Father Junipero Serra, the 18th century Franciscan missionary* who is often credited with making California habitable for Europeans by converting and often enslaving native tribes, is one of multiple historic figures whose legacies are being questioned anew in recent weeks of national protest. After statues of Serra were toppled in San Francisco and Los Angeles over the weekend, some historians and Catholic church officials are pushing back and denying the narrative that Serra was cruel to indigenous people, attempting to argue the opposite.
In San Francisco, in addition to the now toppled statue in Golden Gate Park, we have an elementary school named for Serra, and Junipero Serra Boulevard runs from the south west part of the city southward to Daly City. Daly City has an elementary school named for Serra, San Mateo also has a Junipero Serra High School, and there is this hideous statue of Serra pointing a huge finger toward the coast next to I-280 in Hillsborough.
So, who was this man whom Native American activists and others have been calling out for decades as being undeserving of statuary and other honorary namings?
Serra was the principal architect of the California mission system, overseeing the building of nine missions from San Diego up to San Francisco during his lifetime, beginning in 1769. Mission Dolores was in fact founded and built under Serra's direction in 1776, originally under the name Misión San Francisco de Asís — giving our city its name.
While building these missions, Serra pressed native peoples into labor, and sought — along with the entire Catholic missionary apparatus — to "civilize" them by stripping them of their cultures and converting them to Christianity. Activists argue that Serra is largely responsible for decimating entire tribes and villages — often through the introduction of diseases — and for flogging and imprisoning indigenous people who disobeyed his commands.
Activists just toppled the Junipero Serra statue in Golden Gate Park here in San Francisco— Joe Rivano Barros (@jrivanob) June 20, 2020
Now they’re onto Francis Scott Key, slave owner and writer of the Star Spangled Banner pic.twitter.com/Ykv0hFMZvK
Some historians of color, like Ruben Mendoza, say that Serra's legacy has been misrepresented. Mendoza is the coordinator of California mission archaeology at Cal State Monterey Bay, and as he told the Los Angeles Times in 2015, Serra was "actually in constant conflict with governors and military commanders in New Spain over how they were treating Indians," and he says he can't find any evidence of abuse of native people in Serra's own documents.
Gregory Orfalea, who wrote a 2014 biography of Serra, says that Serra urged the Spanish viceroy to spare the lives of a group of indigenous people who were blamed for murdering three Spaniards in San Diego in 1775.
Pope Francis, himself a Hispanic Jesuit (Serra was a Franciscan), called Serra a personal hero and a kindred spirit when he chose to canonize him in 2015. The decision to make Serra a saint caused controversy at the time, even within the church, but as Rev. Timothy Kesicki, president of the Jesuit Conference in Washington, told CNN, "I don't think Pope Francis wants pristine saints, because then no one will aspire to sainthood."
Activists argue that Serra's legacy has been sugar-coated, and that he should be grouped with all colonizers like Christopher Columbus — whose own statue was removed last week from its longtime pedestal atop Telegraph Hill by the SF Arts Commission.
"During the Spanish colonial and the Mexican period we lost 90% of the Indians in California,” says Ron Andrade, director of Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, speaking to the LA Times. "Serra was no saint to us." Indeed, historians believe that through a combination of disease and dwindling food resources caused by colonization, California's native population sank from around 300,000 when Serra's campaign began, to around 50,000 after the Gold Rush.
As KPIX reports, the San Francisco Unified School District is now considering stripping Serra's name from the elementary school named for him in Bernal Heights, along with the names of Francis Scott Key, who was a known slave owner and has an elementary school named for him, and George Washington, whose namesake high school in the Richmond is among dozens if not hundreds of schools around the country named for the first president of the United States.
"Schools that were named after slave owners or in Serra’s case, [those who] led to the demise of many many thousands of Native Americans who were virtually enslaved as well [have to be looked at]," says SF Unified School District Board President Mark Sanchez, speaking to KPIX. "I think we’re hitting a situation where we could be accelerating the look at renaming our schools and I think that’s a positive thing."
The Berkeley Unified School District, similarly, voted a week ago to strip the names of Washington and Thomas Jefferson from two of its elementary schools, and to rename them in honor of the Black Lives Matter movement.
San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone, himself a controversial figure for many because of his anti-gay and anti-trans views, decided to throw his outrage into the mix over the weekend about the toppling of the Serra statue.
In a statement, Cordileone said, "St. Serra made heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers. All of this is not to deny that historical wrongs have occurred, even by people of good will, and healing of memories and reparation is much needed."
*A previous version of this post mistakenly said that Serra was a Jesuit, when in fact he was a Franciscan.