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Mark James Miller: Father Serra statues symbolize a painful past
Central Coast: Past, Present, Future

Mark James Miller: Father Serra statues symbolize a painful past

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Mark James Miller

The United States is in the throes of a self-examination the like of which hasn’t been seen since the 1960s. A major part of this is seeing our history, and those we honor with statues and monuments, in a new light.

From coast to coast statues of historical figures have been toppled by protestors or taken down under public pressure. While the focus has been on the Confederacy and its legacy of slavery and racism, others such as Christopher Columbus, Andrew Jackson, and Woodrow Wilson have been targets as well.

The Central Coast has not been spared, only here the focal point is not Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson, but Father Junipero Serra. Statues of the man called “The Apostle of California” have been vandalized from Los Angeles to Carmel.

The one in Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa was removed on June 24 in order to protect it "from possible damage.” In San Francisco a statue of Serra was pulled down by protestors on June 22, and Serra’s statue near City Hall in Ventura will soon be taken away.

Serra, 1713-1784, has long been a figure of controversy due to his role in the exploitation and enslavement of Native Americans under the mission system.

Hs legacy is certainly a mixed one. He founded nine of the state’s 21 missions, including Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa in 1772 and Mission San Buenaventura in 1782. When he was canonized by Pope Francis in 2015 the pope praised him as “one of the founders of the United States” who “left his native land and its way of life” to come to the New World and spread Christianity. “He lived the joy of the gospel,” said His Holiness. “He sought to defend the dignity of the native community, to protect it from those who had mistreated and abused it.”

Not everyone agreed with that assessment. More than 50 Native American tribes protested. A few days after the canonization the statue of Serra at Mission Carmel was toppled over and the words “Saint of Genocide” were written nearby. The New York Times noted, “To some in California” Father Serra was “far from saintly” and that his being made a saint “reopened wounds of colonialism.”

Serra definitely had a darker side. He often punished himself physically in order to purify his spirit, and he spent 14 years in Mexico working for the dreaded Inquisition. He believed heretics were able to fly and attend secret meetings in order to make offerings to demons.

But it is Serra’s treatment of the Native Americans and the part he played in establishing the mission system that truly mars his legacy.

The missions have been described as “coercive labor camps.” Local natives, made to resettle near the mission grounds, were beaten, shackled, and forced to work in slave-like conditions for the benefit of the mission’s bottom line. “This is for our ancestors!” was the cry as Serra’s statue was pulled down in San Francisco.

The statues of Father Serra, like the others being protested around the country, convey a powerful symbolic meaning. To the descendants of the Native Americans who were abused by the Spanish colonizers they are a reminder of a painful history, of the degradation of their ancestors and the desecration of their tribal land.

As our national debate over the symbols of our past continues, finding a resolution will not be easy. Hopefully, out of the pain and deep divisions we now face will come a way to honestly remember our past and ensure that the wrongs that were done cannot be repeated.

Mark James Miller is an Associate English Instructor at Allan Hancock College and President of the Part-Time Faculty Association. He can be reached at


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