OC scholars say removal of Father Junipero Serra statues could start healing process for oppressed communities

Statues of Father Junipero Serra are being taken down or torn down due to his historical involvement in enslaving and killing the native people of California. Some scholars say this could be the start of a healing process for many oppressed communities.

Jessica De Nova Image
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Removal of Junipero Serra statues could start healing process, scholars say
Statues of Father Junipero Serra are being taken down or torn down due to his historical involvement in enslaving and killing the native people of California. Some scholars say this could be the start of a healing process for many oppressed communities.

Some scholars say the violent toppling of a statue of Father Junipero Serra in downtown Saturday could be the start of a healing process for many oppressed communities, including Native American tribes of the region caught in the pathway of the Spanish Inquisition.

Alexandro José Gradilla is an associate professor of Chicana Chicano studies at California State University, Fullerton.

"The pueblo of Los Angeles area in downtown, so much racial violence has occurred there. There was a massacre of Chinese workers. There was a massacre of African Americans, so that site has had a lot of historic violence. The fact that the Natives are trying to restore something by tearing that statue down, I think is quite significant and in a big picture way, quite healing," Gradilla said.

Activists on Saturday toppled a statue of Junipero Serra, widely regarded as the founder of the California Missions, from its perch on Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles.

In Ventura over the weekend, demonstrators called for the removal of a Serra statue outside City Hall. The were met by protesters defending the figure.

Serra is a canonized saint seen as the founder of California's mission system.

Gradilla said we're decolonizing our textbooks when we celebrate this architecture with school projects.

"'Oh how wonderful it must've been working and living on the mission,' and now we're realizing that the Natives were not happy there, and that there were many laws keeping them tied to the missions and in fact, Natives who resisted Christianity or who resisted civilization could be killed," Gradilla said.

Pope Francis is expected to canonize an 18th-century Franciscan friar who founded the first nine Spanish missions in California, despite backlash from the Native American community.

The California Catholic Conference of Bishops released this statement on the removal of the statue in L.A.:

The movement to confront racism within our society during these past weeks has been, at times, challenging but it has provided bold new hope for every American that our nation can begin to transform key elements of our racist past and present. We vigorously and wholeheartedly support a broad national coalition, especially in its peaceful dedication to eliminating racism against members of the African-American and Native American communities.

During the past week the specific question of removing statues of political, military and cultural leaders of the past has gained momentum. If this process is to be truly effective as a remedy for racism, it must discern carefully the entire contribution that the historical figure in question made to American life, especially in advancing the rights of marginalized peoples.

In calling for the removal of images of Saint Junipero Serra from public display in California, and in tearing down his statue in San Francisco and in Los Angeles, protesters have failed that test. As Archbishop Cordileone pointed out in his recent statement:

St. Serra made heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers. Even with his infirmed leg which caused him such pain, he walked all the way to Mexico City to obtain special faculties of governance from the Viceroy of Spain in order to discipline the military who were abusing the Indians. And then he walked back to California.

And lest there be any doubt, we have a physical reminder to this day: everywhere there is a presidio (soldiers' barracks) associated with a mission in the chain of 21 missions that he founded, the presidio is miles away from the mission itself and the school. St. Junipero Serra also offered them the best thing he had: the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ, which he and his fellow Franciscan friars did through education, health care, and training in the agrarian arts.

The historical truth is that Serra repeatedly pressed the Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American communities. Serra was not simply a man of his times. In working with Native Americans, he was a man ahead of his times who made great sacrifices to defend and serve the indigenous population and work against an oppression that extends far beyond the mission era. And if that is not enough to legitimate a public statue in the state that he did so much to create, then virtually every historical figure from our nation's past will have to be removed for their failings measured in the light of today's standards.

CSUF religious studies lecturer, Janet Bregar, said though difficult for some, it was time to acknowledge the facts of this painful period in California's history.

"We have to take that lens of the 1700s, the 1800s and take it away and that makes people upset because you're pulling away something that their religious world and their heritage is built on and it's hard, but it's harder to be oppressed by those myths and that's what people have to have respect for," Bregar said.

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