Over the past month, mobs across the Golden State hae torn down statues of a Junipero Serra, an eighteenth-century Spanish Franciscan friar. On June 20, protesters in downtown Los Angeles toppled a Serra statue near Union Station. The mob labeled the statue a “commemoration of hate, bigotry, and colonization.”
A day earlier, activists had brought down another statue of Serra in San Francisco. Several statues dedicated to Serra and two other figures in San Pedro were defaced. The famous mission of San Juan Capistrano preemptively removed their statue of Serra to protect it from possible destruction. The cities of Carmel and Ventura took similar action. What could this long-dead priest have done to elicit such strong acrimony and outrage?
Serra was born in 1713 on the island of Mallorca off the Mediterranean coast of Spain. In 1730, he entered the Franciscan order, known for its poverty, acts of charity, and missionary spirit. Serra landed in Veracruz, on the Gulf Coast of New Spain (now Mexico) in 1749. He walked 250 miles from there to Mexico City.
During the trek, Serra’s left leg became infected by a vicious insect bite — a condition that would trouble him for the rest of his life. For many years, Serra served in various mission capacities, including preaching, administering church building, and founding missions across Mexico. He arrived in San Diego in 1769 and founded a mission there.
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Across what is now present-day California, Serra founded eight more missions: Monterey/Carmel (1770), San Antonio and San Gabriel (1771), San Luís Obispo (1772), San Francisco and San Juan Capistrano (1776), Santa Clara (1777), and San Buenaventura (1782). Serra had contentious disagreements with California’s Spanish military commander, Pedro Fages, and traveled by foot to Mexico City to argue his case before the Viceroy, arriving almost at the point of death.
Yet Serra achieved his desired outcome: the “Regulation” that protected the Indians and the missions. As San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone recently explained:
St. Serra made heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers. Even with his infirmed leg which caused him such pain, he walked all the way to Mexico City to obtain special faculties of governance from the Viceroy of Spain in order to discipline the military who were abusing the Indians. And then he walked back to California.
Serra labored tirelessly and risked death for the indigenous peoples he met. He baptized more than 6,000 people. Serra once urged the Spanish military to spare several American Indians who had destroyed one of the missions. “They burned the whole place down and they tortured and killed one of the Franciscans there, a good friend of Fray Junipero,” L.A. Archbishop Jose Gomez recounted.
Serra appealed to the Spanish authorities to not condemn the guilty parties to death. Cordileone notes: “St. Junipero Serra also offered indigenous peoples the best thing he had: the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ, which he and his fellow Franciscan friars did through education, health care, and training in the agrarian arts.” The friar was buried at Mission San Carlo Borromeo, Carmel, and was canonized by Pope Francis in Washington, D.C. in 2015.
So why are mobs of angry Californians attacking public art that honors Serra? According to an article at America Magazine, “Native Americans brought into the mission to be evangelized were not allowed to leave the grounds. Many labored for no pay. There is evidence of beatings, imprisonment, and other abuse at the hands of the missionaries.”
University of California at Riverside history professor Steven Hackel, a leading scholar on Serra, told the L.A. CBS affiliate that Serra used “spanking or some sort of physical aggressiveness that was their way of correcting wayward people.” Alexandro José Gradilla, an associate professor of Chicana Chicano studies at California State University, Fullerton, told the L.os AngelesABC affiliate:
The pueblo of Los Angeles area in downtown, so much racial violence has occurred there. There was a massacre of Chinese workers. There was a massacre of African Americans, so that site has had a lot of historic violence. The fact that the Natives are trying to restore something by tearing that statue down, I think is quite significant and in a big picture way, quite healing.
While it is easy to apply today’s standards to the past, in historical context Serra and his religious colleagues were far ahead of their time. Apparently, one can never be far enough ahead.
Indians living off the missions were likely to be mistreated by the brutal Spanish secular officials with whom Serra contended. Disciplinary measures the Franciscan monks applied may very well have been excessive or inappropriate. The friars, conversely, were quite lenient compared to how civil authorities treated indigenous peoples. There is simply no just cause to the argument that a monument to Serra must be excised because violence was done to various peoples at the L.A. mission Serra founded centuries after his time.
Outrage at Serra amounts to simply yet another case of “chronological snobbery,” in which the current generation judges all previous generations according to contemporary conceptions of morality, as if this generation, simply by being current, is the fount of all that is most righteous and virtuous. Serra saved Native Americans from rapacious Spanish colonial authorities and worked diligently for the material and spiritual welfare of indigenous peoples.
Yet radical leftists believe he failed to live up to our current cultural standards regarding personal freedom and corporal punishment, and thus must be canceled. This approach is ignorant, vicious, and self-defeating. We mercilessly condemn our ancestors, forgetting that by doing this we encourage our descendants to do the same.
The consideration of public art honoring deceased Americans “must discern carefully the entire contribution that the historical figure in question made to American life,” notes a statement by the California Catholic Conference of bishops. Protestors attacking monuments to Serra “have failed that test,” it declares, then continues:
Serra was not simply a man of his times. In working with Native Americans, he was a man ahead of his times who made great sacrifices to defend and serve the indigenous population and work against oppression that extends far beyond the mission era. And if that is not enough to legitimate a public statue in the state that he did so much to create, then virtually every historical figure from our nation’s past will have to be removed for their failings measured in the light of today’s standards.
The statement of the bishops is measured and rational. Unfortunately for America, the outraged mobs of our cancel-culture are neither rational nor just. Men like Serra deserve memorialization. They deserve to be treasured, and, if need be, defended.