History & Profiles

BL Longform: The Saint of Gilroy who helped save her culture and language

Remembering Ascencion Solorsano on the anniversary of her death. Born in San Juan Bautista, she was one of the last Native speakers of the Mutsun language.

In December 1929, John Peabody Harrington wrote of Ascencion Solorsano that she was “rapidly starting to go downhill and is so weak now that she can barely turn over in her bed unassisted . . . A wheezy condition of her lungs set in three weeks ago which the doctor says will last until her death, which he expects will occur sometime in January.”

Solorsano, born in San Juan Bautista, was one of the last Native speakers of the Mutsun language and a medicine woman in the  community.  

Ascencion Solorsano. Photo courtesy of Richard Lopez.
Ascencion Solorsano. Photo courtesy of Richard Lopez.

Harrington, an anthropologist from the Smithsonian Institution, was working under great pressure to record everything about the language and culture of the Mutsun people that Solorsano could tell him. An invaluable repository of information, her life and legacy will be celebrated at Mission San Juan Bautista on Jan. 30.

‘Known as a healer’ 

“Even under such conditions as these I work from two to six hours a day with her,” Harrington wrote. “It is a strange fact that her mind is not yet impaired in the slightest and the sicker she becomes, the better she remembers the words of her childhood. It will be a great loss of information when she dies even if I succeed in working with her a little for say another month.”

While the National Anthropological Archives have 77 boxes filled with Harrington’s notes from 1929-30 covering his interviews with Solorsano, there is little recorded information about her life before that, or even a firm date on when she was born. 

“Her life is an easy read once you start from 1930,” said Richard Lopez, one of Solorsano’s great-great-grandchildren. “But to go backward and take all her 75 years—when you go back a little bit further it gets fuzzy.” 

Solorsano was born in 1855, 20 years after the secularization of Mission San Juan Bautista. Her parents were Barbara Serra, named by the missionaries after mission founder Junipero Serra, and Miguel Solorsano, the coffin maker at the mission. They baptized her at the mission and took her to live on a ranch at the Pinnacles.  

At the time, San Juan Bautista was a mix of cultures, including the remnants of 23 different Indian tribes that had gathered around the mission and were forced to assimilate after secularization just to survive.

“You have to figure, growing up at that time, she was out at a ranch in the Pinnacles,“ Lopez said. “But you have the Spanish leaving and the Mexicans coming in, natives everywhere, so she would have seen all these changes and been a part of it. How do you put your finger on who she was?”

At that ranch, Solorsano absorbed the traditions of her parents, learning about native plants, ceremonies, myths, and what life had been like at the mission for her people. She also saw the destruction of her culture when, at age five, she watched the last performance of the Mutsun ceremonial dances broken up by armed men on horseback.

At 14, she came to the mission for another right of passage: her marriage to Don Rosario Garcia. According to her obituaries, Solorsano had 16 children with Garcia and her second husband, Jose Segundo Cervantes.

Ascencion Solorsano's grave. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Ascencion Solorsano’s grave at Mission San Juan Bautista. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Eventually, Solorsano and her parents moved to Gilroy, with Solorsano living on Forest Street. Her house was later destroyed by a fire, burning most of the baskets she had made and her collection of native artifacts. After the fire, she moved in with her parents on Rosanna Street.

By the early 1900s, Solorsano came into her role as a practitioner of native medicines and as the spiritual head of the local Native peoples. Known as the “Saint of Gilroy,” every day people sought her out needing help, whether it be for food, work, or doctoring. 

“She was known as a healer for miles around,” Lopez said. “She never turned down anyone and she never charged anyone. When the plague hit, she helped out with two other women and for some reason or another, these three women were never infected. There’s a story that people called them ‘Angels of Death.’ But that’s just a story, we don’t know if that’s made up.”

Language studies

Solorsano began working with anthropologists in 1916, when J. Alden Mason came to the San Juan area trying to expand on the understanding of the Costanoan language, particularly Mutsun, the language of the San Juaneños.

In his field notes, Mason mentions that “Josefa Velásquez, born in 1933, doesn’t speak language. Claims that Ascencion speaks language . . . idiom San Juan.”

His interview with Solorsano was brief, with him verifying that she knew the Mutsun language, but not the nearby Esselen or San Jose Indian languages.

The study of the Mutsun language began over 100 years earlier, when Father Felipe de la Cuesta, a Franciscan missionary and accomplished linguist, came to Mission San Juan Bautista in 1808. De la Cuesta completed his “Grammar of the Mutsun Language” in 1815, the only such work on any of the Costanoan languages.

In January 1922, Harrington came to visit Solorsano for the first time on a brief journey to California. By this time, he had been collecting Native American cultural information for seven years. Solorsano was one of many native speakers he worked with on that trip.

Ascencion Solorsano and her family. Photo courtesy of Richar Lopez
Ascencion Solorsano and her family. Photo courtesy of Richard Lopez.

In 1929, Solorsano’s health began to decline after being hurt in an accident when the horse drawing her wagon was startled by the noise of an automobile. Her injuries led to the development of a cancerous tumor. Knowing she was dying, she moved to Monterey to the home of one of her children.

Hearing of her condition, Harrington returned to California and moved into the basement of the house. Armed with Cuesta’s grammar and two revised grammars compiled by Alfred Louis Kroeber, he met with Solorsano for “rehearings,” where he would go over words from the grammars to have her confirm pronunciations and meanings. 

As Harrington read words from the grammars, Solorsano would respond by agreeing or correcting his pronunciation and his definitions. He would also write down anything she told him about the word or any story related to it. As such, he was able to compile a cultural encyclopedia of the Mutsun worldview.

Sometimes the information was difficult for her. Harrington wrote, “The important animal names I did not get, ‘badger,’ ‘fox,’ ‘mole,’ and ‘bat,’ engaged us long. She absolutely does not know the first two names. The last two she knows: ‘mole’ is ‘mor’ and ‘bat’ is ‘wir-es-kan.’”

Photo by Robert Eliason.
Bronze plaque with a memorial poem written by John Peabody Harrington. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Other times, a single word could spawn distant memories: “She knows only one form of the word for bear, namely ‘o-res.’ She told a story that fills two pages of writing about how Don Juan Chevaria had a she-bear in a cage at his place in San Juan when she was a girl . . . That she-bear was in a cage so small that after a while it got so big that its body filled the cage so the poor bear could not turn around in the cage. One night, it bent the bars and made its escape.”

An ‘astonishing’ resource

One mystery was the actual usage of the word “Mutsun.”

“‘Hoo-mont-wash’ is the name of the tribe,” Harrington wrote. “Whatever the name ‘Moot-soon’ is, it is certainly not the name of the village which stood at the site of the San Juan Mission . . . Ascencion absolutely does not know if it is a tribe or a village but she knows the word. She thinks one surely would not say ‘kan Moot-soon,’ ‘I am Mutsun,’ but ‘Moot-soon-tak-wash,’ ‘I am one of the Moot-soon.’ I do not see any way to ever find out.”

According to the Smithsonian, Harrington “deemed as ‘astonishing’ Solorsano’s knowledge of Mutsun material culture, myths, native plants, ceremonies, customs, and life at the mission. She had intimate personal knowledge of missionary influences and a secondhand knowledge dating from pre-mission days.”

Solorsano continued to work with Harrington right up to her death on Jan. 29, 1930. Harrington captured 67,500 pages of notes just on the Mutsun language, with another 81,000 pages of ethnographic notes before she announced she had told him all she could.

Her funeral was held in the mission. Solorsano was buried in the small cemetery beside it, in keeping with her final wishes.

The obituaries of the time estimated her age as “nearly 100,” “aged 100 or more,” and in one case “117 years old.” In reality, she was 75 years old.

“There was no record of her birth at the mission,” said Lopez. “So they really didn’t know.”

Obituary in the Healdsburg Tribune with photo of Harrington, 02/07/1930
Obituary in the Healdsburg Tribune with photo of Harrington, 02/07/1930

Harrington returned to the Solorsano home again in 1932, where he stayed to interview Native Americans in Carmel. He employed Solorsano’s granddaughter, Martha Herrera, as his secretary for years, helping to transcribe notes from Spanish to English.  

Harrington would continue his studies for 40 years, eventually compiling over a million pages of documentation as well as wax cylinder recordings.  

In 1992, Solorsano was inducted into the Gilroy Hall of Fame. In 2003, Ascencion Solorsano Middle School became the first middle school built in Gilroy in over 30 years. In 2008, Helene Joseph-Weil and Benjamin Boone wrote “Ascencion,” a cantata based on her life. In 2009, UC-Santa Cruz dedicated the Amah Mutsun Relearning Garden in their arboretum, with plants drawn from those Solorsano mentioned in her interviews with Harrington.

In 2002, the cross her family made for her grave was restored by Ruben Mendoza and a bronze plaque with a memorial poem to Solorsano by Harrington, donated by her family, was installed beside it.

Solarsano’s descendants plan to gather for a memorial at her gravesite at the Mission San Juan Bautista at 1 p.m. on Jan. 30.

“We are going to give her a ceremony, a memorial for what she has done for our family and our tradition,” Lopez said. “Our people were so lost and so out of touch with who we were, she left us a legacy as a people, as a community.”

Ascension Solorsano de Cervantes 1855-1930

Where on the height beside the meadow

The ancient church its vigil keeps,

Enfolded in the kindly shadow,

’Tis there a noble woman sleeps,

Whose deeds of mercy were uncounted,

Whose duty found her unafraid,

Whose charities increased and mounted

The more she found them poorly paid.

Born mid the past’s bright-burning embers,

She learned the ways of earlier times,

Talked with a vanished folk’s last members,

And heard the belfry’s pristine chimes.

That lore of earlier horizon,

Caught from her lips, shall not be lost—

Her wisdom science now relies on,

Her knowledge now is history’s boast.

Let her be known in near and far land

As one whose act was true as word;

Let mercy grace her with its garland,

And service bless her with reward;

Let all who love the ancient history

That once camped round the Mission spire

Bless her who hath revealed its mystery

And led us to its hidden fire.

—John P. Harrington

 

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Robert Eliason

I’ve been a freelance photographer since my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. My dad taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.   I have had gallery showings and done commercial work but photojournalism is a wonderful challenge in storytelling.   The editors at BenitoLink have encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  It is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community.