Once more we are faced with the taking down of a statue of yet another Hispanic figure in the USA, this time Fray Junípero Serra. This Spanish Franciscan missionary, far from being a “racist” or “genocidal”, represented throughout his life much the contrary. For this reason we want to remember who this Majorcan was and what he did to become the first Hispanic saint in the United States.
Junípero was born on November 24th, 1713 in Petra, Majorca, to a humble family. He was baptized Miguel José. After his initial studies he chose to pursue an ecclesiastical life and took his vows on September 15th, 1731, changing his name to Junípero.
Despite being a reputed professor he chose to follow his missionary vocation and in 1749 he travelled to the College of Missionaries of San Fernando in Mexico, from where he parted to Sierra Gorda. In those land he evangelised the native population for more than 8 years.
In 1769 he headed, alongside Gaspar de Portolá, the Holy Expedition for the settlement of Spain in Alta California. There, as we will see, he undertook an incessant task of evangelisation, always at the service of native populations. His work as a missionary led him to found nine of the twenty one missions that Spain set in California, including San Diego de Alcalá, which is the namesake for the city of San Diego. In those missions he served the native community, preaching to the local populations, teaching them professions and providing them with an education and regular sources of food. He would die in August 28, 1784 in the San Carlos Borromeo mission, near Monterrey.
As remembered by Peter M. Escalante, present-day parish priest of the mission of San Diego de Alcalá “Father Serra treated the natives that came to the mission like a father would treat his sons”. He was canonized by Pope Francis, thus becoming the first Hispanic saint in the United States of America. The Pope asserted that this Franciscan “sought to defend the dignity of the indigenous peoples to whom he preached”.
The new attack on Frai Junípero is void of historical rigour. It is also an attack on the Spanish legacy of the United States and California, which should be preserved and respected, as Junípero himself taught in his time of dedication and service to the native population.