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Festival of Books: Authors weigh in on Mulholland, Chavez, Serra

Biographers discuss their books about California luminaries Mulholland, Serra and Chavez

The "Shaping California" panel Sunday at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books centered on three of California's most famous historical figures: Junipero Serra, William Mulholland and Cesar Chavez.

As the panel went on, it became clear what was on many audience members' minds: Should Serra be declared a saint by the Roman Catholic Church?

(Pope Francis this year indicated he would canonize the friar who founded the missions and drove the Spanish conquest of what is now California.)

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It was a question UC Riverside historian Steven Hackel has fielded many times since his biography "Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father" was released last year.

When asked again Sunday, Hackel laughed. The California missions that Serra ran were "really, really horrible" and ultimately became "death factories" for the Native Americans there.

But Hackel noted that the brutality was not what the church would be looking at when it made its decision. It cares more about Serra's personal devotion to the church and his willingness to do missionary work. He said the effort seemed to be moving "full speed ahead."

He challenged the audience to instead think about whether Serra (and Ronald Reagan) should still represent California with a statue at the U.S. Capitol's National Statuary Hall.

Hackel, along with authors Miriam Pawel ("The Crusades of Cesar Chavez") and Les Standiford ("Water to the Angels: William Mulholland, His Monumental Aqueduct, and the Rise of Los Angeles"), shared how they went about writing deeply researched biographies of some of California's most famous figures.

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Pawel referred to Chavez's vision for the future. In a 1984 speech to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, he predicted that in 20 or 30 years California cities would be run by people who looked just like him.

Standiford acknowledged his deep admiration for Mulholland, his engineering achievements and his larger-than-life character.

The man who brought Owens Valley water to Los Angeles was a voracious reader. Mulholland once said, "Damn a man who doesn't read books," which Standiford called a stunning thing to hear from an accomplished engineer.

"Apologies to engineers," Standiford said to laughter.

MORE FROM THE FESTIVAL OF BOOKS:

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Why Claudia Rankine's book on racism has no ending

Roy Choi and Josh Kun on food, politics and L.A. history

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