The Franciscan monk founded nine missions across the Atlantic and fought to advance native society. However, a statue erected in his honour was recently beheaded in California.

Heroes are not only those who, sword and shield in hand, fight a bloody battle knowing their chances of victory are slim. On many occasions, idols do not need weapons or armour. The living example of this was Junípero Serra, a Franciscan friar who – back in the 18th century – left his beloved Spain behind and traveled almost 10,000 kilometres by boat to Mexico to teach the natives art, science, and commerce.

Disregarding his personal safety and well-being, Serra also founded nine missions in the New World devoted entirely to ensuring the welfare of the natives. He was, in short, a great man with an enormous list of good deeds. The same ones that, back in 2015, led him to be canonised by Pope Francis.

Junípero Serra’s is a story of goodness. Although the hotheads who, less than a week ago, decapitated and painted red a statue erected in his honour near the Old Mission of Santa Barbara must not have thought so.

Unfortunately, this degrading assault has been no exception. On 23 August, for example, an effigy of the religious was also attacked in the city of Los Angeles (California). The same happened in 2015 when, a few days after our protagonist was canonised, vandals tore down several of his sculptures and painted on his tombstone the words “Saint of genocide”.

Today, many natives – as José A. Sanz explains in “Crosses and Arrows” – consider that the religious man was “a jailer” who “built real concentration camps” and forced “the Indians to convert to Catholicism”.  All falsehoods, in the words of the same author: “There is no evidence to affirm that, in Serra’s time, there were forced conversions of Indians to Catholicism; there is no evidence to show that Serra was personally cruel to the Indians; during Serra’s presidency there was no such destruction of the indigenous peoples”.

The cruelest image of this friar also contrasts with the fact that, to this day, this patriotic hero is the only one honoured with a statue in Washington’s Capitol.

Sad departure from Spain

The town of Petra, on the island of Majorca, was the place where the future evangeliser was born on 24 November 1713. This is what Francisco Palou, another 18th century religious (an inseparable friend of our protagonist) states in his work “Relación histórica de la vida y apostólicas tareas del V. P. Fray Junípero Serra” (Historical account of the life and apostolic tasks of V. P. Fray Junípero Serra).

The author also points out that “it was his parents Antonio Serra and Margarita Ferrer, humble, honest, devout, and of exemplary customs” who instructed Miguel José (for that was his real name) “in the holy fear of God”. The childhood of our protagonist, therefore, was forged on the basis of religion. This is made clear by the chronicler, who points out that “as soon as he began to walk, [he began] to attend the Church and Convent of San Bernardino.

His time at that school gave him, in Palou’s words, great knowledge of “Latin, from which he emerged perfectly instructed”. It soon became clear that he had a clear aptitude for philosophy and that he was attracted to religion. For this reason, at the age of 15, he began to attend classes at the convent of San Francisco de Palma. “Feeling called by a religious vocation, the following year he took the Franciscan habit in the convent of Jesus, outside the city walls. On 15th September 1731 he took religious vows, changing his name from Miguel José to Junípero, explained the late Salustiano Vicedo in his dossier “Blessed Junípero Serra (1713-1784), Apostle of Sierra Gorda and California”.

From then on he devoted himself to study and teaching. He excelled in this task, training dozens of disciples. And so he remained until 1741.

However, his teaching time was short-lived. Eager to preach in the New World, Serra could not contain his joy when he was informed that his request to cross the Atlantic and join the Colegio de Misioneros de San Fernando (in Mexico) had finally been accepted. His initial happiness, however, was short-lived. This meant moving away from his parents. In the end, our protagonist did not have the courage to tell them the truth. “He visited his elderly parents, said goodbye and took their blessing to return, having completed his task, leaving them unaware of his determination, which was therefore more hidden”, adds Palou.

The horrors of the voyage

On 13 April 1749 Serra set sail for Malaga on his way to Cadiz. This voyage has, to a certain extent, been forgotten by history. However, it was more important than the chronicles suggest. The reason? That during the voyage, the friar had a confrontation with the captain of the ship that could have resulted in his death at sea.

In the words of Palou, who was present on the voyage, the man was a “proterious heretic” who did not hesitate to provoke the religious during the fifteen days they were on the ship. According to his writings, the sailor attacked religion throughout the voyage by “speaking English or some Portuguese” (as he did not know Spanish) and reading passages from the Bible that he considered inappropriate.

Serra, for his part, did not avoid conflict during those days. “As our Fray Junípero was so learned and versed in dogma and sacred scripture, […] he tried to make him perceive his error”, adds Palou. The confrontation, initially dialectical, ended up unsettling the captain, who went so far as to “put a dagger to his throat with the intention (apparently) of taking his life”. However, he seems to have desisted when the Spaniard pointed out that “if he did not take us to Malaga, our king would ask the king of England for us, and his head would pay for it”.

In any case, Serra arrived safely in Cádiz and from there set sail for Veracruz (in Mexico). He arrived there after a voyage of 99 days.

Unfortunately, his ordeal did not end when he set foot in Mexico. On his way to the Colegio de Misioneros de San Fernando, he had a mishap that left him scarred for life. “Junipero’s feet swelled up, so much so that he arrived at a hacienda without being able to have them; they attributed it to mosquito bites because he was so itchy, […] He woke up with blood all over him, for which reason he got a sore […] which lasted him all his life”, adds Palou. Not even that could stop our protagonist, who was determined to continue his evangelising and civilising work.

Civilising work

As Vicedo rightly points out in his dossier on Serra, he spent six months at the Colegio de Misioneros de San Fernando. After this time, he headed for the so-called Sierra Gorda (in Querétaro, Mexico). There, according to Palou, they were warmly received by the natives of the various missions. Words that radically put an end to the widespread idea that the natives hated the work of the Christians.

Once in the area, our protagonist devoted himself first of all to learn the language of the locals and to make the Christian religion known among them. “He tried to imprint devotion to the Lord in their tender hearts”, the chronicler adds in his extensive work.

But that was not his only task. “So that the Indians would have something to eat and wear […] he arranged an increase in the number of oxen, cows, beasts, and small hair and wool cattle, corn, and frixol [beans], so that they could plant some crops, in which he spent not only the surplus of the 300 pesos […] that the King gave to each minister for their upkeep, but also the alms that could be obtained for masses, and that which some benefactors offered”, Palou explains.

This undoubtedly helped the natives to advance. “Such was the transformation made in that mountainous area that, from a fruitless wasteland, its valleys were transformed into a fertile orchard. And some semi-wild and surly Indians were converted into sociable citizens, educated in the different fields of human activity of those times”, adds Vicedo.

The greatest defender of Serra’s work was Palou because he understood – in Sanz’s words – that “he was a model missionary and that his mission plan was the only way for the Indians to have a future”.

During that civilising maelstrom, Serra’s presence was required in San Saba (Texas). More specifically, in a mission that had been razed to the ground with arrows by the Apaches. The friar (by then “President of the missionaries”) accepted, but his departure was eventually cancelled. As a result, and in Vicedo’s words, “he devoted himself to giving popular missions throughout the Territory of New Spain” for a year.

First expedition

While Serra was evangelising half of Mexico, the international situation was deteriorating. For example, in 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from all Spanish territories. This decision left their missions in Baja California empty and forced Franciscans like Serra to settle there. “We left on 12 March of that year, after dark”, adds Palou, who travelled with Junípero.

As if this situation were not bad enough for Spain (which risked losing a good part of the missions in Baja California), a year after Serra arrived at his new post, reports came in that the Russians were looking to colonise the American northwest. A disaster for the interests of our crown in the area.

What was the solution offered by the Spanish? To get ahead of their competitors. “Royal Visitor José de Gálvez proposed to the governor an expedition to Monterrey”, explains Matt A. Casado in “California hispana: Descubrimiento, colonización y anexión por los Estados Unidos”. However, he knew that it would be impossible to colonise by force of arms alone, so he sent for Serra.

The expedition left on 10 April 1769 for Monterey under the command of Gaspar de Portolá. The journey was tougher than any of the previous ones in which Serra had taken part. The episodes experienced by the men bear witness to this. On 28 May, for example, the natives tried to stop the advance of the Spanish soldiers by force at an area called La Cieneguilla, but the Spaniards dispersed them with shots in the air.

“Fray Junípero was enthusiastic, but not blind. He knew that at any moment the Indians could become a threat”, adds Sanz. The truth is that he was right. And so it was, of course, on 27 June when, out of nowhere, two groups of natives armed with bows and arrows appeared and took up positions on the expedition’s flanks. Our men stood on guard, thinking that they would have to defend themselves to the death. But nothing happened. According to Serra’s memoirs, the Indians just shouted and shouted until they got tired and left.

In early July, the expedition arrived at the port of San Diego, where Serra founded the first mission in Alta California, San Diego de Alcalá.

The social and military structure that grew up around this mission was to be more than revolutionary. This is at least how Fernando Martínez Laínez and Carlos Canales explain it in their work “Banderas Lejanas. La exploración, conquista y defensa por España del territorio de los actuales Estados Unidos”: “[There] six soldiers had to be sent. Thus was born a very effective system that was later copied throughout California in those places where there was no presidio to give immediate protection to the missionaries. It consisted of giving a small military unit to each settlement where the religious and the Christianised Indians cultivated the land and produced food.

“His pleas succeeded in getting the withdrawal postponed and, in the meantime, the ship arrived with new resources”, Vicedo adds. In the end, Serra’s tenacity and desire for Christianisation enabled him to form his second mission (San Carlos de Borromeo) in Monterrey in 1771. “He founded the establishment with a sung mass and other customary ceremonies”, adds Palou in his work.

Other missions

After these first two, Junípero Serra founded three more missions: San Antonio de Padua (1771), San Gabriel Arcángel (1771) and San Luis Obispo de Tolosa (1772).

The creation of the last on this list (sponsored by Portolá’s lieutenant, Pedro Fages) was particularly happy for the natives. “Serra convinced Fages to leave him some men so that he could found a new mission, which received the name of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa on 1 September 1772. The friendship of the Indians, grateful for [a] bear slaughter that Fages had carried out a year earlier, guaranteed the success of the new settlement”, add Laínez and Canales in their work.

In the following years, the number of missions created by Junípero Serra increased to a total of nine. This is explained by Palou in his book, which also points out that the friar went out of his way to bring food to the missions so that no native would go hungry.

One of the most important of these was the creation of a mission located halfway between the Los Angeles and San Diego regions. The work began in 1774, when Friar Fermín Luasén and a commander named Francisco Ortega were sent to the present-day San Juan Capistrano area with the aim of founding a religious centre.

Their work, which initially went smoothly, had to be stopped suddenly when they received orders to return to their starting point because of a native attack.

The mission (as yet unfounded) was completely abandoned. Shortly afterward, however, Junipero Serra left for the area to continue the work. He did so together with two missionaries (friar Pablo Mugartegui and friar Gregorio Amurrio), a corporal, and ten soldiers.

“They arrived at the place where they found [a] cross [left by Ortega] hoisted and unearthed the bells, to the ringing of which the gentiles were very happy to see their priests return to their land. A canopy was erected, and the venerable father president said the first mass there. Desirous that the work should go ahead, he took the trouble of passing his reverence to the mission of San Gabriel in order to bring some neophytes to help the work, some food supplies for all and the cattle that were already there”, adds Palou.

To his grave, our protagonist also took with him the hatred of some California governors who prevented him from carrying out his task more easily, and the black legend that was generated around him. A myth that is impossible to understand in view of his civilising curriculum.

False black legend

The story of Junípero Serra speaks of goodness and piety. This is demonstrated by the fact that he was beatified by John Paul II in 1988 and later canonised by Pope Francis in 2015. In one of his homilies, Pope Francis pointed out that the missionary had had to deal with the harsh mentality of the conquistadors who travelled to the other side of the world.

“He learned to gestate and accompany the life of God in the faces of those he met, making them his brothers and sisters. Junípero sought to defend the dignity of the native community, protecting it from those who had abused it. Abuses that continue to provoke our displeasure today, especially because of the pain they cause in the lives of so many”, the Pope explained two years ago.

However, neither his missionary past nor his international recognition have served to silence those who believe that he participated in the genocide committed by the Spanish in America. In 2015, for example, some native associations charged head-on against his memory, taking advantage of his canonisation.

One of them was the “Mexica Movement”, an advocate of “American liberation from Europeans”. Through one of its representatives (Olin Tezcatlipoca), it declared to CNN that Junípero Serra had “planned the genocide”. The claim is one of the most benevolent, as the group has gone so far as to say that Serra “was a racist who committed immoral and genocidal crimes against our people”.

The group has also claimed over the years that Serra’s missions were actually concentration camps for the natives. A theory later endorsed by Andrew Salas (tribal chairman of the Kizh nation) on the BBC: “They were exterination camps for my people. They served as slaves to erect some of the most beautiful examples of architecture in the state of California, which were nothing more than a façade for the unsanitary death camps”.

These groups also argue that the natives were forced to live in the missions founded by the Spanish in absolutely unsanitary conditions. Furthermore, they do not point out that the Spaniards distributed food to the Indians on a daily basis and protected them from their enemies in these facilities. To counter this show of solidarity, they explain that many villages had no choice but to stay there because they were the only areas where food was available.

Fray Junípero is also blamed for founding a mission system that wiped out much of the indigenous civilisation. In this case, what the aforementioned groups do not remember are episodes such as the one that took place in mid-July 1776. During those days, Serra asked for clemency for a group of natives who had attacked a Spanish settlement.

“Fray Junípero had good reason to ask for clemency for the Indians […] who had destroyed the mission of San Diego. He told Theodore de Croix, first commandant general of the Provincias Internas (letter of 22 August 1778): these rebels and murderers were his children, begotten in Christ”.

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On This Day

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