It’s the Catholic Bishops, Not Those Who Toppled Junipero Serra Statues, Who Have Failed the Test of History

Statue of Father Junípero Serra, outside of the Santa Barbara mission. Image: Brandon/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Apologies are not enough. As protesters have taken to the streets throughout the world in opposition to anti-Black racism, they’ve also attacked statues symbolizing dominating violence, precisely because so many statues present in city centers represent the continuation of structures of racial violence even when verbal apologies have been issued. In the US, this refusal to be satisfied by empty statements has manifested in protesters removing multiple Confederate monuments, most of which were erected in the era of Jim Crow which renders them symbols of white supremacist domination. 

Most recently, on July 4, Christopher Columbus’ statue was toppled in Baltimore as part of a more expansive attack on colonizing symbols. Last month, In California, protesters targeted a symbol of anti-Indigenous and anti-Mexican violence (bearing in mind that these can be both distinct and overlapping forms of racism and ethnic discrimination), toppling a statue of St. Junípero Serra in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The next day, activists shouting, “this is for our ancestors,” pulled down another iconic Serra statue, this time in the heart of Los Angeles at Placita Olvera. 

The California Catholic Conference of Bishops (CCCB) responded with more empty support of anti-racist movements, yet they refuse to grapple with the ways that racism and colonial violence have structured Catholic history (let alone its current structures, and its material wealth). The Bishops accused the protesters of failing the test of history because protesters did not “discern carefully the entire contribution that the historical figure in question [Serra] made to American life.” 

Archbishop Gómez responded more thoughtfully at the end of June though he also chided protesters and described many criticisms launched against Serra as “revisionist.” Yet, it’s the bishops, not the protesters, who have failed the test of history. Their statement misconstrues historical “entirety” by focusing on intention and origins instead of reckoning with consequences and reception. 

The colonial focus on intention 

The CCCB argued that Serra was “a man ahead of his times” because he made sacrifices to protect indigenous peoples from colonial abuse. St. Junípero Serra came to colonial Mexico in 1749 and, upon arriving in California, helped to found mission San Diego in 1769. During that time, he believed himself to be fulfilling the will of God by bringing the gospel to peoples in California who had not yet heard it. 

Compared to some of his contemporaries, certainly, Serra fought to protect indigenous peoples. For instance, as Archbishop Gómez underscored, Serra responded sympathetically to a Kumeyaay rebellion in 1775, asking that the rebels’ lives be spared. Serra was certainly not comparable to Hitler, as Archbishop Gómez underscores, but being better than Hitler seems a rather low bar for a saint or someone whose memory we celebrate with a statue. As I’ve argued before on RD, comparing Serra favorably to his colonial-era peers or to the United States’ conquest of the nineteenth century, isn’t saying much. Serra wasn’t even the most radical voice among his peers advocating for human rights. 

Even though Serra wanted to help Native Californians, good intentions are never enough. As Jace Weaver has described, these good intentions were already enmeshed within a racist structure. Although Serra didn’t intend to physically kill Native peoples, there’s no denying the statistical evidence that Robert Jackson and Edward Castillo have well delineated. Spanish colonization precipitated a steep decline in California’s indigenous population, and mission-based converts often suffered higher mortality rates than people living outside the missions. Do Serra’s intentions truly matter more than the reality of tragic and unnecessary death?

Additionally, Serra assumed that evangelizing Native Christians also meant dismantling their culture, what George Tinker dubs “attempted cultural genocide.” Serra viewed Native Californians through the lens of racism, which is to say, paternalistically. He saw himself as a father and indigenous peoples (converts and non-Christians alike) as children, incapable of making adult decisions equal to his own.

Once evangelized, Native Californians were locked inside missions to prevent them from escaping. Those who ran away were captured and publicly flogged, a form of corporal punishment never applied to European and mixed-race colonizers. The presidio or fortress may have been at a distance, but there was still a small military contingent at missions policing converts. 

Today’s protesters understand the entirety of Serra’s historical contribution, and they’ve found it insufficient to justify his heroic portrayal. To attend to the whole of Serra’s contribution is to attend to the racist and violent consequences of his actions. At the very least, Catholics should reframe notions and practices of sainthood so as to incorporate a borderlands memory, one that always remembers Serra’s human failings, and the mistakes of the California missions, alongside his greatest aspirations. Confronting Serra, we could all confront the necessity of redefining our very notions of the human. Yet statues of Serra cannot stand so long as they represent a desire to forget histories of colonial domination. The CCCB’s response, ironically, merely reinforces the justification for Serra’s removal.

Focusing on origins over reception

Part of the problem here is how the bishops approach Serra’s sainthood as hinging on good intentions, without reckoning with how racism shaped those intentions. But the bishops also refuse to grapple with how and why Serra became valorized and rose to enough prominence to be made a saint in the first place. Like Confederate monuments, these Serra statues were manufactured in the era of Jim Crow in order to remind people that racial hierarchies are violently policed. The Knights of Columbus installed the Serra statue in downtown Los Angeles in 1932 where he served as a symbol of the United States’ conquest of Mexican and Native populations. 

As Roberto Ramón Lint Sagarena outlines in Aztlán and Arcadia, recuperation of Spanish mission pasts in the late nineteenth-century was an effort at racist myth-making. Mission memory revival justified the genocidal disappearing of Indigenous peoples even as it sought to erase California’s Mexican history by focusing on the Spanish era. 

For instance, in his 1929 “Address at the Dedication of the Junípero Serra Museum,” James A. Blaisdell underscored how the racial logics of whiteness shaped Anglo-US interests in Serra. Blaisdell saw the museum as signaling a reunification of a “common Aryan family,” a rejoining of Spanish and Anglo-Saxon cultures “here reunited in this new community of interest and effort.” Given the era, one cannot miss the many forms of racism structuring this articulation of a hegemonic Christian white supremacy based on anti-Semitism as well as anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism alongside explicit anti-Mexican ethnic sentiment. 

The bishops’ version of Serra’s heroic story has been passed to us through racist histories and structures. Anti-racism requires that we confront the very nature of how we build institutions that relate to the past only in particular ways, and it demands that we reimagine our relationships to the past. Yet, here again, the bishops refused to attend to the fullness of history.

Words aren’t enough

This isn’t the first time the Catholic Church has issued empty words of apology that were then followed by racist actions. Under the first pope to hail from the global South, the Catholic Church did something remarkable when, in July 2015, Pope Francis asked for forgiveness for the Church and “for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America.” Yet, Pope Francis demonstrated the emptiness of these words when, just 2 months later, he made Serra a saint despite generations of protests against his canonization.

The problem isn’t just the statues or the saints themselves. It’s what they represent. I’ve already suggested that those, including Latina/o/xs, who supported Serra’s canonization as if he were “a Hispanic saint” often perpetuate a racism that has structured Latino/a/x histories where European voices are elevated, while African, Asian, and Native voices are erased. In the case of California that means canonizing Serra but forgetting Native Christians such as Regina Josepha/Toypurina or Pablo Tac. Serra’s statues are a reminder of whose culture is supposed to remain dominant, regardless of the human lives lost to that domination.

In this moment, it’s not enough to de-romanticize Serra. Remembering colonial violence isn’t enough. As Ibram X. Kendi argues, we must build specifically anti-racist policies and structures instead. If churches really want to be anti-racist, they have to dismantle racist beliefs and practices and create new, explicitly anti-racist relationships with the saints, scriptures, and histories they deem holy. I suspect the bishops know that future generations will judge them for their own historical failures to build an anti-racist Church.