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The Pearl | Context

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Spanish Colonialism in Baja

The Pearl is set in La Paz, a town on the desert peninsula of Baja California. The first colony at La Paz was founded in 1535 by Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés, at a time when mainland Mexico had already been subdued by Spanish conquistadors. This was the first of several failed colonies there. A Jesuit priest, Father Eusebio Kino, came to the area in 1683. His influence and King Felipe II of Spain's 1596 order to colonize Baja California resulted in the founding of Our Lady of Loreto de Concho, a Jesuit mission, in 1697. Loreto was the first permanent Spanish settlement in the Baja California peninsula. Loreto is mentioned in the text as the place Kino urges Juana to travel to in order to escape the trackers.

Loreto was one of over a dozen missions by which the Jesuits, a Roman Catholic order of priests, controlled Baja California. They evangelized to the Native Americans and spread Spanish agricultural techniques, while studying the natural characteristics of the region. After disease epidemics and revolts by the indigenous population, the Jesuits lost political power. In 1768 the Franciscans, members of a Christian religious order founded by St. Francis of Assisi, took over. In 1773 the Dominicans assumed power after the Franciscans left the area following a revolt. In 1832 an order from the Mexican government secularized these communities. Without the church's presence, the Baja region fell into the hands of outlaws. It became a playground for American tourists seeking a decadent experience in the face of Prohibition. From 1920 to 1933 the manufacture, sale, and transport of alcohol was forbidden in the United States under the 18th Amendment. In 1974 Baja California Sur became a Mexican state with La Paz as its capital.

When Spaniards first contacted the people of Baja California Sur, two groups dominated the region that is the focus of The Pearl. These native groups, the Guaycurú and Pericú, were hostile to the Spaniards and were initially successful in keeping Spain from gaining a foothold in Baja. Things changed for the indigenous people of Baja following the founding of the mission of Loreto in 1697. Christianizing the local population was done by resettlement; the missionaries forced the natives to move to rancherias, small settlements of huts, near the missions. In this way the missions could exploit their labor as well as impress their culture among the locals. These conditions, however, made the locals vulnerable to illness and many died from diseases like smallpox.

The natives rebelled repeatedly; a three-year rebellion in the mid-1730s by the Guaycurú and Pericú peoples drove the Spaniards from some missions and was not put down until the Spanish military intervened. Resistance continued until 1744, a year that marked the end of the worst typhus epidemic. The epidemic killed around 8,000 natives, and local tribes began to disappear entirely in the following decades; those that remained struggled to live.

Because of colonization, the diverse cultures and languages of the indigenous inhabitants of Baja California were lost. The Mexican census of 1910 reveals that less than two percent of the population of Baja spoke an indigenous tongue. Those who did speak indigenous tongues spoke languages from other parts of Mexico. Even then, the aboriginal languages of Baja were nearly extinct. In 2000 one-fifth of one percent of the population of Baja Sur spoke an indigenous language, but none spoke an aboriginal Baja language. This linguistic and cultural loss is reflected in The Pearl through the motif of songs. Steinbeck writes Kino's people had once made songs about everything that ever was, but that no new songs were made.

Indigenous Culture

Pearling

Kino is a fisherman in the village in the Sea of Cortez, a place where the indigenous people were collecting pearls when the Spaniards first arrived in the 1530s. It is thought the local Pericú people had made jewelry from pearls for 7,000 years, although they extracted the pearls by throwing the oysters into the fire. This resulted in a blackened pearl. The Spaniards introduced the practice, described in the novel, of opening the pearls with the knives they brought—and a source of highest-quality pearls for the market was found. The money to be made in pearling was a large impetus for Spanish settlement on the Baja peninsula.

By the mid-1800s a new form of business had evolved. Ship-owning Spanish businessmen contracted with natives, who dove and sought the pearls, working out of their canoes for a small portion of the profits. These profits were huge, as pearls were highly fashionable. In 1859 a report cites that over 2,500 tons of pearls had been extracted from the Sea of Cortes, valued then at over 5.5 million dollars. The later 19th century brought advances in technology and the rise of the corporation. The work became more dangerous as more advanced ships and diving equipment led pearlers to take riskier dives in deeper waters. The profits became concentrated in a single corporation, the La Paz–based Compañia Perlifera de la Baja California, the largest supplier of pearls in the world.

The Baja pearls were legendary, and some were very large. The crown jewels of Spain today feature a pearl found off the coast of the town Mulegé, weighing a staggering 400 grains. The New York Times in 1903 called the Baja pearls, by then valued at over 2 million dollars, some of the world's finest—and individual pearls were well-known for their beauty and quality, especially the black ones.

By the time Steinbeck arrived in Baja in 1940, the oyster beds were depleted from overuse and the surviving oysters were suffering a mysterious disease. Moreover, new technologies were capable of producing lower-cost artificial pearls. The tragedy and exploitation bound up in the pearl industry were encoded in the legend Steinbeck heard in La Paz, the story of the boy who finds a giant pearl that changes his life for the worse.

Spirituality and Catholicism

While Mexico is today a Catholic country, Mexican Catholicism represents a unique blending of religious worldviews. The indigenous spirituality and worldviews of Mexico's aboriginal inhabitants are blended into the practice of Catholicism in Mexico. This is reflected in The Pearl in Juana's prayers, which include the Catholic Hail Mary and older, aboriginal prayers. This blending did not come easily but was the painful result of negotiations between two cultures—that of the colonizer and that of the colonized.

The result was that the indigenous people of Mexico incorporated Christian ideas, symbols, and narratives into their own preexisting worldview. It is an example of syncretism, defined by professor of anthropology William Madsen as "'a type of acceptance characterized by the conscious adaptation of an alien form or idea in terms of some indigenous counterpart." This was described in 1579 by a Catholic priest in Mexico City, who characterized the natives as "wretched" and "confused": "On one hand they believe in God, and on the other they worship idols. They practice their ancient superstitions and rites and mix one with the other."

This syncretism was not favored by the Catholic Spaniards. In fact, until 1818, the Holy Office of the Inquisition worked to identify and punish those natives who heretically clung to their indigenous religious traditions. The work of the Office was complicated by the Spanish confusion as to whether the indigenous people of Mexico possessed the reason and understanding necessary to accept Catholicism.

Literacy and Power

In 20th-century Mexico colonial attitudes persisted in the cultural, economic, and physical oppression of the indigenous Mexicans by the local population of European descent. Steinbeck makes frequent allusions to the 400 years that Kino's people have suffered at the hands of the Spaniards. In fact, Kino's greatest wish is that the pearl buy an education for Coyotito. Kino sees literacy as the only way his people can become free of the trap they have existed in since colonial times.

Many indigenous Mexican cultures possessed systems of writing, but only the nobility were educated in these systems. These indigenous texts were sung ritually; the songs were the primary means of transmission, with the texts occupying a secondary position as memory aids.

When the Spanish assumed power in Mexico, they began to use literacy as a tool to advance their own interests. The Catholic missionaries were responsible for teaching select natives to read and write, as literacy was also a means by which evangelization was accomplished. The Spanish knew that by restricting access to literacy to only those indigenous persons who would work for Spanish interests, they could ensure social divisions and restrict access to knowledge, thus maintaining power in Mexico.

Cultural Antecedents of The Pearl

The Pearl is an allegorical reworking of a Mexican folk legend Steinbeck heard in the city of La Paz, Baja, while on a marine expedition with his friend Ed Ricketts in the early 1940s. Steinbeck recounts the original legend in his nonfiction account of this trip, The Log from the Sea of Cortez (1951). The Mexican folk legend is Steinbeck's primary source material in The Pearl, but the novella also alludes to a famous biblical parable as well as a medieval poem by the same title.

Allegory

The Pearl may be read as an allegory, a Greek word meaning "speaking otherwise." Allegories are narratives which possess a double meaning due to their particular use of symbols. A symbol is any element of a narrative that stands for something else. Symbols are commonly found in all genres of literature. However, symbols in an allegorical narrative like The Pearl do not function independently of one another but are rather networked together. The interrelation of symbols in allegory give rise to a second, deeper meaning below the surface of the text.

While a writer may intentionally create allegory within a text, it is also possible to read any text as if it were an allegory, whether or not the writer intended it as such. This type of interpretation is known as allegoresis. In allegoresis, the reader treats the narrative elements as symbols so as to draw thematic meanings which are not apparent within the text's literal boundaries. The entire narrative may also be understood as a single symbol.

Those who read The Pearl literally may encounter nothing more than a simple, sad tale about a poor family, a scorpion sting, a large pearl, and the unfortunate loss of a child. Such an interpretation does not do Steinbeck's work justice, as any meaning the reader finds will fail to reach beyond the particular details of the story into the realm of universal human experience. The reader who considers each element of the text as a symbol whose meaning arises in relation to all the other elements of the text, which are also symbols, will be richly rewarded for such active participation with the narrative. Steinbeck's scorpion is a symbol of the absence of divine justice in the world, and his pearl is a mirror. The reader who understands this, although she may never have encountered scorpions or pearls, will find in the text a kind of mirror, capable of reflecting and revealing the hidden depths of her own particular experience.

The Mexican Folk Legend

In this story, a local boy is elated after finding an enormous pearl. He is sure the pearl will not only make him rich, but will also bring him eternal salvation, as he will now be able to purchase masses from the Catholic Church to guarantee his soul's place in heaven. Like Kino in The Pearl, the boy attempts to sell his pearl locally but realizes the pearl buyers are colluding to cheat him of the pearl's actual value. The boy buries the pearl on a local beach but is beaten savagely by would-be thieves. Like Kino, he attempts to escape by leaving town, but would-be thieves capture and torture him. The boy finally slinks back to the beach, digs up the pearl, curses it, and flings it back into the sea. The legend conveys a message of situational irony: contrary to expectations, the boy was free and happy when he was poor and damned. The pearl, which promised salvation and ease, only put his life in danger.

After hearing this story in 1940, Steinbeck pondered it for years until he began writing The Pearl in 1944. Steinbeck arguably made the story more powerful, changing it in ways that gave it a quality of realism the original legend lacked and raising the stakes beyond the fortunes of one man. In Steinbeck's retelling, Kino hopes the pearl can buy his son the education that will free his people from 400 years of colonial oppression. Tragically, however, the infant Coyotito becomes not the liberator of Mexico's poor and indigenous but the innocent victim of the greed aroused by the giant pearl.

The Biblical Parable

The Pearl also recalls a well-known biblical parable from the New Testament's Gospel of Matthew, often called the parable of the Pearl of Great Price. In Matthew Chapter 13, Jesus compares seeking the kingdom of heaven to "a merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it." In this parable, the pearl is a material object that metaphorically signifies something immaterial. The parable suggests that success comes when the seeker puts all worldly and personal concerns aside to follow Christ.

Steinbeck's story stands in opposition to the biblical parable. The novella opens to find Kino living in a state of grace—despite 400 years of colonial oppression and the attendant hardships of poverty. It is by finding a literal, material pearl that Kino loses his state of grace and enters a metaphorical hell. Instead of advancing spiritually, Kino becomes like an animal as he seeks to protect the pearl and his family. Instead of gaining the kingdom of heaven, Kino's devotion to the pearl leads to him losing his most important worldly possessions, his innocence, and his only son.

The 14th-Century Poem

Another literary antecedent of Steinbeck's novella is a famous medieval poem, Pearl. Like Steinbeck's novel, the 1212-line poem references the parable of the Pearl of Great Price through narrative and allegory. In the poem the speaker returns to a place where he once found and lost a beautiful pearl. Falling into a dream, he sees his pearl across the banks of an unknown river, now transfigured into the figure of a female child dressed in a pearl-covered gown. This seems to be a child the speaker has lost to death. Desperate to reclaim his pearl, the dreamer jumps into the river to swim to her, unknowingly committing a transgression against the spiritual authority identified in the poem as "the Prince." The dreamer has gone against the natural order by entering the river. As punishment, he is kicked out of the dream world and returned to reality, where he praises God's glory.

Steinbeck's novella parallels this poem in several ways. Kino enters a state of almost dream-like unreality, enchanted by the fantastic future visions the pearl seems to promise. In seeking these visions, Kino endures the loss of his only child.

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