Pope Francis announced this past week that when he comes to the U.S. in September he plans to canonize Spanish Colonial missionary Father Junipero Serra. Many have proclaimed approval of this imminent sainthood, including San Francisco’s Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone who in his official statement prays: “that we all might be blessed likewise to imitate [Serra’s] great heroic virtues for the good of the gospel of Jesus Christ here in California.”
There are also many of us who are reluctant to celebrate the problematic legacy of the 300 year-old conqueror of the State. He was the one who blazed the trail we now know as El Camino Real and founded the Mission system that facilitated the Spanish conquest of this landscape.
Father Serra, like his secular predecessor Christopher Columbus, has generally been glorified as a heroic figure who “settled” California by establishing the Mission system and converting the territory’s previously undisturbed inhabitants to Christianity. But, of course, Father Serra might also be seen as a villain — whose evangelical endeavor resulted in the subjugation of the Native Americans, the confiscation of their land and the destruction of their way of life. This 1770s West Coast decimation of the Native people parallels the genocide that the Pilgrims initiated at Plymouth Rock in the East, 150 years earlier.
As the Google buses traverse the road that still bears his name (Highway 280 is also known as the Junipero Serra Freeway), it’s an interesting time to ponder the ever-changing landscape and population of our Golden State. Because really, as Father Serra and his missionary colleagues displaced and destroyed the ways of life of the Native Americans — so, too, do we subsequent pilgrims disrupt the lives of our predecessors.
The glorification of Junipero Serra across the state of California is already a long-established phenomenon. There are scads of schools, streets, businesses and public buildings named after him and dozens of statues dotting the landscape from Mexico to Oregon. Not to mention the Junipero Serra bronze that represents the State of California in the National Statuary Hall in Washington DC. Yes, this Spanish-speaking immigrant is one of our two statuary representatives there, standing alongside former California governor and U.S. President, Ronald Reagan.
The modern re-romanticizing of California’s Spanish Missionary era begins in the 1880s (just a few decades after the U.S. conquest of Mexico in the Mexican American War) when the state’s burgeoning tourism industry reconstructs this Mission heritage into a romanticized, nostalgic past. The true, painful story of the decidedly unheroic earlier enslavement and oppression of Native Americans and the more recent conquest of Mexico is successfully buried under the near-mythical tales of Father Serra and his heroic missionary priests.
These disingenuous parables may have soothed the collective conscience of California’s Anglo inhabitants. They also provided a convincing fairy tale backdrop for what remains a prominent ethos of the state’s cultural fabric — the idea that it is a land of pioneers and visionaries; of angels and saints.
In some ways it would seem that the Pope has perfect timing. He is valorizing this conqueror of the past in the moment when yet another mass San Francisco displacement is currently in process. And when so many of us who once thought we were simply pilgrims may at last be realizing that we too have conquered (I confess I was part of the first dot-com boom in the mid-90s). Here’s hoping this next round of missionaries may soon be blessed with a greater consciousness and sense of responsibility towards this place and the people who preceded them, and those who preceded them, and so on.
A Mission local reader, Tony Platt, sent in this piece that he wrote on Serra’s canonization for the Los Angeles Times.
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