Father Junipero Serra, the 18th century Jesuit missionary who is often credited with making California habitable for Europeans by converting and often enslaving native tribes, is one of multiple historic figures whose legacies are being questioned anew in recent weeks of national protest. After statues of Serra were toppled in San Francisco and Los Angeles over the weekend, some historians and Catholic church officials are pushing back and denying the narrative that Serra was cruel to indigenous people, attempting to argue the opposite.
Serra was the principal architect of the California mission system, overseeing the building of nine missions from San Diego up to San Francisco during his lifetime, beginning in 1769. Mission Dolores was in fact founded and built under Serra's direction in 1776, originally under the name Misión San Francisco de Asís — giving our city its name.
While building these missions, Serra pressed native peoples into labor, and sought — along with the entire Catholic missionary apparatus — to "civilize" them by stripping them of their cultures and converting them to Christianity. Activists argue that Serra is largely responsible for decimating entire tribes and villages — often through the introduction of diseases — and for flogging and imprisoning indigenous people who disobeyed his commands.
Some historians of color, like Ruben Mendoza, say that Serra's legacy has been misrepresented. Mendoza is the coordinator of California mission archaeology at Cal State Monterey Bay, and as he told the Los Angeles Times in 2015, Serra was "actually in constant conflict with governors and military commanders in New Spain over how they were treating Indians," and he says he can't find any evidence of abuse of native people in Serra's own documents.
Gregory Orfalea, who wrote a 2014 biography of Serra, says that Serra urged the Spanish viceroy to spare the lives of a group of indigenous people who were blamed for murdering three Spaniards in San Diego in 1775.
"During the Spanish colonial and the Mexican period we lost 90% of the Indians in California,” says Ron Andrade, director of Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission, speaking to the LA Times. "Serra was no saint to us." Indeed, historians believe that through a combination of disease and dwindling food resources caused by colonization, California's native population sank from around 300,000 when Serra's campaign began, to around 50,000 after the Gold Rush.