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No gentler colonialism: Junipero Serra not a ‘saint’

Photo: Toppled statue in Carmel.

On Sept. 23, Pope Francis canonized Junipero Serra, declaring him a recognized “saint” by the Catholic Church. Serra was a Franciscan friar who founded a mission in Baja California and also founded the first nine Spanish missions in California. In total the mission colonial project grew to 21 missions in California.

Four days after Pope Francis’ canonization of Serra, a statue of Serra was toppled and covered in paint in Carmel, Ca. The police are calling it a “hate crime” apparently ignoring the centuries of hateful European plunder embodied in the role that Serra and the Spanish missions played in both
the genocide of Native peoples and in the extraction through slavery of the resources of the lands settlers were stealing.

Pope Francis has made a number of progressive statements to make the church relevant in this time of economic crisis; however, he is clearly not ready to undertake a greater criticism of the role of the church during earlier class systems, thus avoiding an exposure of the relationship between the church and state during the colonial period.

The canonization of Junipero Serra is key in the pope’s balancing act.

Junipero Serra represented a “gentler, more tolerable” conquest of Native lands, distancing the approach of colonialists like Bartolome De Las Casas who were quite open about the brutality, forced worked and murder at will of the colonialists.

It is important to point out that this softening, or improvement of conditions, didn’t persuade the Spanish missionaries to abandon their cause of conversion, assimilation, forced labor, or to cede stolen land back to the Indigenous people, it instead lead to what some people could describe as a “softer, gentler” colonialism.

The children were assimilated into the Spanish way of life and were taught that their ancestral teachings were backward and evil. Junipero Serra himself is quoted as saying “That spiritual fathers should punish their sons, the Indians, with blows appears to be as old as the conquest of the Americas; so general in fact that the saints do not seem to be any exception to the rule.” Indeed, as the saint he is declared to be today, and as Serra said so long ago, he too was not an exception to the rule, a rule that was used in, what Serra himself called, the conquest of the Americas. This statement is indicative of the paternalistic view held by the missionaries. Their intentions of colonizing and laying conquest to the Americas are clear when statements like this are revealed today.

By 1818 it is estimated that 86 percent of all Native peoples died under the so-called “care” of the California missions.

The brutal treatment by the Spaniards and their mission system was not met without resistance. Just as with all colonized people in history and around the world there was a fight back and a struggle for freedom. In 1775 the San Diego Mission was burnt down in the Kumeyaay Rebellion. In a heroic revolt in 1781 by the Mohave peoples, two missions were destroyed. The year 1785 saw the Indigenous people being held in the San Gabriel Mission revolt. The Chumash people led a revolt in 1824 that saw the Santa Barbara and Santa Inez missions destroyed. Despite the brutal repression and punishment for these uprising and revolts, the Native peoples continued to organize and resist.

This resistance continues today as heroes toppled the statue of Junipero Serra, as the people of Oklahoma City and Seattle declared Oct. 12 Indigenous People’s Day and the people of Albuquerque are marching this Oct. 12 to take the streets to call for Indigenous People’s Day of Resistance and Resilience.

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