Sinner or Saint? A Historical Analysis of Serra

A proper evaluation of Serra’s legacy demands a thorough investigation into his historical context.

Shortly after their emperors died, the Ancient Romans made an important choice. The emperor could receive either posthumous honors or damnatio memoriae: all statues decapitated, all inscriptions obliterated, erased from history. Modern tourists in Rome can see the blank holes in imperial family portraits where Emperor Geta’s face was removed by his bitter brother, co-emperor, and murderer Caracalla.

While the Romans enacted damnatio memoriae based on events still fresh in memory, today’s self-proclaimed historical judges challenge longstanding honors given to those who died decades or centuries ago. College students throughout America assail statues, buildings, and other honorific tributes to questionable figures because, by current moral and civil standards, the person deserves condemnation rather than praise. Countless questions arise: does the presence of a name perpetuate a system? Do the moral transgressions of these people outweigh whatever good they did for humanity? What role, if any, should the views and demands of current students play in the university’s decisions of whom to honor?

At Stanford, tributes to the missionary St Junipero Serra attract significant criticism. Many voices speak with great conviction, both for and against erasing his name from campus. Students in Stanford’s Native American Community claim that Serra, as the founder of the mission system in California, was responsible for the mass genocide of the indigenous peoples, and that Serra’s subtle presence on campus perpetuates the horrors of Spanish colonization. Others insist every prominent figure has a dark side, so Serra does not deserve to be singled out. They also cite many of Serra’s positive actions.

Debate rages over whether historical figures should be evaluated within their historical context. But regardless of one’s views on how to evaluate historical figures, understanding Serra’s context is important to evaluating his intentions and actions. This requires investigating the mission system’s complexity and the process of Spanish colonization as it affected California’s natives.

The Spanish effort largely fits into the colonization endeavor that defined centuries of world history. The Franciscan mission system, while closely tied to the military colonization, had its own separate goals and objectives. Missionaries sought to spread what they believed to be the gateway to eternal bliss. However, the constraints of their operation within imperial colonization efforts required missionaries to partially adhere to the secular government’s goals. Archaeologist Ruben Mendoza, a well-known expert on the mission system, describes how “they didn’t have a financial or political motive from the outset but a religious or ideological motive: to save populations which had not been converted to Christianity.” Immediately before Serra came to Mexico, Portuguese colonists expelled the Jesuit missionaries because they advocated for indigenous peoples’ rights.

With such a precedent, Father Serra and the other Franciscans risked expulsion if Spain saw positive relationships with natives as obstacles to colonization efforts. Leaders like Serra had to comply with the will of the state to maintain their presence. While the missionaries were paid by the government, they focused primarily on faith.

The Franciscan order was founded on the principles of poverty, chastity, and obedience – principles to which Junipero Serra devoted himself. Though he suffered from frail health, his zeal for spreading the Catholic Faith led him to the mysterious “New World.” Archbishop Jose Gomez, in a homily at the time of Serra’s canonization last September, observed “Sometimes it seems like scholars and activists have made Father Serra a symbol for everything they believe was wrong with the mission era.” It is a popular misconception to visualize Serra as a ruthless plantation master, because in reality, he resided in a plain hut like the natives to whom he devoted himself.

His letters reveal a great distaste for the Spanish colonial officials; he frequently clashed with them, putting his position at great risk. Serra appreciated the natives and viewed them as unique human souls. While in Mexico, Serra even translated prayers into the native language to better ease integration into the Faith.

However, we cannot forget Serra’s treatment of natives as “natural slaves,” possessing an inferior human nature, an attitude rightfully condemned by our current moral standards. Various sources cite imprisonments, separation of families, and enthusiastic support of flogging. He stood by while the military practiced strict enforcement of mission boundaries with severe corporal punishment, (but also encouraged the native Americans to leave the mission premises in times of food shortage). Since victors write history, it is hard to tell how much of the brutality was beyond his control versus how much he personally encouraged.

Serra’s nine missions laid the foundation for what would become California. Though Serra probably did not realize it, the spread of mission-based communities introduced new diseases among the natives, and made their traditional lifestyle unsustainable. As Spain’s power in the “New World” grew, such loss became inevitable. Serra’s communities nonetheless most likely provided the best opportunity for survival as the Spanish continued to tighten their grip; Serra’s treatment was more humane than could be expected from any secular Spanish colonizer.

After Serra’s death, the missions evolved from centers of evangelism to veritable plantations run by Spaniards and worked by native Americans. The atrocious extermination of California’s indigenous people occurred during the governorship of Peter Burnett and even Leland Stanford in the 19th Century. While Serra himself had little connection to those mass genocides, his actions undoubtedly opened the door to California’s colonization. Members of the Native Community on campus call Serra the father of genocide. Jane and Leland Stanford deemed him the great founder of California. Pope Francis and the Catholic Church recognize him as a saint. With these diverging interpretations, one must analyze the historical context to find the driving forces influencing Serra, and to properly assess his interaction with the mission system, the Spanish government, and Native Americans. Any person who has great influence today – as Serra and the other figures up for erasure undoubtedly do – deserves a proper understanding of their role in the past for a just assessment in the present.

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