Statues and other symbols honoring Junipero Serra, a Spanish colonial and leading figure in California’s missionary history, have come under fire recently, as civil rights advocates statewide pick up the mantle of their counterparts across the country — who have called for the removal of monuments lauding some of the nation’s most prominent slave holders.
The nation’s attention in recent weeks has been focused on police brutality, systemic racism and the ways in which the country’s historical sins — such as slavery and the genocide of Native Americans — continue to influence the present. The reckoning with the United States’s history has stemmed from daily protests that erupted in the wake of George Floyd, a black Minnesotan, dying on Memorial Day when a white police officer kneeled on his neck for several minutes.
Part of that conversation, especially of late, has resurrected debates about which historical figures the country chooses to honor, with many advocates calling for the removal of Confederate statues in the South, as well as slave-owning Founding Fathers such as Thomas Jefferson.
But in California, it’s Serra and other Spanish conquistadors whose legacies, for the moment, shine large — and are now facing renewed outrage.
Protesters in downtown Los Angeles toppled a Serra statue near Union Station on Saturday, June 20. Another statue of Serra was brought down in San Francisco on Friday. Several statues — dedicated to Serra and two other figures — in San Pedro were defaced and then repaired over the weekend.
At the Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, where a similar Serra statue was vandalized in 2017, the staff and the local law enforcement are staying especially vigilant this week, according to Lt. Brian Kott, with the San Gabriel Police Department.
“The Police Department is aware of the historical statue in front of the San Gabriel Mission Church and the current issues surrounding its presence,” Kott said. “As with the entire community, we are fulfilling our primary duties to protect life and property by providing extra patrols, and have also been in contact with the church to address any concerns they may have.”
So far, there have been no planned demonstrations or vandalism at the site, said Terri Huerta, the mission’s director of Development and Communication. For the mission, work on cultural sensitivities is not new, Huerta said.
The mission has been working for the past three years on “how we are displaying our history and the best ways to tell the story with more sensitivity and working toward a healing process,” she said.
Serra was active in the Spanish Inquisition and later led the first team of Spanish missionaries to California in 1769, which contributed to the killing and enslavement of thousands of native people and stripped many more of their cultural identity.
Part of dealing with current issues of systemic racism, many advocates have said, must include confronting the country’s colonial legacy of slavery and genocide. And it begins with symbols.
Colonialism and Catholicism intertwined
Symbols of Spanish colonialism can be found throughout California, largest among them the state’s 21 missions and the many statues dedicated to those who founded them.
Next year, the San Gabriel Mission will have its 250th anniversary, and officials there say they hope to put some of those symbols into greater context. Questions of historical representations have become more urgent, Huerta said. To that end, the mission has been working with Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez as well as the Archdiocese’s Native American Concerns Ministry.
For roughly 20 years, Sylvia Mendivil Salazar has worked for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles as a part-time volunteer coordinator for the Native American Concerns Ministry. She said the statues of Serra represent a painful history for Native Americans.
“Seeing a statue on traditional territories where trauma occurred is painful,” said Mendivil Salazar, who is a Catholic and a member of a Native American tribe from Southern Arizona. “It rips people apart.”
Mendivil Salazar said she would like to see the Serra statues replaced with plaques paying tribute to local native people and their contributions to these lands where so many live.
Spanish colonialism and Catholicism, she noted, are intertwined. The Doctrine of Discovery — developed out of philosophies promoted by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 — were a root of institutional racism, Mendivil Salazar said.
It was the pope’s directive to invade, capture, subdue and reduce people to slavery, she said. That set the foundation for the Spanish conquests and so much of the racist history that pervades the story of western expansion, Mendivil Salazar said.
“Even in this present time, we are addressing the mission era. The trauma and genocide of thousands of indigenous people,” Mendivil Salazar said. “It all goes back to The Doctrine of Discovery, the way the mission system was developed.
“When racism becomes too ingrained, it is then that institutional racism is enacted,” she continued. “It is practiced in both political and collective organizations, and it was learned and practiced in such a subtle manner that people are not even aware they continue practicing institutional racism.”
In Orange County, home to Mission San Juan Capistrano that Serra established in 1776, the diocese said its leaders stand behind a statement issued by the California Bishop’s Conference, which described Serra as pressing the Spanish authorities to better treat Native American communities.
“The movement to confront racism within our society during these past weeks has been, at times, challenging,” the bishops said, “but it has provided bold new hope for every American that our nation can begin to transform key elements of our racist past and present.”
But the question of what to do with Serra monuments was a tough one, they said.
“If this process is to be truly effective as a remedy for racism, it must discern carefully the entire contribution that the historical figure in question made to American life, especially in advancing the rights of marginalized peoples,” the bishops said. “In tearing down his statue in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, protesters have failed that test.”
Mission San Juan Capistrano and Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, a parish church next to the mission, did not respond to requests for comment as of Monday afternoon. The mission has a statue of Serra on its grounds.
No one has asked the city of San Juan Capistrano about its seal, which includes Serra, Assistant City Manager Charlie View said in an e-mail.
JSerra Catholic High School, also in San Juan Capistrano, is working with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department to provide extra security around the campus to prevent potential vandalism. The school unveiled a statue of Serra in 2018, on the third anniversary of his canonization.
“When you look at the life of Father Serra, the church, looking at historic records and accounts of his time especially in California, proclaimed this was a man who lived virtue to a heroic degree,” the school president Rich Meyer said. “When I think about Father Serra, for me, I look at the incredible mark he has left culturally and spiritually in the development of the United States.”
Meyer said the school teaches its students the legacy of Serra — good and bad. Ultimately, he said he believes Serra’s legacy is that he “gave his heart to the people of California.”
“It’s with great pride we bear Father Serra’s name,” he said. “We are not going to shy away from who we are.”
For many people, though, the path toward ending racism runs through a complete understanding of the country’s history and confronting it. Or, as Meyer said, teaching the good and the bad. At the California History-Social Science Project, more than 4,500 California teachers each year are provided with instructional resources and professional training to help improve their classes. Some of that training involves shaping the way Spanish colonial history in California is framed.
Four years ago, a new state history framework was adopted with what advocates called a more holistic approach. The framework, which represents guidelines for how teachers should teach, no longer suggested fourth graders build models of missions — a rite of passage for generations of Californians. Rather, the framework said, students should have opportunities to explore the experiences of native people at the time.
When it comes to teaching history, it seems there is always more to learn, said Nancy McTygue, who heads the California History-Social Science Project.
“I certainly think we can always do better as far as students’ understanding of the past,” McTygue said. “There is a lot to know. Certainly we have a responsibility as educators to try to do our best for students to understand the past given how complex the story.”
Staff writers Jeong Park and Eric Licas contributed to this report.