A story about conquest, religion and the Americas, central to a founding myth of California, will end this year with the pope bestowing sainthood on a man many see as guilty of “slavery” and “violent evangelism”.
Pope Francis announced last week that he plans to canonize Junípero Serra, “the evangelizer of west in the United States”, in a ceremony in Washington this fall. The 18th-century missionary would officially become a saint.
Yet many of the people descended from those who first encountered Serra have a starkly different view of the Spanish friar. Sainthood for the friar would honor the actions of a brutal colonizer, many Native Americans protest.
Ron Andrade, executive director of the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, compared Serra to Hitler and the Spanish conquistadors who subjugated South America. Andrade, a Luiseño, said Serra “decimated 90% of the Indian population”. “Why doesn’t the pope canonize Pizarro or Cortez? It’s dumb.”
“Everywhere they put a mission the majority of Indians are gone,” Andrade said, “and Serra knew what they were doing: they were taking the land, taking the crops, he knew the soldiers were raping women, and he turned his head.”
Many tribes, including the Luiseños, Juaneño and Gabrielino-Tongva, survived the mission era through partial integration with each other and Spanish culture, but others fled inland or lost their culture completely, Andrade said.
“Serra was not the face of evil”, says Deborah Miranda, a professor of literature at Washington and Lee University and an Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Indian. “But there were so many atrocities happening and he closed his eyes,” she said. “I don’t think he should be rewarded for that.”
For Miranda, Serra’s complicity outweighs whatever intentions he had. He was driven by ambition, she said, and in his desire to produce results for Spain he “laid the groundwork to erase our cultures and impose this burden of shame on Indians about being Indian”.
Serra came to the American territories in 1749 as an accomplished Franciscan, and after two decades of mission work the Spanish crown sent him with an army excursion to found settlements along the Pacific coast – before the Russians or British were able. In 1769 he founded the Mission of San Diego, the first of nine missions, and traveled as far north as San Francisco Bay.
Those missions irrevocably altered life for the people along the coast, whom Serra tried to convert as the army built fortresses nearby. “It was a very difficult time for California Indians,” says professor Steven Hackel of the University of California, Riverside and the author of Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father.
“They went to missions because they had few other options,” he said, since diseases devastated the tribes and the invasive plants and animals brought by the Spanish for agriculture overwhelmed native food sources.
Missions appeared to be “a place for them to rebuild their communities”, Hackel said.
Yet, according to Miranda, as populations grew they became “disease factories”. Historians estimate that hundreds of thousands of Native Americans died in the decades after Europeans arrived, mostly killed by diseases.
Converts were taught to farm, breed livestock and live in regimented communities. They were flogged for disobedience, captured if they tried to flee, and sometimes raped by soldiers of the local garrisons.
French explorer Jean François de Galaup de la Pérouse, Serra’s contemporary, wrote that the missions treated “too much a child, too much a slave, too little a man” and were akin to slave plantations. On several occasions tribes tried to revolt, until eventually new settlers took over the missions.
“Serra didn’t believe you could beat Catholicism into an Indian,” Hackel said, “but he saw them as children, and in the early modern period good fathers corrected their kids through corporal punishment.
“I’m not trying to let Serra off the hook, but we need to understand how he understood the world.” Hackel said no matter what, “the Catholic church needs to do more work” to hear Native Americans’ concerns.
David McLaughlin, historian and executive director of the California Missions Resources Center, said that Serra should be said as a talented but flawed man of his time. He “lived an exemplary religious life by the terms of his day”, McLaughlin said, and the missions could be perceived as a“modification” that tried to reform the strategies that had devastated Central America and Peru.
Father Tom Elewaut, a priest at San Buenaventura Mission – the last of Serra’s missions – defended the friar against criticism while acknowledging that colonization “was a tragedy” for its consequences. “Serra was a protectorate of the Native Americans,” Elewaut argued, saying that the friar never intended the spread of disease and cared deeply for Native Americans.
Serra prevented yet more garrisons from springing up near missions, McLaughlin and Elewaut noted, saying that he effectively guarded Native Americans from soldiers even if he had political considerations to do so.
“Times change” was Elewaut’s ultimate defense of Serra. “We had corporeal punishment in schools when I was a child, and it wasn’t devastating.” But Serra was “very respectful” to Native Americans who refused to convert, Elewaut protested, though he admitted the church should try to reconcile Native Americans’ “real hurt”. Elewaut said the best thing for the church and native people may be to embrace Serra’s own motto: “‘Siempre adelante, nunca atras’ – always forward, never back.”
For Miranda and others, the consequences of Serra’s brand of colonialism live on today. “Treating Indians as less than human, or as children who could never grow up, created a sort of psychological trauma,” she said. “I don’t deny that cultures evolve, but more agency in the evolution could not have been bad.”
Some 1,200 miles south of San Juan Capistrano, Father Junipero Serra is one popular guy.
The Franciscan priest who cemented European culture in California, paving the way for everything that the trend-setting state has become today, spent months in the Mexican colonial outpost of Tepic, Nayarit, in 1767. It was a first step in the founding father of modern California’s journey to settle and evangelize a land then claimed by Spain as Alta California.
Serra is fondly remembered in Tepic. On the town’s central plaza, you can stay at the Hotel Fray Junipero Serra, a downtown hub known to locals as “The Fray.” You can dine in the hotel’s Restaurant Capistrano, where a page of the menu is devoted to Serra’s life and to the Mission San Juan Capistrano that Serra founded in 1776.
You can tour Tepic’s historic ex-convent, dedicated to Serra. It was built the year Serra (1713-1784) died in Alta California after establishing a chain of nine Spanish missions.
As Orange County sets its sights on the upcoming 250th anniversary of Mission San Juan Capistrano, travelers to Mexico can get a jump start by visiting the onetime colonial Mexican communities of Tepic and San Blas.
Serra’s 1767-68 journeys lead to California
As UC Riverside Professor Steven Hackel relates in his biography “Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father,” Serra arrived in Tepic in August 1767 – 250 years ago this month. It required a 500-mile, five-week trek from the Franciscan College of San Fernando in Mexico City. Hackel’s book was to be my companion on a June visit to Nayarit.
It was from the historic port of San Blas, outside of Tepic, that Serra boarded a ship in 1768 for Loreto, Baja California, anxious to establish permanent Spanish settlements in Alta California and convert natives. A rigorous three-month overland journey from Loreto would take Serra to San Diego to bring Christianity and civilization to a people he thought primitive and ready to embrace Christ.
Serra’s July 1769, founding of San Diego is significant whether you live in San Juan Capistrano, San Clemente, Dana Point, Huntington Beach, Yorba Linda or Eureka. The State of California, its cities, the culture, most everything modern that evolved traces back to Serra.
Serra’s legacy in Mexico
Both Tepic and San Blas hold memories of the Spanish friar Pope Francis would elevate to sainthood in 2015. Inside Tepic’s 1784 convent, a bigger-than-life mural depicts Serra converting native California children to Christianity. There are other portraits of Serra.
Next door, the department of tourism has furnished a room to resemble the humble living quarters that likely would have housed Serra in Tepic in 1767 and early 1768. A hooded figure representing the future saint is seated at a desk. A story board recounts Serra’s life, in Spanish.
Near Serra’s namesake hotel is the Museum of Cinco Pueblos, telling the story of five cultures that make up Nayarit’s heritage, including indigenous people that Serra might have encountered on his overland journey to Tepic in 1767.
Tepic has a private school known as the Instituto Cultural Fray Junipero Serra. San Blas has a Junipero Serra Primary School.
In San Blas, a plaque on the town church recounts Serra’s 1768 departure to evangelize Alta California. A second plaque on the church recites a verse from a 19th Century Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, “The Bells of San Blas.”
Atop a cliff known as San Basilio Hill, a restored colonial building displays historic maps, sketches of Father Serra, paintings of contemporary Spanish dignitaries, indigenous and colonial artifacts and artistic interpretations of how San Blas might have looked in Serra’s time.
Also on display is a book in English, Robert Richter’s “Search for the Camino Real, a History of San Blas and the Road to Get There.” After thumbing through it, I ordered it. I learned that San Blas, today a sleepy coastal village that hasn’t been overrun by high-end tourism, once was an important Mexican trading port.
Locals in San Blas are exploring ideas for commemorating the 250th anniversary of Serra’s departure for the Californias next March.
From Loreto to San Diego
If you make it to Loreto, Serra’s initial destination on that 1768 departure, you can stay at a Hotel Fray Junipero Serra there. It’s on the gulf coast of Baja California, where Serra firmed up his plans for Alta California.
As Hackel relates, Serra set out from Loreto in a small mule train on March 28, 1769, for San Diego, arriving on June 29, believing that California’s indigenous people would embrace Christianity and European civilization. It proved to be a quixotic notion.
The indigenous people, by and large, wanted to be left alone to live as hunters and gatherers as they had for thousands of years. They accepted the colonists’ gifts and trade items. Sometimes they stole. There was submissiveness. There were rebellions.
A new religion was thrust upon the locals. They moved from their villages, enticed by gifts and exposure to European goods that they came to cherish, to live as mission Indians, working as laborers for the Spaniards. They faced corporal punishment if they didn’t conform to European ways. Worse, they began to die en masse to European diseases for which they had no immunity.
San Juan Capistrano was the seventh Alta California mission founded by Serra. He aimed to establish a ladder of missions along a route to be known as El Camino Real, the King’s Highway. It seems he was sincere, convinced that he had what he saw as primitive, naked Indians’ best interests at heart. He would lead them to salvation even as their numbers dwindled to European diseases and as Spanish ways wiped out their way of life and the balance with nature that they had achieved.
In Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, this chapel in a historic former convent is dedicated to Fray Junipero Serra, who lived in Tepic 250 years ago while en route from Mexico City to establish a chain of missions in Alta California. A mural, at left, pictures him converting indigenous children in Alta California. (Photo by Fred Swegles; Orange County Register/SCNG)
This is how Fray Junipero Serra is remembered in Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, through a mural in the chapel of a former convent built in 1784. It depicts Serra and other priests seeking to convert indigenous people to Christianity in Alta California. Serra (1713-1784) founded nine Alta California missions and died the year the Tepic convent was built. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The Hotel Fray Junipero Serra, left, is a downtown institution in Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, located on the town plaza across from Tepic’s cathedral. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
This display in restored colonial structures on San Basilio Hill in San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico, imagines Fray Junipero Serra’s departure from San Blas on March 12, 1768, boarding the ship Purisima Concepcion intent on bringing civilization to Alta California. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
This plaque on San Blas’ downtown church says Fray Junipero Serra departed from San Blas’ Matanchen Bay on March 12, 1768 for the Californias, arriving in San Diego on July 1, 1769, marking the beginning of European settlement in what is now California. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
We have no way of knowing if Fray Junipero Serra saw swallows’ nests like this one in San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico, in 1768, as he prepared to depart to establish a chain of Franciscan missions in Alta California, including San Juan Capistrano. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The roof of Tepic’s historic former convent built in 1784 was under restoration in June, as the 250th anniversary of his arrival in Tepic from Mexico City approached. The former convent was built the year Serra died in Alta California after founding nine missions. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
This exhibit room at the office of tourism in Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, portrays how Fray Junipero Serra might have lived in a Tepic convent in 1767. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
An exhibit room at the office of tourism in Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, imagines how Fray Junipero Serra’s living quarters might have looked in 1767 when he stayed at a Tepic convent preparing to embark to Baja and Alta California. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Diners at Restaurante Capistrano in the Hotel Fray Junipero Serra in Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico, may be surprised to see a full page of the menu dedicated to Father Serra and to the Mission San Juan Capistrano that Serra founded in 1776 in Alta California. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The Hotel Fray Junipero Serra and shops fronting the building are a gathering place in downtown Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Tepic’s Museum of Five Cultures introduces its displays with the faces of Nayarit. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The origins of Mariachi music is one of the displays at Tepic’s Museum of Five Cultures, down the street from the Hotel Fray Junipero Serra. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The ruins of the colonial accounting building from the historic port of San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico, have been restored and now house an exhibit room and a small restaurant. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
High on a hill overlooking the historic port of San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico, is a visitor attraction known today as Fuerte San Basilio. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
This exhibit room in a restored colonial building on San Basilio Hill in San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico, includes indigenous and colonial artifacts, early maps, images of Fray Junipero Serra and his contemporaries and paintings imagining how San Blas might have looked in Serra’s time. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Is it possible that Fray Junipero Serra walked San Blas’ Playa del Borrego in 1768 while waiting for his ship to be provisioned to depart for the Californias? (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
San Blas is known today for Matanchen Bay as a surf spot that can produce one of the longest waves in the world. It’s also where Fray Junipero Serra is said to have departed for the Californias in 1768. It’s a fickle surf spot and locals like Miguel Ruiz Nolasco tend to surf at San Blas’ Playa del Borrego most of the time. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Tour buses from Puerto Vallarta arrive daily for San Blas’ well known “Jungle Boat Ride” through a mangrove to a natural spring. These huts along the way to the spring were built for a movie set, our boatman said. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
San Blas is a popular destination for birdwatchers, and the “Jungle Boat Ride” is part of the allure. You’re apt to spot a heron like this one. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
We are going to guess that Fray Junipero Serra (1713-1784) didn’t do the Jungle Boat Ride when he was in San Blas in 1768. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Meet one of San Blas’ toothy residents. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Juan Garcia, a San Blas environmental activist who produces the region’s original banana bread, says he is working with local officials to put together a commemoration of Fray Junipero Serra’s March 12, 1768, departure from San Blas. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
This statue in the plaza at San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico, is dedicated to a fabled local personality, “La Loca de San Blas,” who remained faithful to her man, a fisherman, and ever hopeful of reunitiing with him after he was lost at sea. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Could it be that Fray Junipero Serra encountered the indigenous city now known as Los Toriles while approaching Tepic on an overland journey from Mexico City in 1767? Today the ruins are restored, just outside the town of Ixtlan del Rio. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Tepic’s schools include the Instituto Cultural Fray Junipero Serra, named for the onetime local resident who centuries later was proclaimed Catholic saint. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala was the permanent San Diego mission that Fray Junipero Serra established, about seven miles inland from the Spanish presidio, near Qualcomm Stadium. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The Padre Serra Room at Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala is a room where Serra is said to have resided during visits to San Diego from the other missions he established in California. It depicts, at rear, how his living quarters might have looked. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
For those who can’t travel to Mexico to experience that end of the Fray Junipero Serra story, San Diego’s Presidio Park has a Serra museum that describes how Serra established San Diego in 1769. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Presidio Park and the Serra museum include this monument to the indigenous people Serra encountered in 1769 in what is now San Diego, the Kumeyaay. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
A hill known as Presidio Park that overlooks Sea World was the original site Fray Junipero Serra settled in 1769, but he established the permanent mission farther inland, Mission Basilica San Diego de Alcala. You can visit both. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Father Serra is said to have celebrated mass in 1783 at Mission San Juan Capistrano in what is now known as Serra Chapel, now restored and still an active place of worship. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Mission San Juan Capistrano displays an ongoing exhibit, of which this story board is part, called “The Legacy of Saint Serra.” (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
The Great Stone Church was built at Mission San Juan Capistrano after Fray Junipero Serra’s 1784 death, but it remains the most prominent landmark at the mission Serra established in 1776. An 1812 earthquake destroyed it. (Photo by Fred Swegles, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Serra, remembered today
Whatever his legacy, Serra is the founder of San Diego, of San Juan Capistrano and, by default, all of modern California, said to be the sixth largest economy of the world and a global trend setter. The San Clemente area, once the site of indigenous Panhe village, is a surf town. Dana Point, named for a young American merchant seaman who collected cattle hides near San Juan Capistrano in 1835 and wrote a book about it, is a yacht harbor town with luxury resorts. San Juan Capistrano, whose mission features a “Legacy of Saint Serra” exhibit, celebrates the city’s Serra-related status as “The Birthplace of Orange County,” proudly preserving the community’s mission past and its pre-mission past.
For decades, San Clemente produced an annual outdoor summer pageant titled La Cristianita, “Little Christian.” It was based on the first Christian baptisms in Alta California – two dying babies that the Gaspar de Portola expedition encountered in July, 1769, in the hills behind San Clemente while heading north in search of Monterey.
Father Serra wasn’t with the expedition. He remained in San Diego, struggling to establish the settlement, direly threatened by Kumeyaay attacks. Portola’s overland explorations, themselves a struggle, would eventually help lay groundwork for future missions.
Other historic places to visit
For those who can’t make it to Tepic or San Blas, you can learn more about Serra and his founding of California closer to home by visiting Mission San Diego de Alcala. The Father Serra Room, “one of the only intact sections of the earliest mission,” is said to be where Serra likely stayed when in San Diego. Seven miles away, at San Diego’s Presidio Park, the site of the original 1769 settlement, a museum built in 1929 is dedicated to Serra. It offers a multi-faceted view of how modern California came to be.
Still closer to home, Mission San Juan Capistrano offers a self-guided audio tour bringing alive the early mission experience – how the locals lived, mission agriculture, the story of Serra’s life and how European civilization altered the Indians’ diet, health and way of life.
Mission visitors can enter Serra Chapel, where Serra is said to have celebrated mass in 1783, restored and still an active place of worship.
The Blas Aguilar Adobe, a block from the mission, offers further perspectives about the Acjachemen nation, whose members would become known as the Juaneño Band of Mission Indians.
San Juan’s mission is known worldwide for the annual return of swallows, a tiny bird that summers half the year in Argentina and the other half in Southern California’s summer, making month-long aerial migrations to and fro.
San Blas, where Serra departed in 1768 for the Californias, has swallows too.
SERRA’S NAME LIVES ON
In name and image, California’s founding father lives on. Here are some West Coast examples:
Schools: Serra Preschool, San Clemente; J Serra Catholic High School, San Juan Capistrano; Junipero Serra (Continuation) High School, San Juan Capistrano; St. Junipero Serra Catholic School, Rancho Santa Margarita; Junipero Serra High School, Gardena; Junipero Serra High School, San Mateo (Patriots football quarterback Tom Brady was once QB for the Padres); Serra High School, San Diego; Junipero Serra School, Carmel Mission
Churches: Serra Chapel, Mission San Juan Capistrano
Charity: Father Serra’s Pantry, San Juan Capistrano
Businesses: Serra Plaza (a San Juan Capistrano wedding venue); Serra Center, Milpitas (shopping); Serra Laser & Waterjet, Anaheim; Junipero Serra Arts, Daly City; Serra Lumber in Capistrano Beach (became Doheny Builders Supply)
Neighborhoods: Serra Mesa, a section of San Diego next to Qualcomm Stadium
Avenues: Serra Mall, Stanford University; Serra Street, Palo Alto; Junipero Serra Road, San Juan Capistrano; Serra Avenue, Chino; Avenida Serra, San Clemente; Calle Serra, Rancho Santa Margarita; Via Junipero Serra, Riverside; Junipero Serra Way, Groveland; Calle Serra, San Dimas; Serra Road, Aptos; Junipero Serra Boulevard, San Francisco; Junipero Serra Freeway, I-280 (Bay Area); Junipero Serra Avenue, San Rafael
Parks: Father Serra Park, Los Angeles; Serra Cross Park, Ventura; Ladera Serra Park, San Dimas; Junipero Serra Park, San Bruno; Father Junipero Serra Trail, San Diego; Junipero Serra Peak (highest in Monterey County); Junipero Serra Museum, San Diego
For a sip: Serra Vineyards, Grants Pass, Oregon; FJ Serra Wines, available online (they proclaim that he “founded the first of California’s vineyards”)
Statues: Most prominent one is at the entrance to a rest stop along I-280 rest; find others also in San Diego, San Juan Capistrano, Santa Barbara, Ventura, Monterey, Carmel