There is a town south of the San Francisco bay area that is named for my ancestor, a Scottish immigrant who reportedly jumped ship as a 19 year old sailor while docked in Monterey. He evidently made his way to Rancho San Ysidro during the Spanish land grant era and was baptized Juan Bautista Gilroy (taking his mother's maiden name) at the nearby San Juan Bautista mission. He was the first caucasian settler in the Santa Clara Valley. This town's origins were in ranching and agriculture. At one point it was the Dairy and Cheese Capital of California. My great-uncle Ben was a dairy farmer. The ranchers of Gilroy took the imported French prune in the 1920s, made it a regional economy and the town became the Prune capital of California. Many of my relatives grew up "cutting" prunes as a livelihood. I picked walnuts for 25 cents per crate. Growing up with this name was always interesting to me. Interest in the name grew beyond my own large paternal family when it became the Garlic Capital of the World sometime in the 70s. Garlic was first brought to the area and cultivated by the Japanese immigrants in the area around WWI.
At least 1200 years before John Cameron Gilroy married the Rancho San Ysidro owner's daughter, and long before the Spanish settlers came to the southern end of the valley in the 1700s, the Ohlone Indians inhabited the area. A band of the Ohlone, the Amah Mutsun tribe, from which I descend, eventually worked at the ranch and at the the mission, which brings me to the NPR program today.
In early February I received an email from our tribal leader. She has been working for over 30 years to achieve federal recognition for our tribe. The bill was put on hold by Congressman Honda a few years back (HB3475) after some controversy over tribal leadership, land development, and tribal record-keeping which ultimately divided the tribe politically. The tribe continues its efforts to reintroduce the bill. The email gave notice about the world premiere of the cantata, Ascención, a work started 20 years ago by Helene Joseph-Weil, a professor of voice and music at Cal State University, Fresno, about our ancestor Ascención Solórsano de Cervantes, whose family is intertwined with the Gilroys. It was to be simulcast on a San Francisco public radio station. Until that email I had no idea of this historical project culminating in this innovative musical form. The project's origin is described here (from the Ascención Project website):
Inspired by Ascención Solórsano de Cervantes’ oral history taken down by Smithsonian ethnologist J. P. Harrington, this multi-media cantata honors the life of Ascención Solórsano de Cervantes (1854-1930), the last of the California Amah-Mutsun (San Juan) tribal band to retain complete linguistic and cultural fluency of her people.The cantata recounts myriad aspects of Amah-Mutsun cultural history: tribal creation stories, combined with pre-contact daily life, basketry and foods, segue into a lamentation for the enslavement and genocide of Ascención’s people under Spanish, Mexican, and American governments. The cantata’s closing scenes honor Ascención’s renown as The Saint of Gilroy and share Harrington’s moving elegy for his revered consultant.
The project's website provides the slide show and some haunting music among other things. "Divided into 14 scenes with one intermission, this two-hour multi-media work incorporates pre-recorded sound effects/music (recordings of bells and choir), projected images, light effects, spatial sound effects, and live solo performances with mezzo-soprano and piano." Today's NPR program talked about how the cantata was composed and how Professor Joseph-Weil is working to set other Native American oral histories to opera. It is becoming known as her art form. As stated in the program, I too, think it is an authentic form for these stories. What a great surprise today. Hear the program here.
Photo: Ascención Solórsano de Cervantes (1856-1930), in her burial dress. Photograph by J. P. Harrington.