Unveiling History: Mission San Gabriel's Wall of Names


Norine Holguin

9/22/20235 min read

The heart of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, a place of immense historical significance, now bears witness to a pivotal moment in its long and complex narrative. The Wall of Names, a striking feature within the mission's newly reimagined museum, has been unveiled, and it tells a story that has long remained hidden from public view.

The Wall of Names: A Cascade of History

Stretching across a 16-foot white brick wall, this wall is not adorned with paintings or ornate decorations; instead, it is covered with a cascade of gray, black, and red letters. These letters are a complete list of names, 7,054 to be exact, representing Native Americans who were baptized at Mission San Gabriel between 1771 and 1848. It's a powerful memorial, a testament to the lives that were profoundly impacted by this historic mission.

After a three-year closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic and a devastating fire in 2020 that consumed parts of the mission's roof and interior, the Mission San Gabriel Museum reopens its doors to the public on July 1, 2023. But this isn't just a reopening; it's a reawakening, a commitment to telling a more complete and inclusive history.

Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, 1771-1900: Natives, Missionaries, and the Birth of Catholicism in Los Angeles

The heart of the museum's new exhibition is titled "Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, 1771-1900: Natives, Missionaries, and the Birth of Catholicism in Los Angeles." It's a culmination of years of effort, a collaborative endeavor that involved Native consultants and a diverse array of experts. This effort goes far beyond mere curation; it's about research, interpretation, conservation, and the presentation of history itself.

Mission San Gabriel is a site that holds deep Native American significance. Built by Native labor, it is the resting place of 5,600 Native American burials. It is a place where Native memory and religious observance have persevered for centuries. However, until now, the voices, knowledge, and history of the Native people who shaped this mission have been largely absent from the museum's displays. This exhibition seeks to change that.

The integration of Indigenous and Catholic church histories is a first for Mission San Gabriel. Thanks to the dedication of individuals like Steven Hackel, a history professor from the University of California, Riverside, and Yve Chavez, a Gabrieleno/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians member and assistant professor of art history at the University of Oklahoma, this transformation has been made possible.

A Journey into the Past: Mission San Gabriel's Role in History

Mission San Gabriel, founded by Spanish Franciscans in 1771, played a pivotal role in the foundation of Los Angeles. It is the fourth of the 21 Catholic California missions and is deeply intertwined with the history of Southern California.

The Wall of Names stands as a memorial, a tribute to the Native American community whose lives were touched by this mission. It is more than just a list of names; it includes tribal affiliations, emphasizing the diversity and richness of Native cultures that intersected with the mission.

Unearthing the Past: The Power of Historical Records

For Hackel, the importance of historical facts cannot be overstated. This project aims to shed light on the significance of Native and Spanish colonial history in the San Gabriel Valley. It's a reminder that American colonial history didn't solely unfold thousands of miles away on the East Coast; it was an everyday reality for Native people in this region over 250 years ago.

One remarkable aspect of this initiative is the meticulous documentation by the Franciscans. Every baptism, marriage, and burial at Mission San Gabriel was recorded. These records have now become a valuable resource for descendants seeking to learn about their ancestors. The mission was a place of great importance in Southern California. It witnessed the most significant family milestones, from births and marriages to burials.

An Immersive Experience: The Reimagined Mission San Gabriel Museum

The newly reimagined Mission San Gabriel Museum, spanning 1,100 square feet, boasts seven galleries and a separate 100 square-foot building that focuses on the contemporary Gabrieleño community. This space features a video slideshow, a powerful reminder that the Gabrieleño people are not just a part of history; they are a living community, still active in the mission's parish.

Visitors can explore this newly reimagined museum, discovering a more inclusive and multivocal history. It's a history that not only celebrates the mission's architectural and religious significance but also confronts the complex and, at times, deeply unsettling aspects of colonization. The exhibition acknowledges the forced labor, corporal punishment, population decline, and other hardships that Indigenous people endured at Mission San Gabriel.

Engaging the Senses: An Interactive Museum Experience

The exhibition features 36 reproductions, two videos, five infographics, 30 original artifacts, and 12 audio components. Among these, you'll find a contemporary reading of the interrogation and testimony of Toypurina, a Native woman who was arrested during an attempted 1785 Native rebellion at the mission. Her story is brought to life by actors from Autry's Native Voices theatre group.

Sounds of the Past: Audio Treasures

The audio components also include 18th-century music composed for the California missions, performed by the USC Thornton Baroque Sinfonia, as well as readings from the letters of St. Junípero Serra, a California missionary who was recently canonized. Visitors can even scan QR codes to listen to Andrew Morales, a member of the Gabrieleno/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians, pronouncing words recorded in one of the earliest vocabularies of a Native language spoken at Mission San Gabriel.

Treasures on Display

Among the historical treasures on display, you'll find a 1775 confessional booth, a silk beaded chasuble likely worn by St. Junípero Serra himself during one of his visits to the mission, religious paintings created by leading artists of 17th and 18th-century Mexico, and a unique set of Stations of the Cross from the 19th century.

Reclaiming Identity: The Role of Indigenous Curators

Yve Chavez, an assistant professor of art history at the University of Oklahoma and a Gabrieleno/Tongva San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians member, played a crucial role as the exhibition's associate curator. For Chavez and her community, this project represents an opportunity to reclaim their history and identity within the museum's narrative. It's about ensuring that Indigenous peoples are no longer marginalized but instead integrated into the rich history of Southern California.


This is more than just a museum reopening; it's a step toward reconciliation and understanding. It's an invitation to visitors to engage with history in a more complete and empathetic way. Mission San Gabriel's Wall of Names now stands as a symbol of remembrance, a memorial that honors the lives and stories of the Native Americans who were baptized within its walls. It's a testament to the power of history to inspire change and foster a deeper appreciation for the complexities of our shared past.

So, as the Mission San Gabriel Museum opens its doors once again, it invites you to embark on a journey of discovery, reflection, and connection. Step inside, and let the stories of the past wash over you, for it is through understanding and acknowledgment that we pave the way for a more enlightened future.


Baltazar Martinez, Sandra. “New, Untold History of Indigenous People Is Now Part of Revamped Mission San Gabriel Museum Exhibition .” UC Riverside | News, 22 June 2023, news.ucr.edu/articles/2023/06/22/new-untold-history-indigenous-people-now-part-revamped-mission-san-gabriel

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