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On September 11, 2017, between midnight and dawn, a statue of Fr. Junípero Serra—whom generations of California schoolchildren called “the Father of California”—was beheaded at Mission Santa Barbara.

Reading about the defiled statue in the paper, I immediately question my father, my dead father. (Looking up from his own perpetual quarrel with the morning paper, my father says the reason we exist at all, he and I—as mestizos, he means—is because of the Catholic missions in Mexico.) My father was a Knight of Columbus, though not of the degree that wears the plumed hat. My father was a boy during the revolution—Mexico against Mexico; he saw federal troops hang a young priest by the neck from a tree. For my father, the great tragedy of his birthplace was that Mexico had no unifying civic description of itself as potent as la Virgen de Guadalupe, whose apparition was the great consolation of his birthplace. In 1531, the Virgin Mary, dressed in the raiment of an Aztec princess, appeared to a converted Indian named Juan Diego. She addressed him in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztecs. She sent Juan Diego four times into Mexico City to petition a skeptical Spanish bishop to raise a great church to her honor, thus reversing the dynamic of Spanish Catholicism by making a sincerely bewildered Indian the ambassador of the Mother of God.

The remarkable achievement of Roman Catholicism was its proclamation—in an encyclical of Pope Paul III in 1537, Sublimis Deus—that the indigenous people of the Americas were rational beings with souls. Therefore, Indians deserved conversion. Indians were not to be enslaved by Spanish colonists. Indians were spiritual equals to the king of Spain (my father says).

Eighteenth-century Mexico and California were very far away from the theological declensions and therefores of Rome. A modern anthropological critic of the mission system of New Spain might argue that the Spanish Crown licensed, and thus controlled, the missionary orders they sent abroad. The conversion of the Indian provided slave labor under the guise of salvation history.

In 1579, Sir Francis Drake carved his initials on the coast of California and claimed it for the queen of England. In 1639, Russian explorers sailed onto the stage of the Pacific. The Spanish Crown felt some imperative to build garrisons in Alta California in the eighteenth century to secure its continuity with New Spain. We do not know to what extent the Spanish priests who came to California felt themselves compromised by serving a dual mission, to Crown, to Church. The missions throughout the Americas were never conceived by the Church as singular; they were linked, each to each, back to Mexico City, to Madrid—but thence to Rome. (My father marveled that the coffered ceiling of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome was paved with Indian gold.)

Once Fr. Serra crossed into Alta California, he walked among several ghost-paths—representations of Indians formulated from the experiences of English Protestant settlers. There is the myth of the knight of nature, the Indian at war with all Western civilization in the cowboy movies shot on the back lots of Burbank. There is the myth of the Indian turning color, the maple-leaf Indian—Pocahontas, Sacajawea—Indians who joined the coming progress, but ended in repine for nature.

Serra’s route trespassed upon the prelapsarian myth of the Indian as pacific, living in harmony with nature. Spanish priests taught the Indians to plant the seeds of Spain (grapes, dates, figs, architecture, music, shade). By teaching the Indian to cultivate a garden, Serra removed the Indians from paradise, from the provender of nature. Fred Collins, administrator of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, was quoted in the San Luis Obispo Tribune on the occasion of Fr. Serra’s canonization in 2015: “Serra was sent here as part of a group of emissaries who treated indigenous people here as if they were animals, people who enjoyed the beauty of simplicity and were caring of mother Earth.”

Serra became the postlapsarian prophet of a coming age. The overall instruction was to settle. Serra understood the Indians would be decimated if they were unprepared for the settlers’ ways. He was not protecting the indigenous people from Spanish civilization so much as preparing the Indians to live in communion with the Spaniards. To that extent, the Catholic purpose in California was impure from the beginning—it envisioned cultural and racial mixture, a mestizaje that would bewilder the puritan imagination.

Serra was born on November 24, 1713, in Petra, on the island of Majorca. His parents were peasant farmers. As a boy, Serra dreamed of the seminary—soft hands, books, the leisure of theological argument. He entered the novitiate at the Convento de Jesús in September of 1730. By 1742 he had earned a doctorate in theology from Lullian University. The standard portrait of Serra, a copy of an original probably painted from life in Mexico, shows a fleshy face as yet unformed by the ordeal of California, but already aggrieved. A description in the archives in Sevilla (“of medium height, swarthy, with dark eyes and scant beard”) leads me to think I would not recognize him in a procession. But the procession describes him. It was the Franciscan procession Serra desired. Holiness is most often an invisibility.

Could anyone who knew Serra as he was then—a scholar in a provincial library—have guessed that his name would cast an influence over California, thousands of miles away and hundreds of years hence, an influence larger than Walt Disney’s or Ronald Reagan’s or Steve Jobs’s? During Serra’s lifetime, the epic age of Spanish exploration was coming to an end. Something moved him to a dissatisfaction with the scholar’s life. He confessed to his superiors that he yearned to be with the Indians who did not yet know Christ. Again and again he petitioned to travel to New Spain. When permission finally came from the civil authorities, with all the appropriate signets and seals, Serra was already a man of middle age and certainly not of the type that either the Crown or the Church preferred for arduous missionary work.

Within sight of Vera Cruz, Serra’s first destination in the New World, the ship that had transported him from Spain nearly capsized. When he began to walk the several hundred miles to Mexico City, his foot was bitten by an insect. The bite festered; his leg swelled and never healed. By the time Serra traveled to Baja California, many years later, he could scarcely walk. Most of his travel up the coast of the Pacific was on mules or by ship. (Serra is most often depicted carrying a staff. The staff was not an Aaron’s rod, but a stick he leaned upon.) Distance was pain.

By the eighteenth century, Mexico was already, in its majority, a country of mestizos. So Serra must have seen the task awaiting him in the missions as having been already achieved in Mexico City—the epithalamium of the hairy and the smooth. In Mexico City there were universities, churches, streets clamorous with the Spanish tongue, but everywhere Indian faces. Serra entered the Apostolic College of San Fernando, where missionaries were schooled in various Indian languages and where the orthodoxies of the Inquisition yet prevailed.

In 1751, Serra volunteered to serve in the hill towns of the Pame Indians in the Sierra Gorda. In 1767, sensational news came from Madrid. The Crown, fearing a revolution plotted by Jesuits in Europe, commanded the expulsion of Jesuits from the Americas. Thus was Junípero Serra sent to Baja California to administer a vacated Jesuit mission.

On September 23, 2015, Pope Francis canonized Fr. Junípero Serra during a papal visit to Washington, D.C. Serra’s legend had long been dogged by a devil’s advocate named Carey McWilliams, a historian who was also the editor of The Nation. McWilliams’s enduring work concerns the somber history of golden California. He wrote in the 1930s and 40s about the mistreatment of Mexican farm workers, and he wrote about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during the war. It was McWilliams who famously described the California missions as “picturesque charnel houses.”

When McWilliams regarded the California missions, he could only make out a story of the victimization of the Indians. His view was confirmed by oral historians of various coastal tribes to the effect that the Indians were unwilling converts; when they ran away from the missions, they were pursued by militias, captured, put in stocks, or flogged. Indians were forced to plant and to harvest, to build, to butcher, and to cook. Many died of disease and broken hearts. You can see the placards marking mass graves of the Indians at many of the missions.

Without the rhetorical cover provided by McWilliams decades before, it is hard to imagine the Los Angeles Times editorial of September 19, 2017, and its tone: “Good riddance to California’s ‘mission project.’” Traditionally, fourth-grade students in California have been introduced to the history of the missions by making mission replicas out of popsicle sticks and sugar cubes. When the editors opine from Times-Mirror Square that the missions were “pre-statehood religious structures that were, in real life, built by Spanish missionaries using forced Native American sweat labor,” it is Carey McWilliams they channel. The editors go on to paraphrase Tuyen Tran, assistant director of the California History-Social Science Project: “Time squandered on model-building would be better spent teaching fourth-graders to understand the complex interactions between Native Americans and early Spanish settlers.” But absent consideration of the Mexican mestizo, the “complex” dialectic Tran imagines between Indian and European dissolves into a tragedy of mutual incomprehension.

For all his rage regarding the Franciscan past, Carey McWilliams reserved a cold disdain for the Protestant impulse in California to rebuild the Catholic missions, to refashion sordid memory into a Spanish pastoral. He mocked Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona, a nineteenth-century romance of the rancho. He was appalled by Anglo-Americans impersonating Spaniards during the “Days of the Dons” festivals in mission towns. Upright citizens, who in their daily lives wanted nothing to do with Mexicans, rode down Main Street on golden palominos, celebrating an age of gentility that never existed.

It would require a novelist like Joan Didion (who was married in Mission San Juan Bautista) to imagine why the children of American pioneers formed historical societies. The daughter of the Golden West had seen the dream of the future die with her parents. She knew her parents’ lives would be forgotten in the rush of new generations seeking the future. The necessity to remember became an imperative to protect—preserving the log cabin, or even the mission.

Centuries after a dying Serra was carried out to the cloister on his pallet so that he could see and be seen by his beloved Indians, new Californians take delight in the shade and the vineyards. In 2017, Californians still move within the nomenclature of Spanish piety. The Santa Monica Freeway merges with the San Bernardino. Everywhere along the coast, from the San Diego Padres ballpark to the Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa, the influence of the twenty-one missions proliferates. Fr. Serra’s name is attached to schools and shopping centers and freeways and observation points and rest stops and movie theaters and my dormitory at Stanford. There is the Mission Baptist Church. Taco Bell. El Padre Motel. There are streets in labyrinthine new suburbs that have Spanish names, some old, some fake, to connect them to Franciscan memory. The Protestant town square of the nineteenth century is recast in Spanish colonial in the twenty-first century.

And everywhere one sees Mexicans. Mexicans become the active figures of history: Mexicans working the fields alongside Interstate 101; Mexicans building, roofing, painting; Mexicans waiting on tables; Mexicans caring for children and the dying; Mexicans—Catholic or Evangelical—swelling the numbers of dwindling congregations of believers in the God that Fr. Serra limped into California to proclaim. So many Mexicans seek to join California that President Donald Trump was elected because he promised a wall, a “beautiful wall,” to protect America from its future and its past.

Aboriginal California might have evolved differently. There is a park near where I live in San Francisco called Mountain Lake Park. The lake is prehistoric. The Ohlone tribe lived hereabouts. In 1776, Juan Bautista de Anza made camp by the lake as he and several men of his expedition scouted for a place to build a Spanish presidio. In 1939, a highway was built alongside the lake, and over the next fifty years, the environment degraded. The impulse of the Presidio Trust in recent years has been to restore the landscape, to reintroduce native grasses and species—the western pond turtle and the Pacific chorus frog—that the Ohlone would recognize. According to the Presidio Trust brochure, Mountain Lake Park is “a place where we can learn from past mistakes.”

Americans are in an iconoclastic mood. We tear the Confederate general from his plinth in the town square (although he is, I think, a monument to defeat, rather than to aspiration). We believe the resulting absence will alleviate the burden of our history. But ours is a theatrical exorcism performed at midnight; it is not an act of contrition because it results from no examination of conscience. Americans, North and South, benefit to this day from the economic strength that slavery brought to the nineteenth-century nation. We spray red paint on the hands of the statue of Christopher Columbus. We demand that Andrew Jackson be removed from the twenty-dollar bill. We paint over the name of Kit Carson or Jubilation T. Cornpone on the public library. But then what? Has anyone proposed giving the country back to the Indians?

On the same day that Pope Francis canonized Junípero Serra, someone—a puritan—sprayed black paint on a statue of Fr. Serra in Carmel, not far from the mission church where Serra lies buried. In truth, most Californians—most Americans I know—are not much interested in saints. Americans more likely regard the great figures of history as mentors or role models—examples of occupational or gender or racial progress rather than moral example. In the echelon of role models, the most important are those who are first of their kind or accomplishment, and therefore of singular rank. For example, we celebrate Barack Obama as our first African-American president. The Nobel Prize committee was mocked in many quarters for awarding Obama the peace prize before he had begun his tenure in the White House. President Obama was himself taken aback. But the logic of being first meant that Barack Obama deserved his award the day he was elected.

The Catholic love of saints describes our need for human intercessors who understand what we are. We are not saints. That is why we prize sanctity and depend upon it. On the other hand, the most popular saints are those whose humanity clings to them. The process of canonization requires a devil’s advocate to seek out the reasons—and there are sure to be reasons—why the candidate should not be venerated. To my mind, Mother Teresa is a saint of greater allure precisely because her faith was disturbed by the silence of God.

That same year, 2015, the year of Junípero Serra’s canonization, there was a movement within California’s legislature (a bill later tabled by Gov. Jerry Brown) to swap Fr. Serra’s statue in the National Statuary Hall in the U.S. Capitol for a statue of Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut (two female cosmonauts had preceded her). She was also the first American lesbian astronaut.

The Jesuits in Baja California plastered the walls of their missions with the brightest, most supernatural white they were capable of fabricating in order to enchant the Indians down from the hills. My father would have come. I would have come down to see what the missions were about. To hear about Jesus-God. As a mestizo, like most Mexicans alive today, like my ancestors, I was made by the missions.

St. Junípero is not our role model; not the first. He was part of a procession. We are called to his grave because of the strength of his resolve—a resolve he shared with thousands of missionaries. His great ambition, his deep desire, was to join his soul to the souls of Indians, many of whom fled his presence.

You may find yourself unwilling to praise the old priest. But I will. 

Richard Rodriguez is the author most recently of Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography.

Photo by Burkhard Mücke via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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