The History of Alta California:
A Memoir of Mexican California by Antonio Maria Osio
Once upon a time, our ancestors passed on family and community histories through oral storytelling. Over time, some narrators embellished the stories and/or inserted their own opinions. Others didn’t. Oral storytellers could drift from a topic and then return, without any publisher’s editorial team waving red pens in protest. Thus, traditional oral storytelling differs from when the typical modern author performs a reading of his or her own published work. Hold that thought.
Antonio Maria Osio knew how to engage a reader in the style of “written” oral storytelling. He used a conversational omniscient narrator. Although not a scholarly man by today’s standards, Osio was scholarly in comparison to many others worldwide during his time. And he knew how and when to draw upon his own knowledge of classical literature. He certainly engaged me, despite the hard fact he appears to have been less sensitive to the plight of Native Americans than I am—typical of his times, even for people with mixed DNA.
So, how did Antonio Maria Osio accomplish writing his meaningful memoir? He looked many truths in the face without forsaking the ability to interject a bit of humor or even sarcasm. For example, his witty description of a group of angry Californio women speaks volumes. “A snake which is seized by a falcon and dropped for the first time is not as angry as those women were at that moment.” And his description of Don Mariano Chico, was beautiful. “Don Mariano Chico will prove for no reason at all with the tip of his sword that three plus two do not equal five.” I love his description of one particular mission padre who tried to fend off a more-than-likely well-deserved attack by Native Americans: “His arms, quickly loading and firing, moved even more skillfully than they did when he was collecting alms.”
If you decide to read The History of Alta California: A Memoir of Mexican California, please read the introduction before the rest of the book. The introduction provides information about Osio’s manuscript, written while the fate of Alta California in the hands of the USA still burned fresh in his mind, and before Hubert Howe Bancroft approached various Californios years later to obtain their biographies. In fact, it appears Bancroft—pushing his own paternalistic agenda—later stole and included his own (and less accurate) version of Osio’s story in his library—now at the University of California in Berkeley. Thus the translation of Osio’s original work by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz (and published by the University of Wisconsin in 1996) shines with particular importance. Plus well over 100 pages of notes, biographical sketches, glossary, bibliography, and other information follow Osio’s remembrances translated by Beebe and Senkewicz.
I doubt we are related, Señor Osio, based on my research of my Mexican family ancestry. Too bad. If we were (and I knew it) I would have tried harder to write at least one story with a conversational omniscient narrator. Guess I’ll just continue writing and reading all my stories (such as Plague of Flies: Revolt of the Spirits, 1846, recently accepted for publication by Sand Hill Review Press) with a first or close third person point of view. If we happen to meet during some future Day of the Dead, please don’t hold my more modern writing style against me.