Editorial: Time to retire the Father Serra statue in Washington?

Junipero Serra's statue in the U.S. Capitol's Statuary Hall in Washington.
Junipero Serra’s statue in the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall in Washington.
(Jim Watson AFP/Getty Images)

Deciding which historical figures to honor is a complicated business. The U.S. Capitol is full of statues of slaveholders and Confederate leaders and killers of Indians, yet we don’t automatically remove them because, well, our history is our history, even when it’s embarrassing. And just because someone was a product of his (or, less likely, her) time and did things that are unimaginable today doesn’t necessarily mean that he or she was entirely without merit or deserves to be wiped out of the historical record like a purged Soviet commissar.

Which brings us to Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who founded nine missions from San Diego to San Francisco during the 18th century. Should Father Serra still be one of the two people chosen by the state to represent California in National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol? Serra’s statue has been there since 1931, but there’s a move afoot to topple him. In fact, a bill has passed the state Senate that would replace him with astronaut Sally Ride.

Its sponsor insists this is about honoring Ride, not dishonoring Serra, but the fact is that many people now view Serra as a religious fanatic whose brutal mission system mistreated native peoples, converted them to Catholicism under duress and nearly eradicated several tribes entirely. Others, however, call that a caricature and point to Serra’s role building the missions, often protecting native people from soldiers and settlers, and helping to create California as we know it. Does the good outweigh the bad? Should we remove people from our pantheon as our values evolve, or stick with our flawed but foundational leaders?


Some native peoples understandably say that it’s time to knock Serra off his pedestal. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, not only wants to keep him in the Capitol, but wants him canonized as well. Schoolteachers, no doubt, are wondering what they will do if Serra’s popularity drops so low they can’t have their fourth-graders build model missions out of sugar cubes and plaster.

So here’s a compromise. Nothing has to be forever. Father Serra has had 84 glorious years in the National Statuary Hall (alongside the likes of Samuel Adams, Jefferson Davis and Brigham Young), but a decade or so ago, Congress passed a law letting states remove and replace their statues. California did so almost immediately, replacing Thomas Starr King (Thomas Starr Who?) with Ronald Reagan. A crowd pleaser.

Why not switch it up a bit? Father Serra had his turn, and, without casting judgment on his legacy, why not sub him out for another Californian? Ten years for John Muir? Jose Figueroa? Earl Warren? Hiram Johnson? Cesar Chavez? Joan Didion? William Mulholland? Steve Jobs? Johnny Carson?

We’re not persuaded yet that Sally Ride is the right person for the position, but maybe she is. Let’s open a statewide discussion — and let’s do it quickly, before the governor and the Legislature decide to auction off the space to a corporate sponsor and we end up with Mickey Mouse on a pedestal.

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