LMU Removes Serra Statue, Reckons With Saint's Legacy

Friday, September 11, 2020

Graphic: Jenica Rose Garcia

LMU Removes Serra Statue, Reckons With Saint's Legacy
By Christina Martinez
Earlier this summer, LMU’s statue of Junipero Serra was quietly removed from its place outside the Von Der Ahe building (VDA). The University made no formal announcement, and only a hint through an LMU History department Instagram post in mid-July signaled that the statue had vanished from the place it once stood.
As the founder of California’s mission system and a Catholic saint, Serra has long been a point of contention in the state’s history. The controversy surrounding his legacy has only intensified as the public has become more critical of the long-perpetuated systems of oppression and racism in U.S. history.
As a result, several statues of Serra have been overthrown by protestor action throughout California in places like Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, Placita Olvera in downtown Los Angeles, and at the California State Capitol in Sacramento.
Other statues have been voluntarily removed. At Mission San Luis Obispo, the Diocese of Monterey removed their statue of Serra to “protect it from vandalism.” Ventura’s city council voted to remove the statue of Serra in front of City Hall, in hopes of relocating the statue to a nearby mission.
Before Serra arrived in California in the late 1700s, the land was considered a remote part of New Spain, a part of the North American continent claimed by Spain and the precursor to modern-day Mexico. 
According to LMU history professor and Jesuit priest Sean Dempsey, Serra established the missions after he was tasked by the Spanish government to legitimize its claim over California by spreading Catholicism.
“Spain had often used the Catholic Church to advance its imperial agenda, which some historians have called ‘God, Gold, and Glory,’” said Dempsey. “Fearing encroachment from the likes of Russia and Britain, Spain sent explorers, soldiers, and Franciscan missionaries like Serra to ‘civilize’ Native peoples and formally claim California for Spain.”
But their methods had the opposite effect. LMU history professor Dr. Nicolas Rosenthal explained that the missions that Serra founded were “devastating to peoples living in their vicinity.”
“Groups impacted by the missions had their social, cultural, and environmental systems irrevocably transformed,” said Rosenthal. “[T]he missions took so much land from Indigenous peoples that when California became part of the United States, the federal government did not officially recognize them as ‘tribes.”
Rosenthal further explained that the impact of the missions linger for many California Indigenous groups. For example, the Tongva is now an “unrecognized tribe,” unable to claim sovereignty and place reservation lands in trusts.
According to Rosenthal, contrasting narratives about Serra have made their way into K-12 education, where he is presented as a venerated figure in state history.
“In these popular versions, Serra is seen as a hero and savior for California Native peoples,” said Rosenthal. “Indigenous peoples, their advocates, and scholars, however, understand him as culpable for the terrible abuses inflicted upon Indigenous peoples during the Spanish Mission period.”
Another LMU history professor, Dr. Elizabeth Drummond, believes that although there were missionaries that sympathized with and wanted to “save”  Indigenous peoples, their actions still were instrumental in the oppression and destruction of their culture and livelihoods.
“Christianization rested on an assumption that Indigenous peoples had no "real" religion and were in need of "saving" and "civilizing"—with the result that missionaries tried to stamp out Indigenous cultures,” said Drummond. “The missions also facilitated the spread of European diseases, contributed to the displacement and dispossession of Native Americas, and exploited Indigenous labor.”
Still, statues and memorials have been placed across the state to commemorate Serra’s legacy and contributions to the Roman Catholic Church, culminating in his canonization as a saint by Pope Francis in 2015. 
Dempsey observes that within the global Catholic Church, Serra is not a major saint. However, he has a lukewarm reputation with some Catholics in California, including with Indigenous people who have retained their Catholic faith.

“He has been popular among some Catholics in California because of his role in introducing the faith here, but just as many, or more, have always been aware of his troubling relationship with Spanish imperialism,” said Dempsey. “[S]ome Native people that remain Catholic seem to have a more nuanced view of Serra, as a colonizer on one hand, but as a faithful Catholic evangelist on the other.”

Archbishop Jose H. Gomez, leader of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, recently wrote a letter after the removal of Serra statues across California. In it, he acknowledged the pain of Indigenous peoples, but reaffirmed his belief that Serra is “a saint for our times, the spiritual founder of Los Angeles, a champion of human rights, and this country’s first Hispanic saint.”
Junior Don Evangelio, who serves as the community leader of LMU’s Indigenous Student Union (ISU), believes that Serra’s contributions to the Catholic Church should not “eclipse” his contributions to the oppression of Indigenous peoples, further stating that LMU should convey its traditions in their full historical context.
“[M]any students and faculty members have drawn attention to the dissonance between the admirable legacy conveyed by Serra’s statue and the brutality of the colonization that Serra facilitated,” said Evangelio who used the history department’s Instagram as an example. “It frustrates me now to think of the incomplete, sanitized version of history that prospective students may have encountered when viewing the monument.”
Evangelio also took issue with the way LMU recognized their place on Tongva land with their other monuments, believing they “lionize character while obscuring or appropriating history.”
“Consider the Echo Circle or ‘Tongva Memorial’ on the Bluff,” said Evangelio. “How can a memorial exist to the people who still live there?”
Evangelio was still glad to see that LMU’s statue was removed, as ISU planned to petition and protest for its removal later this year. The removal will allow ISU to focus on other goals and initiatives during this school year.
Drummond and Rosenthal also voiced their support for the statue’s removal, and hoped that the statue would be used as an exhibit to discuss and contextualize history, rather than a monument.
“I have always found the statue deeply troubling, in part because I believe its presence conflicts with LMU’s mission for social justice, but at the same time I have found it a useful teaching tool,” said Rosenthal.
“As a Catholic institution in California, LMU has an obligation to grapple with the history and legacy of the missions, as we are their heirs,” said Drummond. “We should also take a look at [the] Jesuit figures we honor, rather than merely engage in hagiography.”
While Dempsey did not comment on whether he thought the statue’s removal was justified, he explained that statues, as a whole, cannot teach a critical form of history.
“Statues tend to oversimplify history, and they send a message that this historical figure is worth honoring and celebrating,” said Dempsey. 
Catholic students have also voiced their support, believing that LMU should not honor Serra due to his harmful impact on California’s Indigenous peoples.
LMU should uplift people who actually embody their values rather than historical figures who caused more harm than helped,” said senior Katherine Arakkal. “I hope this leads to greater representation of [the] BIPOC community over ‘white saviors.’”
Although LMU was not transparent about the meaning behind the statue’s removal, Evangelio sees it as a step in the right direction if it leads to conversations about who the University chooses to commemorate on its campus.
“I personally think that the university taking this opportunity to conduct its own kind of self-examination suits Jesuit character far better than venerating a clergyman without also naming him as a colonizer,” said Evangelio.

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