temple for sacrifice and worship. In the temple, only teach the laws and ceremonies I will give to you. Obey me or face terrible misfortune.’
“The rest of the people were called Sorem, meaning people who do not dance.
“Before Chinigchinich returned to the stars, he told our people, ‘When I leave you for Tolmec, I shall always be with you. Those who have obeyed my teachings shall receive all they ask of me. They will join me in Tolmec where there is plenty to eat and drink and much dancing. But I shall punish those who have not obeyed. The bears and snakes will bite them, food will be short, and they will become sick and die.’
“After Chinigchinich rose to Tolmec, he became Quagar. His memory is sacred to our people.”
My younger brother never listened to Noyó’s stories. Even as a baby, he rarely stayed in one place for any length of time. Though we were only four years apart, we were very different.
My father, Noná, knew other ancient stories. His family came from the mountains where the legends were different from those of Noyó’s people, who’d originally lived near the sea. But my father gave up the old ways when he embraced the new religion. Noná told me about the One True God who created heaven and earth, and Jesus, his son, who became a man to save all people.
My parents were Acjachemen, natives of the Great Valley. Long before the Spanish came and the padres brought the One True Religion to our people, the Acjachemen hunted game and gathered berries and grains, such as acorns and chia seeds, from the fertile land along the river, which flowed from the mountains to the sea. They roasted rattlesnake and rabbit, which were plentiful in the valley. Sometimes they made meal from roasted and ground grasshoppers. Noyó’s people ate the abundant sea creatures in the shallow tidelands near the river mouth.
The Spanish brought different ways of living. And soldiers. Noyó said the Spanish renamed everything in the Great Valley in their language. Our Acjachemen people became Juaneño, and our native language all but disappeared, along with our stories.
The padres and Spanish soldiers built a fortress they called Mission San Juan Capistrano, named after one of their priests, Giovanni da Capistrano, but they called him Juan. They also renamed the Great Valley and the river for him.
Noyó said when the soldiers came, her grandparents, like many others, moved into the mission compound. The Franciscan fathers baptized them when my grandfather was a child. He learned to shape the rocks used to construct the Great Stone Church.
My mother was born on the mission grounds in 1802. She attended the mission school and learned the Spanish language. The rules were strict, and none of the Juaneños was allowed to go outside the area near the mission.
When the Great Stone Church was finished in 1806, my grandfather continued to help construct other buildings from adobe bricks. Noyó said her two younger sisters and a brother died as infants. Finally in 1808, another brother was born.
My mother often repeated the story of celebrating Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Great Stone Church on December 8, 1812 with her family. Suddenly, the ground shook violently. The walls crumbled and fell in around them. Noyó said she followed some people through the priests’ door to safety. The rest of her family tried to escape through the main door. But it was jammed. When the roof collapsed, they were crushed with most of the others, and Noyó became an orphan.
Since she had no other family, she lived in the dormitory with the other young, single females. Life in the monjerio was very hard for my mother. The other girls taunted her saying, “Your parents must have been very bad. See how God punished them.” The adults also blamed her father for the collapse because he had cut the stones.
As she passed, whispers followed her. “There is the daughter of the cause of all our misery.”
The other children were told not to associate with her.
Finally, in desperation, she decided to leave. During siesta while the guards dozed, she escaped the grounds and followed the river to the ocean.
She told me all these things many years later so I would understand why she would not return to the mission, especially the chapel.
“What did you do when you left?” I couldn’t picture running away from my parents. And I couldn’t imagine life without them.
“Once I reached the beach, I ate berries and seeds which grew there. A cool breeze blew, but I didn’t feel cold. I spent all day looking for food. At night, I found shelter among the rocks along the sand. I was terrified the mission soldiers would find me.”
“Did they?” I’d ask, frightened for her, even though I knew the outcome.
She shook her head and looked sad. “No. In fact, no one ever came.”
I felt sorry for her. I knew if I left home, my parents would search for me.
“On the third morning,” she continued, “an old woman discovered my hiding place. She spoke a language I did not understand, but I wanted human company. I was ten years old and a runaway. At first I thought she would take me back to the mission, but she held out her hand and led me farther down the beach to a kiicha, made of willow branches covered with mats of tule leaves. I’d seen many of these huts inside the mission grounds, and I knew families who lived in them. She invited me in, and I stayed with her for several years. No one ever bothered us. I guess they were glad I’d left.”
“Weren’t you scared?” I asked, imagining how frightening I would be.
“At first, until I got to know her. The old woman threw away all my mission clothes and dressed me as a native in woven reeds and grasses. She also gave me a new name: Pikwia. It means ‘wild blackberry’ because she found me near a blackberry patch. I never again used my Spanish name.”
“What was it?”
“I will never tell anyone. That girl died with my parents and brother when the church collapsed. I was reborn as Pikwia.”
I always wondered if my father knew her other name and if I would ever find out. I never did.
Noyó continued her story. “As the months passed, I understood more of the woman’s words. I discovered she was a coronne, a clan chief of the Playaños, my own people. Her name was Paala because she lived by the water. She’d refused to give up the old ways and was shunned. She understood how I felt.”
When I thought of Noyó and Paala, sadness overwhelmed me. They were both outcasts. I had parents to love me and uncles, aunts, and cousins to spend time with. I couldn’t imagine how lonely it would be without them.
“How did you eat?” I asked. As a boy, my thoughts often centered on my stomach.
“Paala showed me how to catch fish and other sea creatures like crabs and mussels along the shore. We looked for the sacred abalone. Their shells became our dishes.”
“Like the ones we use?”
“Yes. Just like those. We also collected berries, chia seeds, sage, and acorns. We found many good things to eat along the Great Water. Around the cooking fire in the evenings, Paala taught me the ancient legends and stories in the Acjachemen language.”
I loved hearing about my mother and her native life. Her stories of the ancient ones invoked their presence. I sensed them guarding and protecting us.