Chair's Response to the Archbishop of San Francisco
The Archbishop's Letter
On 20 June 2020 Most Rev. Salvitore J. Cordileone posted a letter online regarding the toppling and defacing of the Junipero Serra statue in Golden Gate Park. I would like to use the letter as an opportunity to clarify the misleading information in the letter because the Church's persistent use of these talking points reinforces the romantic myth of the missions that has and continues to inhibit justice for California's Native peoples.
"St. Serra made heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers."
A. Serra's So-Called Heroic Sacrifice. The purported sacrifice to which the Archbishop refers is that Serra "walked all the way to Mexico" and then "walked back to California" on an "infirmed leg." While Serra did have an infirmed leg, he did not walk all the way to Mexico and back. He traveled by ship or mule for most of the journey. He was, however, 59 years old and became severely ill a few times along the way. There is no doubt that it was an arduous journey.
This lauding of Serra for traveling long distances on a feeble leg serves Catholic notions of martyrdom well, but let’s get real—no one suffered more than the California Indians. For every 100 Natives incorporated into the California missions, over 75% died a premature death. Average life expectancy after baptism was only nine years, and at Mission Dolores in San Francisco it was only 4.5 years. Death rates in Alta California were chronically higher on average in non-epidemic years than the death rates in other parts of New Spain. Native peoples died from the extreme living and working conditions at the missions throughout the Mission Period. Major epidemics in California did not occur until the early 1800s, 30+ years after the founding of the first mission. (1)
1. Jackson, Robert Howard, and Edward D Castillo. Indians, Franciscans, and Spanish Colonization : The Impact of the Mission System on California Indians. Albuquerque, NM: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1995, 41-44.
In 1820 Father President
B. Serra As Protector. The Archbishop conveys the idea that Serra traveled to Mexico in order to gain protection for Natives at the missions, especially from soldiers. This argument is consistent with the specious claim that Serra attained a Bill of Rights for Native peoples. Serra and the other Franciscans had always been concerned about the corrupting influence of soldiers in regards to the moral progress of Native converts, about the theft of Native property, about the physical abuse of Natives, and about the sexual abuse and rape of Native girls and women. The Franciscans, however, were not special in expressing those concerns. Civil authorities shared similar concerns.
That said, Serra was concerned about the abuses of soldiers posted at the missions and wanted to obtain for the Franciscan missionaries the authority to remove abusive soldiers, but that was not the primary reason for his trip to Mexico. Serra traveled to Mexico to acquire for the missionaries complete control over every aspect of the missions with the exception of matters like capital offences that fell under the purview of civil authority. As Viceroy Council pronounced "that with regard to their neophytes the missionaries stood in loco parentis . . . as a father toward his children," especially "all economic affairs pertaining to the father of a family regarding the care of his household, and the education and correction of his children."(1)
While Serra attempted to protect the Native peoples at the missions from abusive soldiers, he could not protect the Native peoples from the abuses of the Franciscan missionaries themselves. Repeated complaints about the abuses of the Franciscan missionaries occurred throughout the Mission Period. In 1780 Serra himself acknowledged the excessive punishments meted out by his fellow missionaries yet held an indifferent attitude toward the abuse in favor of its presumed value in the conversion and Hispanicization processes.(2) Ironically, one of the verified complaints was lodged in 1786 against Friar Noriega, a contemporary of Serra at Mission San Carlos. Friar Noriega lashed Natives with a chain for even the smallest infractions.(3) Franciscans at various missions sexually abused and raped Native girls and women. Friar Jimeno at Mission Santa Barbara repeatedly raped a married women named Barbara, and a Friar at Mission San Buenaventura would rape girls and women in the monjerio while the rest sang at his behest.(4) No missionary found guilty of abuse was ever removed from his position.(5)
Under threat of punishment Native peoples at the missions were forced to attend religious services and forced to labor without fair compensation. They were not allowed to leave the mission grounds without permission, and then, for only two weeks a year at most. Anyone who failed to return or who otherwise escaped was hunted down by the military, which created a culture of fear at the missions. Some were killed in the process. Women were locked up at night in female dormitories, or monjeríos, that were entirely unsanitary and contributed to higher death rates for women.
The Archbishop's characterization of Serra as a protector of Native peoples using a single and comparatively minor example belies the truth about the mission system as a whole both during Serra's career and after his death in 1784.
1. Engelhardt, Zephyrin. The Missions and Missionaries of California. Vol. 2, Pt. 1, James H. Barry Co: San Francisco, Cal, 1912, 119.
2. Hackel, Steven W. Junípero Serra : California's Founding Father. New York: Hill and Wang, 2013, 201.
3. Guest, Florian F. “The Indian Policy Under Fermín Francisco De Lasuén, California's Second Father President.” California Historical Society Quarterly 45, no. 3 (1966), 205.
4. Madley, Benjamin. “California's First Mass Incarceration System: Franciscan Missions, California Indians, and Penal Servitude, 1769—1836.” Pacific Historical Review 88, no. 1 (2019), 34.
5. Sandos, James A. Converting California : Indians and Franciscans in the Missions. Western Americana Series. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008, 82.
C. Serra As Saint. The Archbishop's juxtaposition of "St. Serra" as somehow independent of and oppositional to the "Spanish conquerors" is misleading. The Catholic Church persists in characterizing Junípero Serra and the Franciscan missionaries as evangelists, while overlooking their roles as colonizers; however, the missionaries and military worked together to colonize California’s Indigenous peoples.
In addition to their failed attempt to make genuine converts of the California Indians (1), the Franciscan missionaries were charged with creating self-governing settlements comprised of Hispanicized and industrious Native citizens in service of the Spanish Crown. From a Spanish Catholic (read Eurocentric and Christian) perspective Native peoples were pagan (not Christian) and savage (uncivilized), which necessitated their conversion to Catholicism and assimilation into Spanish society. In this instance, colonization is defined by settlement among and control of the Indigenous population in California by the Spanish.(2)
1. Cordero, Jonathan. "California Indians, Franciscans, and the Myth of Evangelical Success," Boletín, 33 no. 1 (2017).
2. Engelhardt, Zephyryn. The Missions and Missionaries of California, Vol. 3, Pt. 2, James H. Barry Co: San Francisco, Cal, 1912, 311-327.
"St. Junipero Serra also offered them the best thing he had: the knowledge and love of Jesus Christ, which he and his fellow Franciscan friars did through education, health care, and training in the argrarian arts."
D. The Love of Jesus Christ. The Archbishop misleadingly argues that the Franciscans offered Native peoples “the love of Jesus Christ” through “education, health care, and training in the agrarian arts.” While the appeal to education and health care might sound justice-oriented, the reality at the missions was much different.
First and most importantly, Native peoples did not need to be saved from their so-called pagan and savage ways of life. They did not need a European education; they did not need European health care; they did not need training in the agrarian arts. Our ancestors were doing just fine on their own before the arrival of the Spanish.
Second, there was no formal education system at the California missions. The natives received religious instruction at mandatory twice daily religious services in a language that the vast majority could not understand. They received training in the agrarian and mechanical arts, but of what actual value did that training have for Native peoples who had no land and resources of their own?(1) Health care was extremely poor—rarely was there more than one trained physician at any given time at the twenty-one California missions. Given the extraordinarily high death rates in California, the health care offered by the missionaries was apparently grossly ineffective.
After years of research and writing and defending the California missions, pro-Catholic scholars and leaders have yet to prove that the missions benefited the California Indians in a way that justifies/overshadows the mission's coercive practices and disastrous effects: indoctrination, confinement, forced labor, routine physical abuse, sexual abuse and rape, loss of land, loss of culture, loss of life, etc.
1. Sandos, James A. Converting California : Indians and Franciscans in the Missions. Western Americana Series. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2008, 95.