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Letter from Santa Clara

“Just Whose Usable Past?”

By Bill Costley

In 1915, Van Wyck Brooks America's Coming of Age first floated the concept of a "usable past" (in the United States).  You may be more familiar with the quasi-analogous “within living memory” subset of familial, nationalist-community or “official” written history, stopping considerably short of Carl Jung’s “collective unconscious” by being conscious.  How conscious is another matter. 

Recently, after a session on “Acing the Interview” at ProMatch in Sunnyvale, a guy who had heard me say “I’m new here” came up to ask me if I had moved out here without a job offer. I explained “Yes, but I’m the reverse of the usual case of the wife following the husband who has the job offer.” This raises the hackles on most men’s necks: she has the job; he humbly follows along after her. But I explained that we had both worked here twice before. Even more visible bewilderment.

What next snapped his cap was my saying that the culture here was quite different. He quickly said: ‘Well, you’re a Yankee, of course you’d think it is.” But, I insisted, I’m by no means a Yankee, I’m a Polish-speaking ex-Roman Catholic. (My mother was a Polish-speaker; my cradle tongue, as they say, was Polish, which I lost for lack of serious continued exposure.) More bewilderment. He next insisted I was used to living in a place where the Pilgrims had landed (in 1620).

I assured him that in 62 years in greater Boston, I had come to know very few people who had descended from those Pilgrims. They were all reluctant to admit it in public, and it had not profited them much, if anything. He was stunned. But I went on to say that there was quite a long time-line here, too. Yes, he said, but nowhere as long as back in Boston.

Which brings us to the Usable Past. Santa Clara was founded as a city in 1852 (post-Mexican War Era); the Mission dates back to 1777 (Revolutionary War Era). Those are the bald historical facts. Now read this:

A Mission Record of the California Indians (1811) (Translated by Alfred. L. Kroeber)

Santa Clara is in Costanoan territory, but it is probable that Miwok or Yokuts Indians were brought here as they were brought to San Jose and San Juan Batista. It is in this way that the third and totally distinct language mentioned is to be explained. The missionaries at Santa Clara in 1811 were Magin Catalá and Jose Viader. There are three languages at this mission, two of them related (bastante parecidos), and the third, which is of the east, totally distinct. Sometimes they bury the dead, sometimes burn them. As to whether they place food with them, we believe that they do not. They do not know any distinction of superiority. Only in war do they obey the chief, and the wizards and magicians in matters of superstition. In everything else everyone does what he pleases. In their dissensions and disputes the strongest party wins.

Even in what Americans call the present (2004), a broader and deeper version of historiography holds. It depends entirely upon who you are.  If you’re an American, it’s pretty much white; if you’re not, it’s something more colorful (de colores). If your usable memory includes the Californios, it’s a “mixed” (mestizo) time-line; if it includes the original inhabitants, who knows how far back it goes?  It’s how you use it.  I once saw a brown teenager eagerly reading a school-reading list paperback on the bus: it was titled “Alta California.” I couldn’t tell whether it was in English or Spanish, but minimal perceptiveness admits he was eagerly using that now-usable past to “enrichen”’ his time-line.

Back in Lynn, Mass., I was the progeny of very recent Scottish & Polish immigrants. Nobody in my extended family had served in WW1. (One served in the Spanish-American war; his cousins followed him here in 1911, but stayed out of WW1.)  When a grammar-school classmate showed me his great-great grandfather’s dark blue civil war jacket (with a bloody bullet-hole in its chest), I was astonished. It was just not part of my usable past. Historically, I was barely an American.