By Monica Orozco, SBMAL Director
The De la Guerra Collection is one of the corner stones of our document collection from early California. Recently I interviewed two of our volunteers, Barbara Ceriale and Sharon Parker, who are helping us conserve this collection in order to get their insight on what motivated them to volunteer and what their experience has been.
What is the origin of this collection? José Antonio de la Guerra y Noriega (1779-1858) is a figure well known to those of us interested in the history of early California. He held many significant positions after his arrival in California in the late 18th century, in particular he was Comandante of the Santa Barbara Presidio and treasurer to the Franciscan Missions. He and his wife María Antonia Carrillo would have seven sons and four daughters who also played an active role in the history of early California. Louise Pubols, Senior Curator of History at the Oakland Museum, published an extensive history of the de la Guerra family, The Father of All: The de la Guerra Family, Power, and Patriarchy in Mexican California (2010) using the De la Guerra Collection at SBMAL as one of her main resources.
The De la Guerra Collection of over 1100 files containing multiple documents which belonged to José Antonio de la Guerra y Noriega and which remained in the de la Guerra family until Fr. Joseph Thompson, O.F.M., great grandson of José Antonio, deposited them in the Huntington Library with the stipulation that after his death they be transferred to the Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library. In 1967 Fr. Thompson died and the De la Guerra Collection moved to the Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library where they remain a permanent and significant addition to our collection of early California historical resources.
The collection is organized alphabetically and by author of the letter or document (the finding guide is on our website sbmal.org). The work conserving the collection was begun by our 2012 Geiger Summer Intern and UCSB History graduate student Laura Moore. When Barbara and Sharon assumed the work they were on the documents authored by those whose names began with the letter “G.” Over a year later they have reached the letter “M.”
What drew you to volunteer at SBMAL?
“History has always been an interest of ours. We have enjoyed travelling to Mexico, Central and Latin American countries and are particularly interested in the Mayan culture and visiting those archeological sites. We also are interested in other ancient civilizations, but even though we have lived in Santa Barbara for most (Sharon) or all (Barbara) of our lives, we lacked knowledge of it’s history. We weren’t even aware of SBMAL until Barbara made the acquaintance of Monica, the director. We both recently retired and were looking for volunteer opportunities and this seemed like a perfect fit and we have really been enjoying learning about the de la Guerra family. Our professions were not in the history field. Sharon worked in Business Administration and Barbara was an engineer, both at a local Aerospace Company.”
Could you describe what kind of tasks you do to take care of the De la Guerra collection?
“We’ve been working on the de la Guerra Collection for over a year. The collection was already cataloged with each group of letters from one person to another given a file number. Up to 100 letters are in some of these groups, all stored together in a single non-archival folder. Our main task is to take one letter at a time, locate it in the finding guide, place it in an acid free sleeve and finally label a file folder for safely storing the documents.”
Do any skills from your background come in handy in this work?
“One might think a history or library science degree is required to volunteer at SBMAL, but all that’s really necessary is an interest in history, attention to detail and a willingness to do whatever is needed. In addition to working with the documents, we’ve moved all the books and artifacts from the conference room, so new carpet could be installed and acted as bouncers at lectures to make sure no food or drink got through the door, but mostly we are working with the documents.”
What has surprised you the most about working on the collection?
“It is surprising how little we knew about the early local history and it’s place in the national scene in the early years of the republic. It is amazing that the de la Guerra family kept all of these documents for us and future generation of amateur historians, professionals, genealogists and the like.”
Does any letter or person from the documents stand out to you? Why?
“A couple of people stand out in going through these documents, not for their historical significance, but more of an insight into their lives. One is Porfirio Jimenez, grandson of Jose de la Guerra y Noriega. He was an enlisted soldier during the Civil War and was sent to Arizona. He wrote letters to his aunt complaining about how hot it was and how ugly the landscape there was and that he was miserable. He said that even his cap was sad and ugly. We later Googled him and found out that he died as a soldier in Mexico in his late twenties, but the circumstances are unknown. Another character is Josefa, wife of Pablo de la Guerra, who was an important figure in Santa Barbara and a California State Senator. It seems that some things haven’t changed in 150 years. She loved shoes and when Pablo travelled to Sacramento or Washington DC, he wrote many letters to her about sending her more shoes. One letter he apologized to her because she didn’t like a pair of shoes he sent to her.”
Did you know much about the De la Guerra family before you started?
“We didn’t know much about the de la Guerra’s before working on this project. Just what you learn by visiting Casa de la Guerra and the Presidio [de Santa Bárbara State Historic Park both operated by our friends at the Santa Barbara Trust for Historic Preservation]. Now that we’ve gotten to know so many of the family members and friends of the de la Guerra’s through their letters, we’ve returned to visit the Casa and Presidio with a renewed perspective.”
What has been the impact on you from working on this collection? Has it spurred your interest in anything new?
“Neither [of us] realized how fascinating this time was in local and California history, this is so much better than learning dry facts in a history class. Weekly we are holding letters written 150-200 years ago. We regularly go home and Google the people we encounter.”
What has been the most challenging about the work?
“The most challenging aspect of working on this collection is that most of it is written in Spanish and we have limited Spanish abilities. We rely on the English/Spanish dictionary quite a bit. But it is fun to pick out words and try to get the gist of the letter. It is like we are document archeologists. It is rewarding to be able to match up the letters with the finding guide and be able to label it appropriately, so others will be able to find what they are looking for more easily.”
What would you say to people who might be interested in helping SBMAL in some way, such as potential volunteers and potential donors? Why become members of SBMAL?
“Volunteering at SBMAL does not need to take a lot of your time. We only work there one morning a week, but still, it provides a learning experience and a satisfaction of knowing you are helping to preserve our history. Donors can help by providing much needed funds for document preservation. We need to use a lot of archival materials and they are costly. Also, there are books, artifacts and paintings at SBMAL that need preservation, so donors can help in that regard as well.”
We are very thankful for our amazing volunteers like Sharon and Barbara whose efforts have helped us care for our amazing collections over the decades.