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It’s complicated: One Native Californian’s thoughts on Junipero Serra’s canonization

Olivia Chilcote, Ph.D. candidate, ethnic studies | September 22, 2015

Tomorrow Pope Francis will canonize Junípero Serra in Washington DC. I never thought this day would be upon us.

In 1988, Pope John Paul II made the first step towards canonization when he beatified Serra, or recognized his entrance to Heaven and his ability to act on behalf of those who pray to him. Besides the beatification, becoming a saint requires that the individual in question has verifiably produced two miracles. Serra only has one.

A No Sainthood for Serra rally on May 4, 2015 at Mission Dolores. Photo by Monique Sonoquie.

A “No Sainthood for Serra” rally, on May 2, 2015, at Mission Dolores in San Francisco. Photo by Monique Sonoquie

In the 1980s, much like now, there was an outcry from Native Californians over the prospect of canonization. How could Junípero Serra, the man who established the Spanish Mission system in California, be a saint? Is he not representative of the death, disease, and cultural devastation of Spanish colonization?

Scholars, historians, activists, community leaders — both Native and non-Native — actively resisted Serra’s canonization through a variety of means. The 1987 book The Missions of California: A Legacy of Genocide, edited by Rupert and Jeanette Costo, was written in an effort to bring attention to the Native perspective and to foreground the brutal realities of the missions that had been glossed over for so many years. The strategic timing of the book highlighted that Native Californians and other anti-canonization believers could rally together and work towards halting Pope John Paul II’s process to canonize Serra.

But here we are today.

I remember hearing about Pope Francis’ plans to canonize Serra, in January of this year. I thought, seriously? Again? And then I rationalized to myself, there is no way this will happen. I mean, come on, Serra doesn’t even have enough miracles for this….

But here we are today.

Since the first announcements of Pope Francis’ plans, my social media and personal circles have been inundated with anti-canonization efforts, debates, and complexities. Friends, colleagues, and family have been a part of the resistance to the memorialization of colonization and its aftermath.

Reexamining the past

The impending canonization has been one way for Native Californians to re-examine their history and to understand the factors that have contributed to the problems facing tribal communities today — like lack of federal acknowledgment, cultural damage, and high rates of incarceration and suicide. However, this has also been a time to reflect on the strength of our ancestors who survived the missions and each subsequent era of colonization thereafter.

I grew up hearing and seeing Serra’s name throughout Southern California. I’m sure I learned about him when I had to endure the controversial “mission unit” in my 4th-grade class. As a young girl, I was forced to construct a mission — just as my ancestors had done, under very different conditions of course. But this was a nod to the “mission mythology” that permeates the state of California. “Mission-style” architecture dots the landscape and is supposed to remind the public of the “historical origins” of the state, of a Spanish fantasy past — a past devoid of the contributions and lives of Native Californians who had complex societies and systems of beliefs prior to missionization.

So who was Junípero Serra? And what makes his work so deserving of sainthood? You may know that Serra was president of the Franciscan Missions and established nine of the 21 missions in Alta California. However, you may not be aware that a lesser known friar, Fermín Lasuén, also established nine missions and served as president for three years longer than Serra did in this same post. Then why not canonize Lasuén, Pope Francis? Doesn’t he deserve the same recognition as his predecessor?

I think I know the answer. And I think many others do too. Serra is not receiving sainthood because he was necessarily more saint-like than Lasuén. Serra will become a saint because he was the first to establish a mission in California and has become a symbol of what the Spanish missions represent. In other words, Pope Francis is not canonizing Serra, the individual, so much as he is canonizing the  expansion of Catholicism in the Americas and the systemic colonization that changed Indigenous peoples’ lives forever in unalterable ways.

Serra’s canonization is a strategic move in the papacy of Francis, just like the mission system was a strategic move in the imperial exploits of the Spanish crown. In the 1700s, the Spanish feared encroachment on Alta California from the east by Americans and from the north by Russians. Placing missions along the coast to convert and “hispanicize” as many Native peoples as possible solidified Spain’s claims to land.

Today the Americas far surpass even Europe in Catholic believers, and the Catholic Church has elected Francis, who is the first Pope from Latin America. Not coincidentally, this Pope will soon re-memorialize and reaffirm a hispanic Catholic legacy in and connection to California and the Americas through Serra’s canonization.

Was such a controversial figure as Serra given a pass on miracles so that the Catholic Church can appeal to its largest constituency? What role do Native Californians have in this matter?

One tribe’s journey

My ancestors lived throughout northern San Diego County prior to Spanish intrusion into our lands. The village site Quechla, where the Mission San Luis Rey now stands near the city of Oceanside, is a place where members of my tribe can trace their lineage. We were there before the mission; we are there now.

Mission San Luis Rey is a complex place for others and myself in my tribe, the San Luis Rey Band of Luiseño Mission Indians. The name of our tribe comes directly from the fact of missionization. We have names for ourselves in our Native language, but mine and many other California tribes’ official names represent just how deeply missionization has affected us. It is in the very names we call ourselves and in the way we know ourselves to be.

My grandmother in front of Mission San Luis Rey in the 1940s.

My grandmother in front of Mission San Luis Rey in the 1940s

Like many of my ancestors before me, I was also baptized at Mission San Luis Rey. My grandmother had her funeral there, and she has a headstone in the cemetery where many other Luiseño people are also buried. Other tribal members have been married there, gone to Catholic school there, and are still parishioners to this day. We even hold our annual inter-tribal pow wow on the mission grounds.

But through all of this, we have never forgotten our Native heritage. We engage with Mission San Luis Rey because if we don’t, the toil and sacrifices of our ancestors to stay connected to our ancestral lands would have been in vain.

I will be on my way to Washington D.C. tomorrow for the annual Conference of Ford Fellows; it was only last week I realized I would arrive the same day as the canonization. There will be a strong contingent of Native Californians in the area, making every last effort to voice opposition to the canonization of colonialism. A good friend of mine will translate the first Scripture reading during the canonization into the Chochenyo language of Ohlone people. I cannot think of a better way to illustrate the complicated relationship between the Catholic Church and Native Californians. It will show hundreds of millions of people across the world that though the missions were destructive and unforgivable, Native Californians have not been silenced. Our histories, cultures, and lives have survived over three centuries of colonization and genocide.

Not even a miracle could stop us now.

To hear more about the Serra debate and get a firsthand perspective on anti-canonization efforts, consider attending the 30th Annual California Indian Conference. The CIC, to be held at UC Berkeley Oct. 15-17, will feature presentations by organizers of the anti-canonization effort. Visit the CIC website for information.