In 2015, before being canonized by Pope Francis, the image of friar Junipero Serra — founder of several of California’s missions — became part of the contentious debate about the rights and wrongs of history.
For some, Serra represents the “genocide” of Native Americans; for others he was a pious man who taught Native Americans about God and spread civilization to lands barely populated.
Protests, petitions and marches were organized against his ascension to the sainthood while the Catholic Church hailed him as the first “Hispanic” in the United States to receive such a high honor.
It seems Serra and his past continues to be divisive.
Last week, an image taken ins 2015 of the statue of Serra at Brand Park, across the street from Mission San Fernando, went viral on the Internet. It showed his face, chest, and hands spray-painted red with the word “murder” written in white.
A Native American boy standing with him as part of the monument had red paint under his eyes as though he were crying blood. A swastika was also painted on the boy.
The Brand Park statue was also re-vandalized last week, this time with a swastika and some graffiti painted on the base of the monument. It was quickly cleaned up.
This is not the first time a statue of Serra was defaced. Shortly after Pope Francis elevated him to sainthood in 2015, vandals hit the Carmel Mission where the remains of the saint are buried, damaging statues and gravesites during their rampage.
Serra’s statue has become entangled in the current controversy about monuments of historical figures.
Many have called for the removal of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s statues after a Nazi sympathizer drove into a crowd protesting a rally by white nationalists in Charlottesville, VA, killing one woman and injuring many others.
And to those who object to Serra’s place in Native American history are pushing for the removal of his monuments as well.
While news about the statue vandalism was new, the viral image — spread through Facebook and other social media — wasn’t.
“That’s an old photo,” said Caroline Ward Holland, member of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, who inhabited the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys before Spaniards came to this area.
In 2015, before Serra’s canonization, Ward Holland and her son Kagen paid homage to their indigenous heritage by leading the “Walk for the Ancestors,” a 780-mile pilgrimage to visit all 21 of the state’s missions. It was also a way to express their rejection of sainthood for Serra.
“That picture was taken before the walk reached San Fernando,” Ward Holland told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol this week.
She saw it resurface a couple of weeks ago on Facebook, and from there it spread.
“I don’t know the person who put it up,” she said, adding that “I don’t condone vandalism of any kind. It’s not the way to get your message across.”
But Ward Holland doesn’t mind that the news revived attention to something she’s been advocating for a long time — the removal of the statue.
“The people are not in agreement with celebrating oppression and blatant genocide of the people of the state of California,” she said.
A Controversial Figure
Born in 1713 in Majorca, Spain, Miquel Josep Serra i Ferrer entered the Alcantarine Franciscans — a reform movement in the order — and took the name “Junípero” in honor of St. Juniper.
He later went to Mexico, and in 1770 Serra moved to the area that is now Monterey (in Northern California) where he founded Mission San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo.
He remained there as “Father Presidente” of the Alta California Missions. He also founded Missions’ Basilica San Diego de Alcalá in San Diego, San Antonio de Padua in Jolon, San Gabriel Arcángel, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, San Juan Capistrano, San Francisco de Asís, Santa Clara de Asís and San Buenaventura in Ventura, California.
The missions helped connect California and allowed for the easy transit of goods and people along the state, which was then part of Mexico.
Between 1769 and 1835, missionaries led by Serra are said to have baptized close to 90,000 Native Americans in California. Once they were converted, the natives were not allowed to leave their assigned missions; escapees who were captured by soldiers were often punished severely.
Mission officials also banned the traditional ways and customs of Native Americans, including their language, food, dress and other ceremonies.
Native Americans assert that Serra enslaved their ancestors, spread disease, and murdered countless individuals in order to forcibly impose Christianity on the population.
The Fernandeño Tataviam lived under the jurisdiction of the San Fernando Mission and endured various methods of punishment and degradation while having much of their history erased, Ward Holland said.
“The statue should never have been erected. It’s offensive,” she said. “We’re celebrating someone who was at the forefront of slavery.”
She insists the statue is not even on church property, but instead on public property. That’s one reason why Ward Holland, for years, has been calling for its removal.
“Morally conscious people will agree that this should not be celebrated,” she said.
She plans on going to the Los Angeles Indian Commission to ask for its support, and also wants to start a petition for removal. She has the full support of tribal president Rudy Ortega, Jr.
“I think it’s long over due that this particular statue in San Fernando comes down,” Ortega said. “The history and atrocities that happened to my ancestors and to Caroline’s…the reason why I asked her to bring [this issue] back to the tribal council is for a clear understanding of why it needs to occur — not just for the public but for our own citizens in the tribe.
“There are Catholics in our tribe. And I find that having an open discussion brings a meaningful dialogue — that is part of the healing overall. Everyone can ‘voice’ in, whether to keep it or remove it. But essentially I am on the side of Caroline. She and I have had a conversation, and we agree that it is time [for removal] now. And that’s what we’re stepping toward.”
But not everyone agrees.
“The problem is not so much the removal of a statue to a museum, but rather the question of where does the revisionism end. After the statues, what next? The names of streets, buildings, and cities? Should the money be reprinted to avoid any association with slavery? Should the Constitution be discarded or rewritten because its authors were slaveholders? And who will write the new one?” questioned Marshall Connolly of the California Network, on the Catholic Online website.
“History is filled with unpleasantness, just like the present. It is important to acknowledge the sins of the past, but it is also important to recognize that some of the same people also contributed great things to the world,” Connolly wrote.
Ward Holland remains undeterred. When asked what should replace the Serra statue, she suggested something to “celebrate the original people of the area.” She notes there’s nothing in the area to commemorate the real owners of the land, the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians.
“That would be healing for native people. Celebrating this horrible person that did so many terrible things to your ancestors, there can be no forgiveness,” she said.