This is continued from the previous PPP post. As with the other, this is a only a preliminary set of observations and explorations. With that disclaimer, we join Parley P. Pratt in Los Angeles, California in June, 1851.
In Los Angeles, Pratt encounters a “well watered, and delightful valley” and a population consisting of “a mixture of American, European, Spanish, and Indian[s].” Soon after arrival, Pratt attended a Catholic mass with “the Indian blood prevailing.” He describes “the ladies in the finest dresses I ever beheld in any country, consisting of silks and satins of various figures and extreme costliness…together with costly silk and satin shawls…portions of their persons were buried beneath the rich and ample folds of costly apparel. In these costly robes every female knelt or sat on the filthy floor of earth in the old church for hours…”
I was struck by Pratt’s attention to the women’s clothing. Pratt’s brief note of “Indian blood prevailing” with reference to these ceremonies begs a little attention.The image of the Indian women wearing costly apparel reminds me of similar images in other missionary writings describing an “uppitiness” of the Indians in dressing up and “putting on airs.” Obviously, the recurring theme is the “costliness” of the apparel, distinctly Book of Mormon phrasing. Pratt contrasts the costly apparel with the filthy floor. The illusions of finery were belied by the reality of the filth and its mingling with the rich robes. There may have been a revulsion on Pratt’s part that good clothing might be so misused. “At proper distances were placed images amid costly decorations, before which all fell upon their knees, and remained for a length of time prostrated in the thick dust with all their finery.” Such a display might reinforce the notion that these Indians were not fit to wear such clothing. In the Book of Mormon, costly apparel is treated like costly apparel, not dragged through the dust—even if the wearer is rotten inside. Here again we are likely seeing elements of prevalent cultural expectations mingled with scripture.
En route to Chile, Pratt wrote a letter to his family and discussed briefly his Spanish study, “We study Spanish every day. It is a beautiful language, and wonderfully adapted to the simplicity of the Lamanites. I hope to master it during the passage and a few months’ residence among the Chileans.” Pratt and other Mormon missionaries to Latin America believed in the “redeemability” of native peoples. In some ways, because they were of the “blood of Israel,” Indians had greater “upward mobility” than many “Gentiles” or “mestizos.” This potential for purification and sanctification, widespread in missionary writings, did not negate many cultural attitudes toward native peoples. The Lamanites, ultimately, were “simple” (I read simple-minded) for all their potential.
On November 16, the company has rented a house in Valparaiso, Chili and has begun to settle in. Pratt comments on the neatness of the area, the beauty of the street, the trees, abundant with fruit, well swept, and the inhabitants “of a good class of Spanish or Chilanoes, and their kind and sociable young people and little children.” The fluidity of nineteenth century racial terminology can often leave some doubt as to what terms like Spanish” or “Chilano” mean. Here also, it’s difficult to tell if Pratt meant to equate Spanish with Chileans or if he is using the terms to refer interchangeably to distinct peoples. I think the latter. Luckily, Pratt later gives a definition: “The Chileans are a mixed race of Spanish and Indian blood—say four-fifths Indian—consequently coarse features, black hair and eyes, low foreheads, high cheek bones, broad faces, and in most cases copper color in its various shades and degrees, whilst a few are white and even fair and beautiful. In general they are ignorant and devoted Catholics. Probably more than one-half of them can neither read nor write. Their knowledge of arts and industry is extremely limited. In manners they are simple, frank, and extremely sociable and apparently affectionate, but subject to a small low meanness in their dealings, and to trifling thefts. There are, however, many honorable exceptions to those faults or evil habits.”
Revisiting the above with this definition in mind, Pratt definitely felt he lived in a well kept area where the “exceptions” to the Chilean rule lived. So much so, that they could be referred to as being on par with the “good class” of Spanish. (Feeling a need to make the distinction, maybe the “good class” was an exception for the Spanish also!)
Pratt and company moved to Quillota, 36 miles away and stayed there one month. “The people in this town seem to be neat, plain, loving and sociable people; very friendly, frank, and easy to become acquainted with. They are mostly white, intelligent, and good looking; very plain and simple in dress and manner. The houses are mostly neat and comely, and are situated on a line with the mud walls which separate the streets from the gardens and vineyards.” Here whiteness stands alongside intelligence, beauty, and neatness. Pratt delighted that the people could also read. Taken by the Edenic nature of the area, Pratt observed that it was “one of the most beautiful scenes I ever beheld in the old or new world.” Pratt’s observations about the beauty of the area were not unusual in Latin American travel writings. Such scenes of beautiful land and simple natives resemble the exoticism of the imperialist literature of the day.
Ultimately, for want of means and lack of facility with the language, in March of 1852, the party set sail once again for California. In a letter published in his autobiography, written en route to California, Pratt reflected on the political tumult of South America and the iron grip the Catholic Church wielded over the nations there. Pratt, like other Mormon and Protestant clergy faulted the Catholic Church for keeping native peoples in bondage: “countries where, for three centuries, all intellect has slept, and all freedom of thought been crushed—buried—under the incubus of the horrid institutions of the great Mother of Abominations.” Civil wars and other strife gave Pratt hope for increased liberty and for increased opportunities for introducing the Gospel to Latin America. As opposed to the Chilean and Argentinean strife he observed, Peru was relatively peaceful. “The Government in Peru is much influenced by England and the United States. Its constitution guarantees liberty of the press, of speech, and of worship…should Peru sustain her liberties, a field is opened in the heart of Spanish America, and in the largest, best informed and most influential city and nation of South America for the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the fullness of the Gospel to be introduced.”
Again, though very preliminary and limited in scope, these observations open us up to a world in which scripture, Mormonism, and prevailing racial expectations coexist, intermingle, and even contrast one another.
 Autobiography, 484, etc. All quoted material is from the Autobiography.