One week after a statue of Junipero Serra, founder of the initial nine of California’s 21 missions, was pulled down by protesters at Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, a local protest march was held on Saturday, June 2, ending at the site of another statue of Serra located at Brand Park in Mission Hills.
By Sunday morning that statue was also gone — this time it wasn’t removed by the protestors, but by the city of Los Angeles .
“The Brand Park statue was removed for public safety and [to prevent] vandalism. It is being stored safely by Recreation and Parks,” said Rose Watson, public information director for the City of Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks.
However, “The statue will be replaced back at Brand Park once it’s safe to do so,” Watson added.
Watson told the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol that she didn’t know when that statue would be returned to the park space, but said she was checking with “higher ups” on the actual plans.
Learning that there would be an eventual return of the Serra statue to Brand Park doesn’t please the protesters, including Caroline Ward-Holland, an elder member of the local Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, the first people who inhabited the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys.
Ward-Holland and others in the community have repeatedly called for the statue’s permanent removal and have questioned why a religious statue is placed on public city property.
“I doubt it will ever be safe,” Ward-Holland said. “If they bring it back, it will come down. The minute it goes up, it’s going to come down.”
“It’s our space now. It’s not going to last,” said Ward-Holland, who gathered with others at the site on Sunday evening, June 28, to provide testimony and discuss what the removal of the statue meant to them
Tina Calderon, a Gabrielino-Tongva Chumash, told the group, “No matter how the statue came down, it’s down now.”
“It’s not a constant reminder in our face anymore,” she said. “Now we can heal and go forward and live in peace in our own community.”
Her voice cracked as she shared why seeing the statue was so painful for her.
“This particular statue was worse for me than any other Serra statue,” Calderon said. “This one with an arm around a child reminded me of my grandfather that they took from our tribal village, and took him from his parents at 7-years-old, forcing him to go to the San Gabriel Mission. This was a deep wound in my heart. To see this statue is now gone makes me feel so much better.
“And the fact that they did it and no one has to get into trouble for it, also makes me feel so much better. There are so many other statues that also have to come down. Now we can heal and have a stronger community,” she said.
The property where Brand Park is now located was part of the original land grant given to the Mission San Fernando Rey de España by Mexico. The mission gave the land to the city of Los Angeles for a park on Nov. 4, 1920.
According to a placard on the base of the Serra statue, the statue was made by New York-native sculptor Sally James Farnham dates back to 1924. Several photos of the park from 1926 and on show the statue.
Protesters said the Serra statue represented genocide of native people, and the Mission system led by Serra led to floggings, rapes and enslavement of their ancestors. Their objections, they said, came long before the recent action to take down statues of controversial forefathers across the country.
“Fuera, fuera, Junipero Serra” (“Get out – leave, Junipero Serra”) was the chant of protesters led by Aztec dancers and La Raza Unida, who marched from Rudy Ortega, Sr. Park in San Fernando to Brand Park in Mission Hills on Saturday. There, dozens more waited around the statue, located right across the street from the Mission, which was founded in September 1797 and not by Serra.
Ward-Holland told the protesters of the “lies” perpetuated about Serra, who used them for forced labor and “they robbed her ancestors of their language, culture and land.”
In 2015, Ward-Holland and her son walked to all of the California missions leading a protest in each location. “A Walk with the Ancestors” pointed to the “atrocities of Serra and the mission system.”
That same year, Pope Francis cannonized Serra by making him a saint.
While many participating in the protest wanted to see the Serra statue here come down, taking matters into their own hands was not sanctioned by the local tribe and it was emphasized that the protest be peaceful.
The Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians released a statement the day before the protest, noting they supported “the removal of statues glorifying individuals who brought violence and oppressive systems, and attempted to extinguish our lifeways throughout our traditional homelands of San Fernando, Simi, Santa Clarita, and Antelope valleys through policy change and advocacy.”
However, the statement also said, “The Tribe is working with local governments and communities to support an open and transparent process for the removal of these statues. The Tribe asks for the community’s support towards its pursuit to remove the Junipero Serra statues in its homelands through diplomatic methods.”
“The Tribe has not organized any gatherings on this matter to date. However, our tribal government will continue to work with local government officials in support of the statues’ permanent removal,” the statement said.
Tribal President Rudy Ortega, Jr. did not return calls from the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol following the statue’s removal. In an earlier conversation, Ortega said he wanted the tribe to be present when the statue came down and hold a ceremony. He said it was important that the public be educated about why the statue needed removal.
Ortega Jr. also said the tribe had received unwarranted threats following the removal of the downtown Serra statue.
Ward-Holland acknowledged to the demonstrators that the tribe opposed the forcible removal of the statue. Instead, they burned sage, sang songs and gave speeches about the “genocide of native people perpetrated by the Catholic Church.”
They also covered the statue — which shows Serra holding a staff in his right hand while his left hand rests over a Native American child — with red and black plastic before wrapping chains around it and placing signs that read “MI$$IONS, PLANTATION$, PRI$ON$” and “Father of Genocide” on top of Serra’s head.
An emotional Ward-Holland said she felt her ancestors were present there as the statue was covered.
Silvia Anguiano, part of the “Community Solidarity” collective that organized the protest, said, “we are honoring our ancestors in a peaceful, respectful manner” and that the protest against Serra has “brought a lot of unity” in the community against white supremacy.
“The statue is really bad. We’re giving the city the opportunity to remove it,” Anguiano added.
And that’s exactly what Los Angeles officials did, leaving only an empty brick pedestal behind. The park is a well-known location for being a photography spot for quinceañeras and wedding parties.
But members of the self-identified indigenous community were not the only ones to show up at the park.
A small but vocal group of Catholics showed up, creating some tense moments, fierce arguments and shouting matches between the groups, especially when one man wearing a large cross climbed over a gate and in doing so put his feet on top of one of the female protesters.
“My son pulled him off of her…he ran over to the park from the mission in a fury,” described Ward-Holland. “He wasn’t wearing a mask and he put his hands on my son.”
Police who had accompanied the march to the park escorted the man back to the mission.
“They didn’t arrest him and they told us that he had a right to enter the park,” said Ward-Holland, they are considering filing a formal complaint.
Johnny Romero, a Marine veteran, said he objected to the way they were speaking about a priest “who wasn’t perfect, but did a lot of good.”
He also noted the Catholic Church has opened orphanages, and hospitals, provided education, and “because of our care for the poor we’re called haters.”
“Catholics in general are being lied about too much,” Romero said, adding that he’s against “revisionist history,” which he claimed is what the protesters are trying to do by removing statues and “defacing property.”
If the issue was put to a vote and the majority supported the removal, Romero said he would have no problem with it.
For her part, Laura Chavez — who held a “Lady of Fatima” portrait — said she was against people desecrating “our history, the history of the Church.”
“He (Serra) is a role model, a saint of our church, a saint of California,” she said, adding, “nobody’s perfect, we all have our flaws, but he was a very loving person.”
“This represents the good and the bad. They’re trying to recreate their own country just to bring disorder,” Chavez said.
After the event, the protesters themselves removed the coverings they placed over the statue. “We wanted to do that ourselves,” said Ward-Holland, “Rather than have them pull the covering off, we took down our signs and left the statue. We were respectful to them even though they weren’t to us, and we gave them their privacy and space to pray.”
As the protesters packed up, the group of Catholics quickly went in and prayed the rosary around the statue.
LA Councilmember Monica Rodriguez — who represents the Seventh District, which covers the northeast San Fernando Valley — said in a statement, “This is a moment of reconciliation and an opportunity to pay tribute to the full history of our community.”
For his part, in a letter to the faithful for the memorial of St. Junípero Serra, ahead of the Saint’s July 1 feast day held on Monday, June 29, Archbishop José H. Gomez, head of the Los Angeles Archdiocese, acknowledged the “deep pain being expressed by some native peoples in California over the destruction of their ancient civilization,” but defended the Catholic saint.
“Our society may reach a consensus not to honor St. Junípero or various other figures from our past. But elected officials cannot abdicate their responsibilities by turning these decisions over to small groups of protesters, allowing them to vandalize public monuments. This is not how a great democracy should function,” Gomez wrote.
He also said activists are “revising” history to make Serra the focus of all the abuses committed against California’s indigenous peoples.
“But the crimes and abuses that our saint is blamed for — slanders that are spread widely today over the internet and sometimes repeated by public figures — actually happened long after his death,” Gomez wrote.
“He lived and worked alongside native peoples and spent his whole career defending their humanity and protesting crimes and indignities committed against them. Among the injustices he struggled against, we find heartbreaking passages in his letters where he decries the daily sexual abuse of indigenous women by colonial soldiers.”
“We Want Them to Admit Guilt”
Words are not enough to atone for the past, said Ward-Holland.
“They have taken Serra statues down to protect the statue, not for the reasons that we want it to come down,” she said.
“They have to admit the injury,” she said.
Ward-Holland said for the Church to atone, it must allow Native Americans to “sell our artwork, have space in the (Mission) gift shop, tell our truth.”
In addition, “we want to have areas in the Mission where we can go and heal from their damage,” something Ward-Holland said has not been granted.
“The community is angry at the church for not admitting their guilt, which puts us in a position where we don’t matter,” she said. “Just be honest, that’s what they’re supposed to do.
“Acknowledgement is healing. We can’t forgive unless they admit their injury.”
Ward-Holland said protestors would continue to gather at the park every Sunday, from 8 to 10 p.m., to sing songs, share stories and “tell the real truth” about native history and the California Mission system.
Editor Diana Martinez contributed to this story