Sunday, December 29, 2013

The Dark Legacy of Father Junipero Serra

As research for a novel I'm working on, I just finished reading a new book called Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father by Steven W. Hackel, who is a professor of history at California State University, Riverside.  Hackel, who has written extensively on this topic, is also curator of a current exhibit at the Huntington Library entitled Junipero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions.

Every fourth grader in California learns about Father Serra and the California missions.  I remember having to build a model of a mission along with all of my classmates.  The picture of Father Serra I got from fourth grade history lessons was that of a kindly, determined Spanish priest who helped found the missions, which were nice places of cultural exchange between Spain and the Native Americans of California.  

Hackel's book seriously complicates this picture.  In the "Epilogue" to his book he reflects on the darker legacy of Father Junipero Serra, a legacy filed with cultural desolation and death.  Here are some excerpts from Hackel's epilogue:

"What Serra helped to initiate in California--colonization via an extensive "ladder" of Catholic missions, where tens of thousands of Indian lives were monitored, modified, and frequently shortened--was by every measure far more complex and destructive than he could have imagined...The California missions in his day formed a shaky bridge for Indians between the world of their ancestors and that of Spaniards.  What Serra did not live to see and understand was that later, for many Indians, this bridge led to a graveyard.

Thus, in a morbid irony, the concentration of Indians in the missions--the first and necessary step in Serra's plan--allowed for the wide and ready transmission of disease that only accelerated new baptisms and expanded death's work.  This became the missions' undoing and Serra's albatross.

Across the California missions one in three infants did not live to see a first birthday.  Four in ten children who survived their first year perished before their fifth.  Between 10 and 20 percent of adults died each year, with women of reproductive age suffering the most because of the dangers associated with childbearing and introduced venereal diseases…the high mortality rates were unrelenting, year after year for decades.

Of those who survived at the missions, some would become practicing Catholics.  Some would not.  Some would flee what they saw as an oppressive institution...Most went along with the missions because they appeared to represent the best of a few terrible options, to try to sustain their families, their culture, and their heritage in the bleakest of times.

By the time the missions were secularized in the early 1830s, more than 80,000 Indians had been baptized between San Diego and north of San Francisco, but almost 60,000 had been buried, nearly 25,000 of whom were children under the age of ten.

By 1855, after the gold rush and the establishment of American rule in California, the Indian population of the state stood at around 50,000, reduced from the 310,000 who lived in California in 1769 and a mere vestige of what Serra had seen when he came north from Baja California.

Today, the legacy of the California missions and Junipero Serra cannot be separated from these terrible events.  This has only been acknowledged relatively recently.  By now, Serra is  remembered in not one way but three: as a pioneer, as a religious icon, and as a colonial imperialist.  To many, Serra is the man who brought agriculture to the Golden State and who laid the foundation for California's future greatness.  To some Catholics--some of whom descend from the mission populations--he remains a heroic and saintly embodiment of the religion's timeless virtues.  Pope John Paul II accepted Serra's cause for canonization in 1985 and declared him venerable, the first of three steps to sainthood.  In 1988, the pope beatified Serra.  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.

What makes Serra such a necessary figure to get right is that he embodied a history of Indian-missionary relations nearly hemispheric in its scope.  Serra, although he stands out as exceptional among his Franciscan peers, in his practice of Catholicism was typical of the thousands of Catholic missionaries who came to the Americas during the early modern period.  His dismissive assumptions about the Indians' religious practices and his belief that that Indians had to be saved from their own barbarousness were likewise standard.  It is hard to imagine that any other group played a larger role in shaping the early period of Indian-European relations than these men, who were called to these shores by their own religious desires and by a Spanish state looking to expand and secure its American territories.  Millions of Indians, from the southern tip of South America to the northern hinterlands of Canada, and from the shores of the Chesapeake to the coves of Monterey Bay, were introduced to a central part of European culture and society by men in black or gray or brown robes who preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ and who attempted to reorganize their ways of life."

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