The truth about Fray Junípero Serra: history dismantles the lies about the friar

Cesar Cervera

ABC talks to various experts from the Hispanic period about the figure of the Spanish saint, whose name Stanford University has removed from its campus this week

At his death in Monterey (Alta California), a region to which he had dedicated his health and efforts, there was no record anywhere that Friar Junipero Serra had contributed to the death of any human being, yet the nine Franciscan missions he founded saved thousands from starvation, marginalisation and the most predatory settlers. The creator of the first roads and stable settlements in the California region, his statue traditionally represents this state in Washington’s Capitol. A recognition of the importance of the missions in structuring what is now a US territory and in providing a future for the indigenous people in a world that would never again be so compassionate towards them.

Now, all of a sudden, this same state seems to have forgotten about its founding friar like someone turning off a switch. The hunting season opened in 2015. During his canonisation by Pope Francis, there were already many voices from the radical indigenist camp who described the Majorcan as genocidal and claimed that the missions were themselves concentration camps. His statue in the city of Los Angeles dawned shortly after that date with red paint and the words “Saint of genocide”.

Campaign of harassment and demolition

Two years later, it was his effigy at the Old Mission of Santa Barbara that was decapitated and painted in blood-red. This week the Stanford University Board of Trustees picked up the baton of this harassment and tear-down campaign by announcing that they will remove the saint’s name from campus streets and buildings because seeing his name causes “trauma and emotional damage” to many students.

“It is as if today a man from Soria (Spain) were to blame the Romans for all his ailments every time he passes in front of a classical monument. That is to say, as if history had stopped forever when Scipio destroyed Numantia”, compares with humour Fernando García de Cortázar, who lives with indignation the revisionism suffered by the Spanish saint. The matter is particularly cruel, since Junípero Serra devoted his whole life to the protection and evangelisation of the Indians of California. He was concerned for their welfare, that they should cultivate the land and become integrated into the new society. “He was a man of his time, a religious man who founded missions that represented islands of culture and piety in 18th century California and later became great cities. Undoubtedly, to blame him and the Franciscans for cruelty is truly barbaric, says the Basque author.

After the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, the Franciscan undertook the foundation of nine missions (eight in California) with the aim of populating the northern part of this region. In failing health and advanced age, Junípero Serra officiated at the conversion of 4,646 natives and laid the foundations for immense success in Hispanic urbanisation. “Founding missions was a multi-faceted task: to evangelise, to populate, to organise, … In order for them to live ‘in a civilised manner’, they wanted the inhabitants themselves to collaborate in the construction of the towns in which they were to live”, says María Saavedra, author of the book “La forja del Nuevo Mundo” (The forging of the New World).

Nevertheless, indigenous representatives today describe the missions as “extermination camps” where their ancestors were forced to live in unsanitary conditions. And, certainly, there were some abuses and physical punishments, but California’s native population remained at stable levels during the Spanish and later Mexican presence in this territory. They were able to safeguard most of their customs. “Some conquistadores tried to take advantage of the more developed Indians, but in the case of these Indians they couldn’t wipe out any culture because they didn’t even know agriculture and didn’t understand each other. They were nomadic, gathering tribes”, says Enriqueta Vila, a member of the Royal Academy of History.

It was, not surprisingly, with the gold rush that the arrival of thousands of American miners from the East led to what some have described as a demographic “hecatomb”. “What the missions did was to preserve the indigenous people who were dying out as they became secularised. The genocide came because of the gold, says Vila.

The benefits left by the Franciscans can still be seen today. The major cities in this state – San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles – retain the original mission names. Likewise, the historian specialising in the conquest of America, María del Carmen Martín Rubio, was able to see during a recent trip to Alta California that some of the crops introduced by the friars from their Mallorcan lands are still being cultivated. “In San Carlos Borromeo, where the mission is located as it was at the time of its foundation and where he is buried, friar Junípero is totally admired, and he is also admired in the small villages”, explains Martín Rubio, who blames the campaign on “political manipulation” and not based on reality.

Against the Hispanic world

The Majorcan even earned the enmity of the governor and many of his more greedy compatriots for his excessive zeal in protecting the Indians. After an Indian attack on the San Diego mission in 1776, he is recorded as having asked the first commandant general of the Internal Provinces, Teodoro de Croix, not to use violence against the culprits.

“Junípero is only the scapegoat; the attack is against the Hispanic world as a whole, whose relations with the Indians were more fluid, respectful and benign than those who came later”, says María Elvira Roca Barea, author of “Imperiofobia y leyenda negra”, on the origin of the attacks. For this author, indigenism currently enjoys a wide berth in US universities because those who are truly responsible for the disappearance of the native population are interested in exonerating themselves of their responsibility”.

The result is a controversy far removed from reality that hurts, above all, Hispanic people, who account for fifteen million souls in California, according to 2015 estimates. “Hispanic people don’t take the blame and this is part of the constant cultural erosion that leaves them in a position of acculturation and weakness”, says the former Harvard University professor. 2003 is a long time ago, when, at the request of Mexican intellectuals, the Franciscan Missions of Sierra Gorda were declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.


This post was translated from:

Cervera, C. (2018) ‘La verdad de Fray Junípero Serra: la historia desmonta las mentiras sobre el fraile’, ABC, Madrid, 23 September. Available at: (Accessed: 20 March 2021).

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1540 Francisco de Montejo y León "the young" founds the town of San Francisco de Campeche (México) in New Spain.

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