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.