Father Serra, A Real Saint or Merely A European Colonialist ?
by Jimmy Franco Sr.
Pope Francis has recently proposed the canonization of Father Junipero Serra into sainthood based upon his missionary work in colonial Mexico and the colony of Alta California. Normally, the process of canonization to achieve sainthood within the Catholic church requires two ‘verified’ miracles and Serra has previously been credited with one by Pope John Paul II. Pope Francis has recently stated that he is willing to make an “exemption and waive the rules” for a required second miracle so that the process toward sainthood can move forward. However, before designating Serra a saint for his religious work in early California, an impartial
Serra’s proposed sainthood ignites a debate on his historical role.
(J. Wilson/click to enlarge photos)
discussion needs to be held to evaluate the impact that these efforts had upon the indigenous peoples that he interacted with and evangelized to. For many people today, the issue of Father Serra’s role in the development of the California mission system and its harsh methods of conversion is difficult to confront and discuss in an objective and logical manner. Many academics and religious apologists have restated the worn-out phrase that we cannot assess and compare 18th century concepts, practices and any misconduct by California’s missionaries through the use of 21st century standards. This is fundamentally incorrect as this confused approach and form of denial would mean we cannot use present historical methods to record, analyze and evaluate any individuals or events from the past because we live in the present. This obstructionist position is simply being used to stifle an investigation of the historical facts that would clarify Serra’s role and help us to distinguish romanticized myths from the truth as sordid as it may be.
The spread of European capitalism, colonialism and religious dogma
An evaluation of Father Serra’s actions and their effect upon the native people of California needs to be done through an historical analysis and not through a subjective religious perspective. As a historical figure Serra’s past activities must be viewed within the context of an expanding European colonialism, capitalism and mercantilism that was led by Spain which was then a world power. The dominant economic perspective during this formative-capitalist period in Europe viewed the acquisition of colonies as a source of increased wealth for monarchs, the nobility and their developing
Presidios & missions consolidated Spain’s colonial conquests.
merchant capitalist classes. Gold, silver, ivory and later products such as sugar, cotton and coffee would create large profits and wealth for the colonial powers. After 600 years of fighting the Muslim Arabs who had occupied Spain for centuries, they were finally defeated by the Spaniards in 1492. This had the effect of unleashing Spain’s conquering armies into the Nederlands, southern Italy, the Philippines, North Africa and the Americas. These military conquests of new colonies were followed by Catholic missionaries whose role was to expand Spanish civilization, religion, social practices and racial castes within these conquered regions. This was also the period after Europe’s deadly Thirty Years War between Protestants and Catholics and the efforts of the counter-reformation to stop the spread of Protestant religions, both of which resulted in heightening dogmatic religious attitudes. In addition, the power of the infamous Spanish Catholic Inquisition which Serra had worked with was also established within the Americas in order to root out and punish hidden infidels and purify the church. The objective of the Spanish colonial presidios that were established in different regions of the world was to militarily subdue and dominate the local populace in order to impose forced labor and extract wealth. These military operations were followed by religious missionaries whose role was to evangelize and eliminate the religious beliefs of ‘heathen’ civilizations and convert them to the Catholic religion. This process of pacification and conversion also included remoulding the outlook and lives of indigenous peoples to resemble those of Europeans. It was within this historical context that Junipero Serra and the other Franciscan missionaries arrived in California with their Euro-centric perspective and feudalistic values.
Colonization and the mission system resulted in a clash of civilizations
During the 1700’s the Spanish crown viewed the colonization of Baja and especially Alta California as an urgent priority in order to block the encroachment from the north by colonial rivals Britain and Russia. This plan was to be carried out through the establishment of a string of military presidios and missions within California which were to be the foundation for future Spanish towns most of whom would be named after Catholic saints such as San Diego, San Francisco and so on. The newly arrived pobladores of these new settlements were comprised of Spaniards, Mestizos and Afro-Spaniards. The indigenous population of Alta California during the 1700’s ranged from two to three hundred thousand people who existed in a hunter-gatherer civilization of about 100 different communal tribes. This new system of colonization within California had soldiers from the presidios subjugate and
The undermining of indigenous identities involved pressure to adopt European ways.
round up the inhabitants of indigenous villages and force them onto the newly-created missions where they would be confined and forced to labor. This was also the system and custom in early Europe where peasants would be forcefully tied to the land to labor for their masters. It was at these missions where Serra and his priests carried out their religious work of ‘civilizing’ about a fourth of the state’s indigenous population by converting them to Catholicism and supervising their labor. In addition to religious indoctrination and coerced labor the priests also tried to eliminate the culture, language and identities of the “mission Indians” through a system of pressure and punishment. This remoulding process even involved changing the physical appearance of the indigenous peoples through the forced use of European clothes, hair styles and Spanish names. Natives who were confined to the missions labored by constructing buildings, growing crops, tending animals and producing certain products for sale or barter. The use of flogging by the mission priests was a normal procedure that was used as a form of punishment against individuals who broke the rules or who were accused of committing ‘sins’ and therefore in need of harsh spiritual enhancement through whipping. Others who attempted to escape from the missions were caught by soldiers and severely punished which at times meant having a foot cut off. While not classified formally as slaves, the strict control, lack of freedom and forced exploitation of native labor were in essence the characteristics of slavery. The only difference from the southern slave plantations of that time was that individuals under the control of Serra’s Franciscans were not bought and sold as personal property and were treated somewhat better than outright slaves. The condescending religious pretense used to rationalize this captive labor and flogging on the missions was that ‘uncivilized’ native people were being confined there for ‘their own good and that of their souls’. The various forms of the presidio-mission system is a trait that is common to all colonial countries as they utilize a strategy of military domination, religious indoctrination, economic exploitation and then a method of mental-social control to pacify and manipulate the people being colonized. During the 18th century, the control of Alta California by Spanish soldiers and Franciscan missionaries was a key element of this expanding worldwide colonial system.
The human toll caused by European colonialism in early California
All historical events and figures have positive and negative aspects that pertain to them and one of these becomes the dominant aspect based upon an evaluation of the facts. The arrival of the Spanish in California laid the foundation for a pre-capitalist system based upon the eventual production and export of animal and agricultural products and silver mining. Father Serra and his fellow priests transformed a part of California by implanting the Spanish economy, language, culture, food, religion, hacienda system and traditions within the state. However, this new system only enriched the Spanish king and a small segment of the state’s population. The Spanish system of social classes and caste system based upon skin color was also implanted. The indigenous population
By 1900, the number of indigenous people had been reduced to about 10,000 people.
experienced the negative impact of this colonizing effort due to the mistreatment and often brutal discipline common to the missions. Also, the toll from European diseases transmitted by humans and animals brought by settlers was severe as a large number of the native people and especially their children became infected and died. The indigenous population had been reduced by about a hundred thousand people due to the ravages of disease, living in towns, alcohol, family dislocation and the mistreatment associated with being kept in a prisoner-like status on the missions. Meanwhile on the east coast, the English colonies were recovering from the frenzied and brutal religious campaign of witch trials and executions that had been unleashed by English religious leaders and authorities. Also, during this time there were military expeditions led by George Washington and later Andrew Jackson who attacked Native-American villages and eradicated many of them under the banner of civilization. The domination over the lives of California’s indigenous people by Serra and the Franciscans was not as brutal and genocidal as it was under English colonial rule and that of its descendants, however, the eventual results were comparably fatal. With the seizure of California by the US in 1848 and the ensuing avalanche of American settlers into the state who were seeking gold and ‘free’ land, the unfortunate fate of the indigenous tribes was sealed. Spanish colonialism would eventually be replaced by US colonialism whose policy toward California’s native population was to aggressively exterminate them and seize their land. In 1850 with the beginning of US rule there had been about 150-200 thousand indigenous people in the state and by 1900 only about 10,000 were left.
Should armed colonial expansionists and harsh rulers be viewed as saints
The question of whether Father Serra was a kindly saint or merely a key representative of an oppressive colonial system who only carried out orders needs to be based upon factual results and not the vagueness of faith or even the denial of harsh reality. A fundamental question needs to be asked in order to evaluate Serra and the results of his colonizing work and arrive at a firm conclusion. This question is whether the lives of the majority of indigenous people within the state were actually improved economically, socially and even democratically by Spanish
The rise of the Californios and a growing mestizo population and culture continues on.
colonialism and Serra’s Catholic mission system and did his religious work assist the existing civilizations to progress? Or was it the opposite and did he and his Franciscans along with the Spanish military assist in undermining and extinguishing a civilization native to California, its culture and thousands of lives? This same missionary process of colonial pacification was also being simultaneously carried out in Mexico, Latin America, the Philippines and Guam while Protestant missionaries were engaged in these same colonizing activities in Australia, Hawaii and Samoa. Most of these colonial missionaries during this time caused irreparable harm to the indigenous peoples of those regions and many participated in stealing their wealth and dismantling their civilizations, cultures and languages. A part of this fundamental question is also whether religious missionaries who later controlled US Indian boarding schools can also be considered as ‘saints’ for their spiritual work of seizing and brutally ‘Christianizing’ and ‘Americanizing’ Native-American children. Religious beliefs are generally not transmitted in a democratic manner, but are the result of pressure and even coercion especially when children are converted by adults or underdeveloped civilizations by stronger ones. A positive aspect of these California settlements is that the Spaniards implanted a more advanced economic system and certain social rules and norms while their nascent pueblos led to the development of the state’s present towns and cities. With the emergence of the Californios under subsequent Mexican rule the missions were dismantled and a system of ranchos was expanded throughout the state as a growing Mestizo population began to develop. This period of the Californios would be shattered under eventual US domination, however, this growing Mestizo culture would continue to grow into our present time. When civilizations encounter one another the relationship should be based upon mutual-respect and democratic relations and not by force and domination. In order to objectively evaluate Serra’s missionary work we can’t rely solely on an organization that is based upon subjective faith and a belief in miracles such as the Catholic church. This would be similar to asking the police to investigate themselves in an impartial manner. Serra is viewed and promoted by the Catholic church through a narrow religious prism as a prospective saint based upon his missionary work of recruiting more converts and expanding the power of the church into the Americas. However, in the real world of historical facts, his role and actions played a leading role in a colonial system that forcefully dismantled a civilization, culture and languages and devastated a population that never fully recovered. While Serra may have had good intentions and in certain instances lessened the harsh rule of the military, such well-meaning intent and misguided efforts often create an opposite and negative result. In conclusion, Serra deserves to be designated as primarily being a willing and aggressive tool of European colonialism and a harmful one at that.
Find Jimmy's writing at LatinoPOV.com
Find Jimmy's writing at LatinoPOV.com
Copyright, January, 2015: Jimmy Franco Sr.