The Beheading of a Saint: Junipero Serra and the California Monument Wars

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The headless Serra monument in Monterey, California.

The headless Serra monument in Monterey, California.

During his visit to Mexico in February, Pope Francis apologized for the “systematic and organized” exclusion of indigenous Americans over the centuries. This took place in San Cristobal de las Casas, the epicenter of the indigenous-identified Zapatista uprising in 1994, and a town named for the 16th century defender of the Indios against the depradations of the Spanish Conquest. But in September, when the Pope visited the US, a focal point was the announcement and celebration of the canonization of Junipero Serra, the founder of the California mission system, who many indigenous people’s advocates charge with genocide against California’s tribes. In the midst of protests and calls to halt the elevation of Serra to sainthood, the statue of Serra at Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo in Carmel-by-the-Sea was covered with green paint, toppled, and tagged with the moniker “Saint of Genocide.” The next month, another statue of Serra, in nearby Monterey, was decapitated. These attacks and the surrounding controversy, which continues at a slow burn, show the power of symbols to provoke and the multiple meanings attributed to complicated historical figures.

Serra, born on the island of Mallorca, Spain in 1713, decided to become a missionary and sailed for the New World only when already of middle age. As his fellows rode, he insisted on walking across colonial Mexico, out of piety, despite an insect bite that became infected, plaguing him for the last half of his life. After two decades reorganizing the Mexican missions, including an occasion when he defended the Pame people against Spanish soldiers and colonists who were trying to take their lands, he was sent to establish a mission system in alto (“upper”) California. Starting in 1769, he founded the first nine of what would grow to 21 missions from San Diego up the central California coast. Over 50,000 natives were baptized and incorporated over the next 65 years that the system existed; various degrees of force and violence were used to harness their beliefs and labor, and many died of disease and even starvation.

The erection of monuments and memorials to Serra up and down the state through the twentieth century paralleled the process of declaring Serra a saint, with Pope John Paul II presiding over the beatification ceremony in 1988. But as the case wound its way forward, a spreading awareness of the cultural and physical decimation of Native Americans brought a shift in Serra’s legacy. California tribes and advocacy groups, indigenous rights activists and anti-colonialist historians fashioned an alternate view of the “Father of California,” featuring beatings, starvation and destruction of language and heritage instead of the moral improvement and practical education boasted of by Serra’s defenders.

In the months leading up to the canonization, criticism grew. The Mexica Movement, a radical indigenous rights group based in Los Angeles, held weekly rallies outside the cathedral there against the “white supremacist” Serra. The leadership of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band organized a protest in San Juan Bautista, gathered over 10,000 signatures on an online petition, and cited 55 other tribes who had also written letters in opposition. A “Walk for the Ancestors” traced the El Camino Real, the route connecting the missions, to publicize this position.

But the first canonization to take place on US soil inspired enthusiasm from many Hispanic Catholics, who saw the action by the first Latin American Pope as validation of their own culture and identity. Serra, dubbed the “first Hispanic Saint” in numerous media reports, has been supported by Somos Primos (“We are cousins”), a Hispanic heritage website and publication. Though larger Hispanic rights’ organizations like the National Council of La Raza and the League of Latin American Citizens have mostly steered clear of the controversy, they consistently praise the Pope, in particular because of his support of immigrants and a more humane immigration policy. In addition, the Juaneño people of southern California, a tribe officially recognized by the state, have been cited as in support of sainthood for Serra; and the website of the Costanoan Rumsen (Ohlone) Carmel Tribe states that “We wholeheartedly support the canonization of Saint Junipero Serra because he protected our people and supported their full human rights against the politicians and the military with total disregard for his own life and safety.”

Serra's cenotaph at Carmel Mission.

Serra’s cenotaph at Carmel Mission.

In California over the winter holidays, I visited the mission at San Juan Capistrano, site of “Father Serra’s Church;” as well as the aforementioned Carmel Mission, Serra’s headquarters and burial place. Both sites have extensive exhibits about and homages to their founder, with nary a negative word about his or the system’s effects on their native subjects. On the Saturday I went to Carmel, a wedding was taking place in the mission church, and the several spaces and exhibits devoted to Serra’s legacy were crowded with visitors, including many families with children.

Visitors at the Carmel Mission statue that had been vandalized.

Visitors at the Carmel Mission statue that had been vandalized.

The slightly larger-than-life-sized Serra figure in the courtyard was standing and seemingly unfazed, though the cross he held had been broken off. In the gift shop, mission employees told me that, although the statue is owned by the city, the parishioners of the mission congregation brought a power washer, and cleaned and re-erected the figure themselves, so that by the following morning there was hardly any sign of the act. They also claimed that Serra is misunderstood: he actually protected the natives against the Spanish Army, moving the mission from its original site, now in Monterey, on land the army controlled. They blamed the media for “stirring up controversy,” and said that most locals were in full support of the canonization. When I asked if they were worried about further such acts of protest, they said they “had security,” though allowing that “probably” someone would try again.

Orientational sign at Carmel Mission

Orientational sign at Carmel Mission

Another statue of Serra is one of two representing California at the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol (the other is Ronald Reagan). In February 2015, as the controversy was heating up, California State Senator Ricardo Lara introduced a bill in the state legislature to replace Serra’s with one of astronaut Sally Ride, to pay tribute to the contributions of LGBT Californians. During a July visit to the Vatican, California Governor Jerry Brown, who as a young man studied for the priesthood, promised the Pope that the Serra statue would remain untouched “until the end of time.” (Lara withdrew his bill, as a gesture of respect to the Pope and Catholics, saying he would reintroduce it in 2016). The controversy mirrors others brewing across the country and around the world about monuments and the symbolic value of history, including vandalism of statues of super-imperialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town in South Africa (see Teresa Barnes, “Public historians, this is your moment!” in the May 2015 Public i) and Oxford, and conflicts over the Confederate flag and monuments to Confederate figures and slaveowners in this country.

At a time when the verdict of genocide applied to the European colonial project—at least when we talk about centuries past—seems to be firmly established in the public square, it is remarkable to see such a vigorous contestation. Identity politics, which only seems to intensify, explains a lot. But the powers that be, despite occasional expressions of regret about crimes against native peoples, are hardly neutral: while the University of Cape Town took the side of protesting students and removed the Rhodes monument, the northern California actions are being investigated as hate crimes. The Catholic Church has undoubtedly provided succor to Hispanics, indigenous and non-; but is also a fount of discipline and repression in the present, beyond its historical sins—this institutional power taints the pro-Serra movement.

The sign for the active school at Carmel Mission, named after the new Saint.

The sign for the active school at Carmel Mission, named after the new Saint.

The headless Junipero Serra in Lower Presidio Historic Park, a few miles from the Carmel mission, towers over the gorgeous ocean vista beyond, constituting a weirdly appropriate gesture of historical remembrance—a damaged, and damaging, figure in California and US history. As I was completing this article, the news appeared that the statue’s head had been found by a local girl, in a nearby tidepool at low tide. The Old Monterey Foundation, which had collected $77,000 towards resculpting the head, announced that restoration would now be much easier and cheaper. Would that our historical ruptures and divides could be repaired so straightforwardly.

About Richard Esbenshade

12-year resident of Urbana, taught history for several years at UIUC, specializing in Eastern Europe; contract not renewed due to budget cuts, currently self-employed; longtime activist in peace/green/social justice/solidarity movements; father of two, including Public i alumna Shara.

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