Why Serra Should Not Be a Saint

On February 1, the Mexica Movement, an organization devoted to the rights of indigenous people, led protesters through downtown Los Angeles, marching from the oldest part of the city at La Placita Olvera to the Cathedral of our Lady of the Angels, seeking an audience with Archbishop José Gómez. Motivated by concerns over misrepresentations of native peoples and histories in the Americas (“This is still our continent! It is our land.”) the Mexica Movement opposes the recent papal decision to honor the founder of California’s Mission system with sainthood.

If the Pope really does follow through on making Junípero Serra Ferrer, OFM a saint this September (I am still hoping he changes his mind), then he will have finally succeeded where so many of Serra’s devotees have failed. Ever since Serra was beatified under Pope John Paul II in 1988, discussions of his possible sainthood served as a lightning rod of memory (Carl Nolte’s article fairly captures the range of opinions); the crucial challenge is how we remember California’s mission past.

Were California’s missions utopian experiments run by well-intentioned priests or were they colonial nightmares predicated on the destruction of native Californian rights and cultures? What if they were both?

In the late eighteenth century, in the waning days of Spain’s American empire, the Jesuits were expelled from Mexico and the Franciscans were sent in their stead to expand the missions in Baja California and to lead the conquest and settlement of New Spain’s remote northwestern reaches. Spain was aware of the growing threat of Russian and British trade, but they had not much interest in the land that we call California. So they dispatched a quite devoted and austere Mallorcan Franciscan, Serra, who already had years of mission experience in Mexico’s Sierra Gorda, experience that included a fair amount of zealous evangelizing and inquisitorial spirit.

As someone who practiced significant self-flagellation and focused much on the salvific power of his own physical suffering, it is perhaps unsurprising that Serra also championed corporal punishment as part of evangelizing native converts living in the missions.

While a responsible historical mind recognizes that Serra nurtured good intentions in California (in that he thought that bringing Christianity and Spanish “civilization” to native Californians would be good for them) Serra’s mission projects and those that followed helped to decimate indigenous populations.

Life in the missions could be quite harsh, with forced labor and painful social and cultural transformation required in daily practice. The missions themselves could seem more like prisons, where the missionaries worked with soldiers to capture and guard indigenous converts—who wanted to leave and return home.

Such was missionary paranoia about losing native Christians that they would have indigenous women beaten or at least publicly shamed and berated if they miscarried, often claiming that the women had actually aborted their fetuses on purpose (which many no doubt did ).

Serra’s missions brokered no respect for the cultural backgrounds or beliefs of converts; the goal was to “make them human,” according to Spanish Catholicism. Serra can be credited with a confidence that indigenous Californians could some day be better Christians than Spanish ones, and he notably fought to spare the lives of indigenous rebels when some local Kumeyaay revolted against the San Diego mission (1775), a revolt led by runaway converts. The revolt entailed the death of Fr. Luis Jayme, whom Serra portrayed as a martyr.

For the rest of the Spanish imperial period, California was a remote backwater of little interest, and though, after Serra died (in 1784), his student and fellow missionary Francisco Palóu quickly wrote a biography (published in 1787) whose every word worked to declare Serra a saint, few were terribly interested in “St. Serra” at the time.

Serra was certainly not the worst Spanish or Catholic missionary to set foot in the American hemisphere, but that is not saying much. While his singular devotion to evangelization is remarkable, who cannot but question the drive to make a saint out of someone who managed to perpetrate so much violence, suffering, and death—even if unintentionally—in the name of a narrow-minded vision of the good?

Serra assumed he had a truth that had to be shared with the world, and he could not be swayed on what that truth was. The only good I could offer in canonizing him as a saint is that perhaps his story might teach others about the great human costs that have often accompanied our utopian schemes; his is a stark lesson in the mistaken dreams and tragic failings of missionary colonialism.

Besides the historical Serra, the drive for his canonization must also be contextualized in the colonial legacies after his death. In the 1820s and 1830s, the California missions were slowly secularized as the Mexican government, now independent from Spain, came to see them as paternalistic and genocidal prisons.

That is not to say the Mexican government dealt justly with indigenous Californians; they did not. Mexicans certainly stole mission lands and gave them to wealthy settler colonists who pursued their own unjust logics. And Mexico controlled California for only a short while before U.S. imperial aggression severed Alta California from Mexico, and finding gold in its mountains, U.S. colonists invaded the land and rapidly transformed Alta California into a state, extending and expediting the population decline and attempted cultural genocide of native peoples.

It is precisely the place of California within the U.S. imaginary that has deeply shaped the drive to make Serra a saint. As Roberto Ramón Lint Sagarena has described in his Aztlán and Arcadia (NYU Press, 2014), the missions were revered in the late nineteenth century as part of an unfolding U.S. conquest of California that sought to eradicate California’s Mexican past. California’s Latin@ population is represented, in this scheme, as foreign.

Thus the Serra that Pope Francis seeks to canonize is not just a potential saint because of his violent evangelism, but also because he became a European tool for the U.S. conquest of Californian territory—a means for ignoring the complex Mexican history of the U.S.’s most populous state.

Perhaps for this reason, more than any other, California’s mission period is the last place we should look for saints; too much violent nationalism lies at the core of California mission memorialization to be of use to a global church.

However, if I were to propose an alternate candidate for sainthood, I might consider a child of the Mexican period, indigenous scholar Pablo Tac (1822-1841), who was born in Mission San Luis Rey and went to Europe to study, dying tragically young.

Or if I must reach back to the Spanish era, I would consider Tongva medicine woman, Toypurina (1760-1799), who led a revolt against the San Gabriel Mission in 1785. She was captured and tried, and during her testimony, she indicted the padres for their unjust treatment of native lives, lands, and cultures. Nevertheless, she became a Christian in 1787, and she was exiled to Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel.

Toypurnia became Regina Josepha, married a soldier, and had three children. Her story remains complex and we may never understand the choices she made—which is part of why I would support her as a better exemplar of the painful tensions and challenges that befell the California missions, as well as the impossibility of our ever fully grasping and narrating the mission period.

Photo of a statue of Junipero Serra (California I-280, between SF and San Jose) courtesy Steve Boland via Flickr/Creative Commons.

  • Father Junipero Serra was a pioneer and explorer, and may have been a good man, relative to his times. But I do not see anything in his character or his actions that qualifies him for any recognition of other than mortal stature, beyond his part in the historical “founding” of “modern” California.

  • Jim Reed

    I think whatever founding of California was done in that time period got undone in the gold rush.

  • TBill

    I trust the Church in its judgments aobut who should be declared a saint, particularly in politicized matters such as this. BTW, I didn’t agree politically with Archbishop Romero, but have no doubt he was a saint.

  • Whiskyjack

    Do you have any rational basis for this judgment, or is it just a hunch?

  • TBill

    Rational basis is probabalistic. The Church researches the biographies of people who are considered for canonization for decades if not centuries (e.g., John Henry Newman) and has access to all the laundary, clean and dirty. The Church beatifed Serra per the article 27 years ago. I’m not knocking the author of the article, but the expertise of numerous Church experts over many years is likely to exceed hers.
    Other basis is personal. While the Church isn’t perfect (insert clergy abuse story, nun with ruler tale here), it’s generally treated me very well. I trust it over an author I’ve never heard of before.

  • Whiskyjack

    Thanks for your reasonable response. However, I disagree with you regarding certainty about the fate of someone in a hypothetical afterlife.

  • TBill

    Thanks!

  • James Stagg

    Thanks, TBill. Well stated.

  • RoyMix

    To say that the missions paved the way for US colonization is pretty bizarre. While California indians were decimated, they and those of Arizona and New Mexico are far less destroyed than any other groups in the Far West who faced mass colonization. I suspect that the Rancheras were innstrumental in making that happen. The fates of non mission indians in California are even worse the complete examples of extermination outside of the Northeast and Texas.

    Say what you might about Serra he was not engaged in extermination.

  • Alfonso

    Déjà vu.

  • Alfonso

    Déjà vu. An article by Massimo Introvigne, in
    quotidiana Bussola, reports research of a historian who devoted a monumental
    work in aboriginal problem in Australia. This work of
    “re-information” comes in handy when you know the shameless
    exploitation which has been made of the so-called “stolen
    generations” to incriminate the work done by generations of Christian
    missionaries in Africa.

    Extracts (full translation here)

    (…) On the basis of an old anthropological
    theory of Marxism result, some argue that the so-called “primitive”,
    who do not know of private property and living without sexual inhibitions or
    guilt, would be much more advanced and happy us who we call a “civilized”
    West. (note: it is the myth of the noble savage Rousseau, revisited and often
    exploited against the Church).

    The promised land of anthropologists –
    especially relativistic – for decades was Australia, where there were, at least
    until the 80s, the “preserved” tribes who had never experienced the
    white man. We have seen develop in this heated debate on the cultural genocide
    – not just cultural – that settlers have inflicted on indigenous peoples. After
    1968, in a climate of cultural relativism, leading political figures have
    spread in a public apology for the wrongs committed for centuries against
    aboriginal tribes of Australia.

    A historian, Marxist repented, became
    neoconservative Keith Windschuttle, published in 2002 the first of three
    volumes of a monumental work on the falsification of Aboriginal history
    “The manufacture of Aboriginal history” (The Making of Aboriginal
    History, vol. I, Macleay, Sydney 2002), in which he explores the conflicts
    between Aborigines and settlers in Tasmania in the first half of the nineteenth
    century. Windschuttle argues in essence that there is not enough reliable
    written sources to confirm the thesis that a large number of Tasmanian
    Aborigines have suffered a violent death at the hands of the settlers. The book
    has sparked fierce controversy.

    The third volume has just been published it is
    “devoted to the” stolen generations “. These are the aborigines
    who for more than a century, from 1881, were taken from their parents and
    placed with colleges or adoptive families in the hope of marrying the
    integration of non-indigenous, which would have completely eliminated the
    tribes in accordance with a long and ambitious eugenics program “…

    Winshuttle supports the contrary, that the
    basis for the removal of indigenous children from their families was not
    different from the base of the withdrawal of white children: that is to say,
    neglect, sexual abuse or domestic violence (cf. Wikipedia)

    Anthropologists due, in part, to argue that
    the indigenous approach to sexual morality was different from that of
    Christians. Marriages were combined at the time of the birth of girls and
    celebrated and consumed at puberty, when the girl was only eight or nine years.
    The women of the tribe did not have the same rights as men. They were frequently
    victims of infanticide – because the tribes, especially in times of famine,
    preferred to feed their son; they were also victims of sexual abuse. Contact
    with non-natives – with serious misconduct by them – has led to a surge in
    prostitution, which, moreover, already existed, resulting in the spread of
    venereal diseases.

    The missionaries – Protestant and Catholic –
    have certainly instilled another body, fought prostitution and the practice of
    marriages between adults – sometimes the elderly – with girls under twelve.
    Were they wrong to destroy traditional Aboriginal culture, or had reason to
    give primacy to a universal moral law? Is there not a natural moral law that
    applies to all cultures?

    The problem, ultimately, is the existence of a
    universal moral law. If this law does not exist, there is only room for
    anthropological relativism which asks what the Aborigines let live “as
    they like” and “as they have always lived.” ….

    But if there is a universal law of reason that
    applies to everyone – whether you are white or indigenous, Christian or
    follower of traditional religions – regardless of religious affiliation or
    traditions – then offer Aboriginal children in Australia a life free from
    forced marriages, prostitution, education and health underdevelopment is not a
    fault but a blessing of the missionaries.

    “In addition to bringing the Gospel –
    writes Windschuttle – missionaries have imposed the discipline to learn to
    read, write and count, to receive a good primary education They released
    Aboriginal women by persuading them that their. body belonged to them to them,
    and not to their husbands or their fathers, and they had the right to choose
    whom to marry. … They encouraged indigenous peoples to acquire a critical
    level of hygiene to prevent spread of epidemics. the more experienced
    missionaries learned to replace the old economy nomadic modern village life
    based on agriculture. They offered a refuge for orphans and street children,
    particularly Métis person whose did nor among the aborigines or whites.
    “Some missionaries did show a lack of sensitivity; there is at least one
    to one Protestant – which was, in turn, accused of sex abuse. But the vast
    majority have behaved impeccably; they have not violated the rights of
    indigenous peoples, but having protected the pay of the disease, and sometimes
    their lives.Consider the heroism of missionaries as a form
    of cultural genocide manifests the paradoxical consequences which today leads
    cultural relativism.

  • sudmuf

    Who wrote this crap?

  • cgosling

    TBill – How can you trust a church with a history you have heard of before… over an author you haven’t heard of before? Sensibly you cannot. The church may have treated you well, but that is beside the point. You really need to evaluate its whole history. If you do, and I suspect you have, be honest with your evaluation. Church history contains so many attrocities and downright untruths that a sensible person without emotional ties cannot condone it and embrace it. Because you are comfortable with your faith now does not justify the church’s “sins” of the past.

  • Stephen Abbott

    The argument of who ‘owns the land’ is a silly one. God owns the land, ultimately. Not to mention the silly practice of making people into saints to be objectified.

  • 82jennifer82

    I quite agree. Father Serra was an important man in the history and founding of CA, but a saint… is something else…

  • yEshUA ImmAnUEl ©

    “Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men. Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression. Let integrity and uprightness distinguish all thine acts. ”

  • eliza

    It’s nice to see this info. Lot’s of people still have the noble savage idea.

  • larrymotuz

    There is no universal moral ‘law’ as such. Rather, there are common ethical standards/behavioral ideals pervasive throughout human cultures. I have said elsewhere that morals are about living with oneself; ethics about living together.