November 24th marks the 300th birthday of Junípero Serra (1713-1784), a Franciscan missionary from Mallorca, Spain, who is enshrined in History for establishing a chain of Catholic missions in Alta (Upper) California, from San Diego to San Francisco, in the latter half of the 18th century. We can expect the anniversary to trigger a cultural battle over Serra’s memory.
In California’s public history, Serra is considered one of the state’s founding fathers, appreciated for his role in Christianizing and civilizing Native people, teaching them “how to farm, make new things, and work hard,” as a 21st century textbook for children puts it. According to a 1984 newspaper poll, two-thirds of Californians nominated Serra for the state’s most important historical figure. Along with Ronald Reagan, Serra represents California in Washington, D. C.’s Statuary Hall. In 1985, Pope John Paul II declared him eligible for canonization, and today Serra is short of only one miracle to qualify for sainthood.
Beginning in the 1980s, Native American activists and tribal councils organized against canonization, identifying Serra as an agent of colonialism, who left death and destruction in his wake. In 2008, speaking only for himself, retired Bishop Francis Quinn acknowledged the Church’s “serious misdeeds,” especially efforts to “impose a European Catholicism upon the natives,” and apologized “for trying to take Indian out of the Indian.”
Weighing in on this debate is the first in-depth biography of Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father (Hill and Wang, 2013), written by historian Steven Hackel. Despite the author’s quest for impartiality, it is the case against Serra that prevails.
The book documents Serra’s religious fanaticism that, even by 18th century standards, was over the top. His religiosity was grounded in doctrines inherited from the Middle Ages; he took pleasure in extreme self-mortification, regularly beating himself to a pulp; and he worked as a loyal comisario, or field agent, for the Inquisition, tracking down witches, heretics, and practitioners of “cryptojudaism.”
As for California’s Indians, Hackel credits Serra for un-civilizing some 300,000 people who prior to Spanish colonization had lived for thousands of years in relative peace and comfort in “one of the most densely settled regions in all North America.” Here they had “developed their own political, religious, and economic systems, and those systems served them well.” To Serra, however, they were backward children in need of a firm hand, just as the Confederate South imagined and treated enslaved Africans.
Life “under the bell” was disastrous for Native people. The missions enforced baptisms and conversions, fiercely policed the boundaries of Christian sexuality, and punished infractions with beatings and floggings. Cut off from their homelands, deprived of cultural traditions, and exposed to contagious diseases, one in three babies did not make it to their first year; forty percent of those who survived died before their fifth year; and between ten and twenty percent of adults died each year. “Ultimately,” says Hackel politely, “high mortality combined with the low fertility of women to render mission populations unviable.”
Hackel’s biography is a welcome rebuttal to hagiographic accounts of Junípero Serra’s life, but it misses an opportunity to set straight the historical context. Given its subtitle – California's Founding Father – it shouldn’t take the author more than half of his book before he discusses the fate of the region’s Native people. And while we get 162 pages of detailed backstory about Serra, the history of California’s Indians is reduced to a few pages. As a result, they are depicted as symbols and types, not fully developed human beings. We get deep inside Serra’s head and sensibilities, but learn almost nothing about the subjective worldview and experiences of his victims.
And while Serra lives on in Hackel’s book as a controversial candidate for sainthood, California’s Native people disappear into the past. We are told nothing about their resistance, survival against all odds, and renaissance in the 20th century, or what they think about Serra today.
Presumably because he does not want to be accused of “presentism” or scholarly bias, Steven Hackel avoids taking a position on Serra’s canonization. But, between the lines, the evidence is damning. “To many, Serra is the man who brought agriculture to the Golden State and who laid the foundation for California’s future greatness,” says Hackel. “To others, however, Serra’s life embodies the evils inherent in a colonial system that promoted cultural genocide, sanctioned corporal punishment, and brought about the devastation of California’s native peoples.”
I’m with the others.