On the Appropriateness of Removing Statues of Junipero Serra

Amidst the removal of confederate flags and statues from our public spaces there has risen also a need to remove statues (and hopefully names of schools and highways) of Franciscan friar Junipero Serra, the founder of the mission system in California that cost thousands of Native peoples their lives. 

A Cross of Thorns by Elias Castillo

Three-time Pulitzer prize winning author Elias Castillo, in his important book  A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions, revealed the truth behind the fabled and now postcard-like missions of California, a truth long covered over in favor of a myth of benign relationships between friars and the Native Peoples. 

Serra, called by some the “Father of California,” fathered nine missions in a system that systematically destroyed the culture of the indigenous peoples of California who had lived at peace with the earth and more or less at peace with themselves over millennia until the Spanish arrived. 

Europeans who visited his missions complained in his time that they were shocked by the treatment of the Indians.   Even fellow Franciscans were embarrassed and ashamed and contemporary governor generals complained of the death camps otherwise known as “missions” and often overrode Serra’s decisions. 

“Statue of Father Junipero Serra outside Mission San Antonio de Padua, Monterey County, CA.” Photo by mlhradio on Flickr.

Decades after the governor forbade beating Indians, Serra was still insisting on it in his missions.

The missions lurk in the indigenous memory as symbols of slavery and racism and trauma, just as the confederate flag does for African Americans. 

Far from the mythology still reigning, the Indians and Catholics did not get along well.  Why else would over 1000 neophytes try to escape from fifteen missions between 1769 and 1817—especially knowing that if caught severe penalties ensued?  So many Indians escaped that the “neophytes” or baptized Christians plunged in number from 30,000 to 5,000 between 1834 and 1843.  This does not sound like happy campers wanting to stick around.

Thousands of Indians who were herded into the missions did not come voluntarily.  They were treated as slaves and were forced to work for no pay for decades in the building up of the missions and their lands, vineyards and cattle raising.

California Native Americans speak to the destructive impact and legacy of Junipero Serra, generations after his death. Video by Vision Maker Media.

They were not allowed to return to their villages (if they tried, they were whipped and often tortured, some locked into braces in the hot sun and left without water for days); they were cut off from their religion and culture and families and forced to attend daily mass, even though it was in Latin of which they understood not a word, and were forced to kneel for up to four hours during the Mass.  Men were separated from the women;  they were often starved or close to starving.  

Uprisings were frequent and followed by bloody reprisals.  Serra, on receiving news of one uprising and the number of persons killed, responded: “Thank God that that ground has now been watered (with blood): Now, certainly we will achieve the conversion of the Dieguenos.”  Strange talk indeed for a saint! 


See: Elias Castillo, A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions, pp. 173.

See Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society, pp. 203-209.   

Banner Image: “Demonstration at Mission Dolores Opposes Sainthood for Junipero Serra” by Alex Darocy on Indybay.com.

Do you feel a new appreciation of the suffering and trauma that has been inflicted on indigenous peoples in the Americas on hearing of the realities of Junipero Serra’s missions?  What might follow from that awakening in terms of a fuller waking up to American history?  Do you recognize a common story with the African slave story?

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4 thoughts on “On the Appropriateness of Removing Statues of Junipero Serra”

  1. Avatar

    It’s so sad that this was a Franciscan priest. What would Francis think? Of course the statues should be taken down and this man no longer sainted. It poses a huge problem for California schools, however. One of the best experiential learning projects my children experienced in California schools was the 4th grade “Mission Project.” Parents who have helped their children with this project know what I’m talking about. They learned so much, not through lecturing or “book-learning”, but through visits and hands-on activity. Of course some of what they “learned” was not great. So this whole 4th grade activity can be transformed–and possibly it already has been. I don’t know how schools would do it because much of the activity is focused on building the child’s chosen mission out of self-selected materials, but I’m sure that good teachers can re-focus the project to begin to understand the complexity of the convergence of two cultures. And maybe building a native village would be a good start.

  2. Avatar

    Update: I just read this morning that building a California mission was never required in 4th grade, but was almost universally assigned from the 1960s until the present. In 1917, new educational standards were released. “The new framework pushes for lesson plans that focus more on the everyday life at the mission for California Indians and priests. Ideally this would capture more of the harm done to indigenous culture, but it is at least symbolic of a wider view of history.” Here’s a good article about the project and how it might be updated or supplanted. https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/california-mission-models

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