An argument about history and memory as Pope Francis is about to declare Father Junípero Serra a saint in recognition of his 19th century missionary work as “the evangelizer of the West in the United States” and founder of a chain of Catholic missions throughout Alta California.
A: I have a problem with making Serra into a hero of history, just as I do with teaching fourth graders in California to create model missions with sugar cubes.
B: You’re anti-sugar? It’s the obesity problem?
A: No, nothing to do with sugar. It’s a morality issue. How would you feel if you heard that German and Polish schools were teaching kids to build architecturally precise models of concentration camps?
B: Oh, that’s such a knee-jerk, liberal response. Where’s the complexity and nuanced analysis? Anyway, the analogy doesn’t work.
A: Why not?
B: Well, first of all, the missions are culturally, aesthetically, and architecturally interesting. You can’t say that about the Nazi camps.
A: Good point, but if the Auschwitz Chamber of Commerce put their minds to it, they could build some attractive concentration camp buildings just like the Protestants and Daughters of the American Republic did in California when they re-made the missions into a icon of California’s sunny past.
B: Another thing, the scope of killings isn’t comparable.
A: But if we look at what happened to Native peoples over 150 years, from the period of Spanish colonialism (1769-1821) through the terror of the American Gold Rush, the proportions are similar. It took about a decade to get rid of 80 percent of European Jews, and longer, admittedly, to eliminate close to 90 percent of the indigenous peoples in what became California.
B: But most of the Nazi killings were deliberate, you know the gassing and pits, whereas in California it was certainly tragic, but most of the deaths were due to illnesses and poor resistance to European diseases.
A: You’re forgetting about the 20 percent of Jews in the concentration camps who died from exhaustion and malnutrition. In the missions, the premature deaths of tens of thousands Native peoples were speeded up by a brutal system of labor, backed up by the whip, executions, and forced conversions. And the United States completed the job begun by the Spanish. Wasn’t it Governor Barnett who called the end game a “war of extermination?”
B: But nobody in Germany or Poland today goes to visit concentration camps for entertainment or beauty. Here in California you can take children to the missions and make history come alive for them in positive ways.
A: So what do you tell them when they take a field trip to a mission and they have to walk on ground over the stacked, nameless corpses of thousands of dead California Indians, buried as though they were savages?
B: Very little because they’re too young to handle this kind of horror. We have to protect them from violence and death.
A: Yeah, we live in a society that does a good job of that. Pass the sugar.