In the midst of strong debate over the removal of historic statues deemed offensive by some members of the public, vandals in August painted the word “murder” on a statue of California Mission founder Junipero Serra in the Mission Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles.
The recent incident was not the first act of vandalism against representations of Serra, who was named a saint by Pope Francis in September 2015. A monument dating from 1891 was beheaded in Monterey in October 2015, and “Saint of Genocide” was scrawled on a headstone at the mission in Carmel that year.
Activists accuse the Roman Catholic missionary of leading an oppressive charge against Native Americans during Spanish exploration of California, but others, including historian Dennis Copeland, view Serra as an important historical leader and a man who worked to help the native inhabitants of the region.
“It’s really unfortunate because Father Serra, aside from being a religious figure, was also the co-founder of Monterey,” Copeland said.
Similar differences in opinion regarding statues of Confederate and other leaders have brought national attention, and many cities have agreed to remove longstanding monuments under pressure from community members who claim they cause offense.
Q. Where do you stand on the debate over monuments to controversial historic figures, in particular to religious leaders like Serra?
I believe it’s wrong to rewrite history, whether by inventing people or events that never existed, or by denying those that really did.
Monuments commemorate history. Let the statues stand and learn from history. A person who made a significant contribution to the welfare of a nation, or a region, should not be made a pariah simply because he or she was a person of faith. Intellectually, that’s sticking one’s head in the sand. And those whose contribution was more notorious than noble can stand as a warning that evil is sometimes tolerated by the majority and must always be guarded against.
In the end, right always stands out as right, and the statues of negative examples don’t tempt us to follow. They make us recoil in disgust. They remind us that people can be grossly misguided and cruel. They also expose the darkness in the hearts of those who consider them worthy of praise.
Interesting, isn’t it, and telling that so much effort has been made lately to remove the symbol of the cross from public view. The cross endures as a testimony of the greatest love and the greatest act of compassion ever accomplished. No matter what monument men construct or tear down, eternity will resound in praise of the one who bore the cross for our sakes.
Pastor Jon Barta
These lawless vandals of public property shouldn’t be respected. Most aren’t educated enough to make pronouncements regarding Serra’s morals or crimes. Neither do they know the hearts of other historic note-worthies who followed a path taking moral cues from scripture.
In our current, perpetually offended environment, fools are desecrating their own history. Consider the Civil War combatants, for instance. There were myriad reasons for taking opposing sides, even though officers graduated from the same West Point. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee wrote, “slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil in any country,” yet he fought for state’s rights on the losing side. Vandals see only a Confederate and clamor for his likeness to be toppled.
“Columbus sailed the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety two,” and ever since, Americans commemorate his discovery. Suddenly, he’s called “a devil,” when in reality he was a man of conscience who voyaged for “the increase and glory of the Christian religion,” according to his own journal. Recently, the Los Angeles City Council trashed everyone’s Columbus Day observance for their own “Indigenous People’s Day!” Now, instead of celebrating the coming of civilization and salvation, we’re forced to commemorate a hunter-gatherer-stone-age people’s day. Great.
Then there’s Junipero Serra. While I’m no Roman Catholic, I’ve read enough to know that Serra’s intention was to “save” the naked natives, and to bring their illiterate culture out of superstition and into the light. How history pans out is often painful, and back-seat revisionists love it to exploit. But how many today, of Mexican and otherwise native descent, would curse God for their salvation? Would they really want to go back to the days of ignorance and darkness? Certainly their ancestors bore the brunt of their culture’s transition, but all of our cultures have done no less. Fact is, Serra was a religious figure who had in mind to aid the indigenous, and he did so as a fatherly figure because his mission field was rife with idolatry, human sacrifice, polytheism and generally ignorant paganism.
Look, we’re all one people sired by the same couple that the Bible reveals. Deny it, and you reopen a can of worms regarding degrees of humanness while further inflaming the racial supremacists. Our historic monuments represent us all, and they invite discussion and remembrance, but vandals today are of different sorts: those illegal, and those who collude to ramrod political correctness while sitting in session. I think they should leave our monuments and memorials alone, lest everything imaginable comes tumbling down and we no longer share a common history that peacefully unites us.
Rev. Bryan A. Griem
Standing before a monument memorializing any historic figure, I like to see actual history presented. I see no need for heroic renderings of a general who led a war for a despicable, failed cause. Lies and omissions of facts do not serve us well or honor our past.
Monuments in public spaces belong to the community, and it is in the finest American tradition for people to organize to press for community standards on those spaces. We have had an exemplary local case recently here in La Crescenta. Contextual and factual signage was agreed to by the community and added at Crescenta Valley Community Regional Park, explaining the history of the section formerly named Hindenburg Park.
Father Junipero Serra founded major church outposts and a California city, so say that, but also say he played an important part in a conquest that set out deliberately to eliminate the native population. A recent New York Times piece has a good summary of the attempted genocide of California’s native people.
We must acknowledge this murderous history, which puts vandalism of statutes in historic perspective.
It’s been a long time coming. The current fervor to remove statues that celebrate colonialism, racism and those who fought in defense of slavery has been brewing for decades. Such efforts are the result of changed interpretations of history that have created a sharper understanding of the crimes committed by some who were once lionized as icons of regional versions of American civil religion.
The American Historical Assn.’s recent Statement on Confederate Monuments argues that monuments and commemorations represent one interpretation of the past. The AHA states, “A monument is not history itself; a monument commemorates an aspect of history, representing a moment in the past when a public or private decision defined who would be honored in a community’s public spaces.” The AHA also advocates the preservation of monuments, away from sites that give them a place of honor, as artifacts that can help the public understand how interpretation of the past has changed over time.
I think the same principles apply to statues of Father Serra. Whereas the Catholic Church considers him as a saint because he helped spread Catholicism in Spanish-controlled territories, his legacy is not worthy of honor on public property. Not only did Serra have a hand in the oppression of the native inhabitants he encountered, his penchant for self-flagellation raises questions about his mental stability. Continuing to honor such a self-destructive person in public spaces should certainly be the subject of debate.
Vandalism is not usually the best way to make a point because, much like erecting statues that ignore the sentiments of many citizens, it is not accountable to democratic process. There have been many campaigns to shape historical commemoration that have achieved positive results through debate and collaboration. Then again, the Boston Tea Party was a form of vandalism that is rightly celebrated in history textbooks as an effective act of civil disobedience. When individuals take destructive actions to make a point, it is up to the rest of us to build a process in which such concerns can be constructively addressed.
David L. Hostetter, Ph.D.
President, Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills (UUVerdugo)