Music in the California Missions

Mission building was one of the primary methods of conquest the Spanish used over the native peoples of California. Beginning in 1768, Gaspard de Portolà, accompanied by Father Junipero Serra, built twenty-one missions up the coast of California (then called Alta California, as opposed to Baja California) from present-day San Diego up to San Francisco (1). Here is a map made by Irving B. Richman of the approximate mission locations around 1798-1804, which was during prime Spaniard mission-building activity:

Missions were not just elaborate Catholic churches, but were the centers of communities that were built around them. The towns, run by one or two Franciscan priests and a handful of soldiers, were intentionally built around missions so the Spanish could force the indigenous folks of the area into their way of life. This included wearing woven clothing, learning Spanish and Latin, eating European produce, utilizing European agriculture methods and technology, and – most importantly – converting to Catholicism and its culture.

Music played a large role in the Catholic faith of the time, and the indigenous peoples were taught both to sing and to play instruments for masses. The Spanish introduced an entire orchestra’s worth of instruments, including organs, woodwinds, brass, strings, and percussion instruments. Evidence of the teaching of Western music theory includes this large fresco depicting a Guidonian hand, which can be compared to an old form of solfège, on a wall of Mission San Antonio.

The music performed in California missions is the most documented and preserved of any Spanish colony in the US. Musicians wrote and performed both plainchant and polyphonic music during masses, and the most popular way of recording works was by making choirbooks, both with music and with information regarding teaching (2). Pieces were written both in Spanish and in Latin, and could be either sacred or secular. Some of the standout composers of the Missions were Fray Narciso Durán of Mission San José, who was so renowned for his skill that he wrote choirbooks and manuscripts for other missions to use and teach from, and Felipe Arroyo de la Cuesta, who even wrote music in the Mutsun indigenous language (2).

While the culture of the music in missions, as well as the music itself, has had a lasting impact on Latinx culture as a whole, the treatment of these peoples within missions was horrifying. With European colonizers brought European disease, which wiped out much of the indigenous population. Indigenous inhabitants of the missions were treated as slaves with consequences of torture, starvation, solitary confinement, and execution for disobedience (3). Music may have been one of the few sources of joy for the approximately 20,000 indigenous people on the missions, and its study cannot be separated from the cruelty the Spanish inflicted upon them.


(1) “Historical Timeline – California Missions”. 2022. California Missions.

(2) Summers, William John. “California Mission Music”. California Missions Foundation.

(3) Smith-Christopher, Daniel L. “Missions and Native Americans.” 2022. The American Mosaic: The Latino American Experience.

Cuban Bishop Observer

First of all, I would like to say that I find it very cool that there are texts from the 1600s. Although the text I read was not the original copy, nor is it in the original language, it gives details on how and who translated it to a legible copy and annotations corresponding with the letter text. It is a collection of letters by Gabriel Diaz Vara Calderón, a 17th century bishop of Cuba. The purpose of his letters are clearly to observe and record his observations of Indigenous peoples and their land and forward this information to the queen (of Spain). He mainly gives information about the land and how it is utlized by the Indigenous peoples. He also details the queen with estimates of Indigenous populations within each village he finds. I’m really unsure of what the purpose for this was. My only inference is that this bishop is scouting out the land for the queen to do something with, however it sounds like at this time it was already controlled by the queen. I am surprised that when giving information about the populations of villages, the bishop distinguished the different villages instead of referring to all of them as “Native Americans”.

I cannot make this post without noting the disrespectful language used by this bishop to refer to the Indigenous peoples. In one of his entries, he describes Indigenous Carribeans as savages. He also uses the words “heathens” and “savages” throughout his letters to the queen. Although, after looking up the word “heathen” I realized it could be used to refer to someone that is a non-believer (in Christ). In modern language (and my perspective) heathen is an insult but I never associated it with religion. Now that I understand the meaning behind the term, it’s unsurprising to see it being used by this 17th century bishop as one of the main goals of colonization was to assimilate that people being colonized.


Minstrelsy: Connecting Blackness to the Body and Whiteness to the Mind

White people putting on blackface and dressing up as black people for entertainment and comedic purposes is disturbing and upsetting on many levels. To me, an aspect of this that is particularly horrific is the effect it had on the body, particularly the black body, that is so often deemed invisible, expendable, dangerous, or hypersexual. Minstrelsy contributed to these stereotypes and beliefs about the black body by controlling how others perceived it. Minstrelsy allowed white people to take ownership over the black body by literally putting it on as a costume through blackface. They were then able to “prove” an amount of stereotypes through this, especially on account that many of the audience members did not know whether the people on stage were actually black or not.

Tying blackness to the body is something that has been done to justify colonialism as well as slavery. Much of this ties back to ideas that began to form during the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment marked the mind, reason, and individualism as core values; values that were used to distinguish between the “savage man” and “civilized man”. This was then used as reason to justify that the “savage” individual’s ideal role is physical labor, thus justifying slavery. The savage man was also believed to lack the intellect that the civilized man had. This idea was used justify the belief that people of differing races were of different species, and was also used to prove the need for savages to be “civilized” by Western/white society. These ideas reduced black people to merely a body, and deemed whites to be better because of their supposedly superior intellectual capabilities. It must be noted that this idea of connecting blackness to the body is deeply rooted in the belief that the body is sinful and dirty, as opposed to the purity of the mind. This is an idea which certainly can, and should, be questioned. But for the purpose of this blog post, it will be assumed that association with the body is going to be perceived by people as a negative thing.

Minstrelsy further emphasized this association of blackness with the body. This is particularly evident in this advertisement for a Minstrel Show in 1899. This ad depicts black women as hyper-sexualized and alludes to the “Jezebel” stereotype, an idea rooted in slavery which labels black women as promiscuous and sexually aggressive. Referring to a black woman as a jezebel has often been used to blame the infidelity of white men on the black women they had relations with. This hyper-sexualization further associates black people to the body, and implies an inability to control bodily instincts. The men depicted in the advertisement also emphasizes the association of blackness with the body as opposed to the mind. This is done through their childlike reaction to the woman in the advertisement. Their facial expressions mimic childlike amusement with the female body, while simultaneously depicting black men as out of control of their sexual desires. By connecting blackness with sexualization and desire, it again implies that black people are not capable of putting mind over matter, thus emphasizing the dichotomy of whiteness as associated with the mind, and blackness with the body.

Between the use of blackface, contributing to stereotypes, mockery, and misrepresentation of black culture, minstrel performances clearly have a a lot of racist elements within them. That being said, there are nuances to it. After all, it did allow black performers to have their first opportunity to perform in front of a white audience, and it could be argued that it helped popularize a variety of black music including spirituals. However even with these nuances, most aspects within minstrelsy perpetuated racism, sometimes in ways that are not as explicit as blackface, specifically strengthening the association of blackness with the body. Through this, minstrelsy reasserted this underlying justification behind treating black people as lesser that dates back to slavery and colonial times. 


  • “Gideon’s Big Minstrel Carnival Advertisement.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018. Image.
  • Marisa J. Fuentes, “Jezebel.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.
  • “Minstrel Music with African American Jim Crow Caricatures.” In The American Mosaic: The African American Experience, ABC-CLIO, 2018.
  • Peter A. Schrom, “The Enlightenment and the Origins of Racism” State University of New York at Albany, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2016.