Junípero Serra’s statues are being defaced. Government institutions are seeking to remove his name from public monuments. All in the name of justice. Is there a better way forward?
You may have heard recently a statue of Junípero Serra that stands in front of the old Mission Santa Barbara was decapitated and covered with red paint.
News reports have been quick to point out that Serra is a controversial figure. They remind us that in California there is a debate about what to do with monuments dedicated to him and the chain of Catholic missions he founded. Some others connect the vandalism to the removal and defacing of statues linked to slavery in other parts of the country, especially after the violent events of Charlottesville, Virginia.
Vandalism of statues of Father Serra and other mission-related sites has been going on at least since 2015, in response to Pope Francis’ declaring Serra a Catholic saint. At that time, statues at Mission San Carlos Borromeo in Carmel were vandalized and in Monterey one was beheaded (the head was recently re-attached). In a more recent episode, a statue of Serra was splashed with red paint in Mission Hills, in a park across from Mission San Fernando.
Vandalism is as old as humanity, and most people are in agreement that defacing public monuments is not a good idea. Nevertheless, a glance at the comments section on some news reports does show that a number of people agree with the motives, if not the methods, of such vandalism. For these commenters, Serra represents oppression of Native peoples and there is no place for public monuments that honor him.
Perhaps most importantly, many officials of both public and private entities — the state legislature, cities, and universities such as Stanford — are planning to remove Serra’s image and name from streets, buildings and other monuments.
Already in 2015, on the eve of Serra’s canonization, California state legislators decided to replace Father Serra’s his statue in the Capital Rotunda in Washington D.C. with one of astronaut Sally Ride. Only the intervention of Governor Jerry Brown stopped the initiative from being carried out.
Gov. Brown’s action pointed to the fact that there are still many people who consider Serra an important part of California’s identity and should remain so.
So what is to be done in a case like this, where many people hold conflicting opinions about such a figure?
I have a proposal: instead of removing statues and monuments, why not build more? Why not simply erect more monuments to the Native Americans who inhabited the missions, even those who opposed them. For example, statues could be created to recognize Pablo Tac, the Luiseño ethnographer, or streets could named after Estanislao, an Indian from Mission San José who led a successful rebellion during the 1820s.
There are many of us who want to honor Father Serra for his faith and perseverance who also believe indigenous people of California, together with their struggles and triumphs, deserve more recognition. If the issue is one of rectifying injustices, we don’t do that by silencing viewpoints or erasing certain people’s symbols, but by giving space to other, even opposing symbols and viewpoints.
In case you were wondering, my proposal is directed toward the issue of monuments to Junípero Serra and the California missions, and I do not intend to address the issue of statues dedicated to symbols of the confederacy or slave-owning public figures. I do believe, however, that the same principle could apply to other cases.
For example, in some cities, Columbus Day has been replaced by Indigenous Peoples’ Day, on the belief that Columbus’ actions paved the way for the enslavement and destruction of native peoples in the Americas. And yet, Columbus Day is dear to Italian-Americans and others who admire his courage and perseverance.
Why can’t we have both Indigenous People’s Day and Columbus Day?
In many countries in Latin America, October 12 is celebrated as Día de la Raza, honoring the fact that the continent and its inhabitants are a multi-racial.
In another example, one of the statues representing the State of New Mexico in the U.S. Capitol rotunda depicts Popé (or Po’pay), the Pueblo leader whose 1680 rebellion expelled the Spanish from New Mexico for over a decade. Popé himself is a controversial figure — ask anyone whose ancestors were killed in his uprising. And yet he remains as a symbol for many New Mexicans.
This is what it means to live in a pluralistic society: that multiple and often conflicting views are respected. The point is not to erase, but dialogue, and ultimately live together.
Popular opinion about cultural symbols evolves over time, and it is simplistic to reduce everything to “good guys” and bad “guys”. It is possible to both honor Serra and disagree with some of his actions or the paradigms within which he worked. It is also possible to honor native peoples without erasing references to Junípero Serra.
Educated people can hold nuanced views on complex topics. The choice doesn’t have to be “either/or.” Sometimes it can be “both/and.”