Weekly insights into our crazy world.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015



This September, Pope Francis will make his first official visit to the USA. When his Excellency makes it to California, he is expected to make a historic announcement: The canonization of Father Junipero Serra. Never heard of him? Well, every kid who went to Elementary School in California sure knows him. In Fourth Grade History, we were taught how the benevolent priest built a string of missions in the 1700's. As the 'Columbus of California,' he carefully placed all 21 churches one day's walk apart. NOTE: This dude walked 20 miles a day! At any rate, Father Serra is a beloved part of the Golden State's heritage.

However, not everyone is thrilled over the Pope's upcoming announcement. "During the colonial period, we lost 90% of the Indians in California," explains Ron Andrade of the LA Native American Commission. "Serra was no saint to us." It's true: The 250,000 natives living in California in 1750 perished within fifty years of Father Serra's arrival. First, cattle ruined their creeks and food supply. Then, new diseases ripped through the populations. Also gone are centuries of wisdom, culture and folklore. Finally, today we miss their secrets on how to live in the semi-arid lands of California.

While it is easy to take Ron's point of view, historians know better. As the figurehead of the colonial movement, Junipero Serra has taken the lion's share of the blame for history's unfortunate path. The truth is the native peoples who lived in California in the 1700's were horribly isolated from the outside world. They had no agriculture, no metallurgy and had no permanent homes. Sooner or later, another group...Native or European...would have moved in and annexed their territory.

As to the true nature of Father Serra, we have very few primary sources available to establish any hard facts. However, we do know of one event in San Diego that occurred in 1775. Angry Kumeyaay Natives sacked the mission and killed three Spaniards. Afterward, the Spanish Viceroy called for the immediate execution of the dozen Indians captured in the skirmish. But Father Serra disagreed: "As to the killers, let them live so that they can be saved, for that is the purpose of our coming here and its sole justification." Hmm. Doesn't sound like a tyrant to us!

Sadly, the vast majority of the famed Spaniards who came the New World do not enjoy popularity today. For example, Columbus Day is being replaced by Indigenous People's Day. In Mexico, the Sea of Cortez has been renamed the Vermilion Sea. But it is truly unfair to lump Father Serra in with these conquistadors. He was a man of peace, ignorant to micro-bacteria that was killing natives and unaware of native grass types he destroyed. Fortunately, Pope Francis understands this. See, the Pope took his name from Serra's Franciscan Order. He has great respect for Saint Junipero Serra's legacy.

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