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Junipero who? Many Latinos' own history precludes saint debate

Some Latinos haven't chosen sides in the Junipero Serra debate because they've no reason to know who he was

Susan Martinez, a shopkeeper from Lynwood, furrows her brow, trying to jog her memory.

"Junipero Serra ...." she says. "Who is that guy?"

Martinez, a lifelong Catholic who earns her living selling images of saints, only learned about Serra when Pope Francis announced his decision to make the 18th century Franciscan priest a saint.

His canonization has stirred debate among scholars, clergy and indigenous peoples. Some declare Serra a conqueror who imposed his Gospel by eradicating thousands of Indians. Others proclaim him a trailblazer, a Columbus of Catholicism in the wild West.

But whereas Christopher Columbus has his own now-controversial national holiday, many Latinos in Los Angeles know Serra only as the name on a mountain peak, a highway and high schools up and down the state.

When confronted with the prospect of sainthood for Serra, Martinez can't see how adding one more to the roster would do any harm.

"Maybe he will be the saint of leaders and pioneers," she says, straightening her collection of holy figurines.

Serra's treatment of Indians during the establishment of the missions in the 1700s has little meaning for the 62-year-old.

"God is good," she says. "And what he brought them was good, even if he had to use a little force."

Historians and activists have long wrestled with the unsolvable equation of how much good and how much harm Serra and the missionaries did — with respect to the original inhabitants and in the long haul. And many Latinos have more to grapple with than do most Californians, because they have both Catholic and indigenous backgrounds.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Junipero Serra: In the March 12 California section, an article about Latinos' reactions to the canonization of Father Junipero Serra included a photo of a man carrying a statue, which the caption identified as Jesus. The statue was of St. Jude. —
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They may pick a side — because they love the church or dislike the church, they love the pope or dislike the pope — but many don't know enough or care enough about the priest to argue over him.

Steven Hackel, a professor at UC Riverside and the author of a biography on Serra, isn't surprised that many Latinos know less about the most pivotal California missionary than about Thomas Jefferson or George Washington. That's because Serra was not part of the nation's original East Coast colonization and because the nations from which many immigrants came had no reason to teach California history.

Those who do study California history learn this: In 1758, the native of Mallorca, Spain, was dispatched to head a group of other Spanish Franciscans in evangelizing the inhabitants of Baja and Alta California, as the current U.S. state was then known.

Some also learn that the mission system imposed pressure to assimilate on the hundreds of thousands of Indians who lived in what is now California, while also exposing them to foreign diseases, wiping out villages, native animals and plants.

Soon after the pope spoke in January, the faithful applauded during Sunday services, and Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Gomez praised the news, calling it "a gift to California and the Americas."

Still, some priests say they had to keep their joy in check.

Father Manuel "Tony" Diaz of the San Gabriel Mission, one of the sites Serra founded, said he told his clergy to keep the canonization announcement brief. He didn't want to offend the descendants of the Tongva Indians, who once populated the area by the thousands and now, occasionally visit the mission.

"Publicly I have to tone down my own excitement," Diaz said. "Their experience is very different, and I cannot be blind to the fact that only in the last 30, 40 years have they begun to regain some of that lost history."

Some advocates representing Native Americans were so upset by the pope's decision they set out in the streets of downtown to protest.

"It's devastating," said Mati Waiya, a Chumash ceremonial leader who spoke against Serra. "Here's someone who took away our lives, categorized us, missioned us, told us who we are and what to do and we're going to reward him for it."

Cesar Barajas, an embroidery worker from Santa Monica, didn't know much about Serra, but he was quick to say that the priest had not earned his halo.

"I thought saints were supposed to do positive things for people," said Barajas, 29. "How is taking away someone's choice to choose their religion positive?"

Gabriela Uicab, a homemaker from Pico Rivera, had a similar opinion. She grew up an evangelical Christian in a family full of Catholics who often questioned her faith.

"They debate with me sometimes," said Uicab, 30. "I tell them, 'Live and let live.' and I think this priest should have done the same."

Others such as Martin Ponce, an importer from Tijuana, was well aware of Serra. He heard his story on the news. He said he couldn't judge the priest for his actions.

"It's easy to look back and point a finger, but it was so long ago," Ponce said. "We'll never know what challenges he faced in those times."

For some it wasn't so much a matter of devotion, but loyalty to family.

One Latina activist from Mid-City said she doesn't think twice about voicing her opinion on touchy subjects, such as immigration.

But Serra's canonization?

"That's such a sensitive topic," she said. "I don't feel comfortable talking about it."

She has her opinions, she said. But so do her mother and her grandmother, both devoted Catholics.

"Out of respect for them," she said, "I wouldn't want to say the wrong thing."

esmeralda.bermudez@latimes.com

@LATBermudez

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

FOR THE RECORD

March 12, 11:23 a.m.: An earlier version of this article included a photo caption that identified a statue being carried across the street as Jesus. The statue is of St. Jude.

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