Born and raised in California, Steven W. Hackel is a professor of history at the University of California, Riverside. He is the author of the award-winning books, Junípero Serra: California’s Founding Father (2013) and Children of Coyote, Missionaries of Saint Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850 (2005). He is the editor of a volume of essays, Alta California: People in Motion, Identities in Formation (2010); the general editor of the Huntington Library’s Early California Population Project, a database of the baptism, marriage, and burial records from all of California’s twenty-one missions; and the director of the Early California Cultural Atlas, a spatial history of colonial California funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.
In 1931 a larger-than-life statue of a man who stood only a bit taller than five feet was unveiled in the U.S. Capitol. It represented Father Junípero Serra (1713–1784), the Mallorcan Franciscan who gave up a successful career as a priest and university professor in Spain in 1749 and sailed to Mexico to begin his life there as a missionary to Indians. Twenty years later, at the age of fifty-six, Serra played a crucial role in the settlement and colonization of California, most notably as the founding father of the chain of Catholic missions that eventually extended from San Diego to just north of San Francisco. For that accomplishment and others related to it, Serra was given an exalted place in the nation’s capital as one of two Californians represented in Statuary Hall (the other is Ronald Reagan). Soon Pope Francis will confer upon him a far greater honor, making him the first Hispanic saint from the territory of what is now the United States. Predictably, on the eve of his canonization, interest in Serra’s life runs hot, with some hailing his saintly life and others condemning his religious imperialism
As a biographer of Serra, I am often asked to explain the seeming incongruity between Pope Francis’s progressive social views and his desire to canonize a man whose work among Indians contained the very excesses for which the Pope has recently apologized. I suspect that this canonization has little if anything to do with Serra’s Indian policies and everything to do with what the Pope and others perceive to be the increasingly inhumane treatment today of immigrants, not only across Europe but also within the United States. While many leading American politicians are calling for a wall between the United States and Mexico, the deportation of millions of workers and their families, and the end of birthright citizenship, this pope and his advisors intend to confront those proposals by casting Serra, in effect, as the patron saint of immigration. It is their hope that Americans, when reminded of the Hispanic origins of much of this country, will reject the notion that Latino immigrants are somehow trespassers, even criminals, and embrace a more humane treatment of today’s immigrants. Thus they hope to shape contemporary immigration policy by a deeper reading of American history. This rereading of early American history is long overdue and driven by powerful demographic shifts in our nation’s population, especially in places like California, home to nearly 39 million people, nearly 15 million of whom are Latino and 10 million of whom are Roman Catholic.
When men such as Pope Francis and Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles look at our nation’s past, they must marvel at the accomplishments of the Pilgrims and our traditional Founding Fathers. But more important, they also see an earlier American history, one that unfolded long before men such as Washington and Jefferson led the Revolution and even before the Puritans came to New England. They see a land in which, as early as the sixteenth century, Catholic missionary founding fathers such as Serra made first contact with America’s indigenous peoples. These migrant missionaries were serious colonizers in their own right even though their motives were not wealth or power or freedom of religious expression. Their goals in crossing the Atlantic were to save souls and bring new regions into an expanding Spanish realm. In California, the establishment of twenty-one missions (nine by Serra) had disastrous results for Indians. By 1833 when the missions in California were secularized, 80,000 Indians had been baptized, but 60,000 had been buried, 25,000 of whom were children under the age of ten. And across the missions, Franciscans like Serra endorsed the corporal punishment of Indians who did not abide by their wishes or policies. But the missionaries and the Indians who lived in the missions also created the communities, towns, roads, and industries that were formative in the early years of California even after it joined the Union in 1850. In these important ways missionaries like Serra shaped American history and left complicated legacies of Spain and Catholicism wherever they ventured.
Yet to the great disappointment of men such as Pope Francis, Archbishop Gomez, and Guzmán Carriquiri, the vice president of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, nearly all of the thousands of Catholic missionaries who came to America have been forgotten, losers not in the contest for North America but in the subsequent battle for a place in American history. Pitted against the founders of Protestant New England and the signers of the Declaration of Independence, these Hispanic Catholics stood little chance. Those few who have been remembered—the Franciscan Junípero Serra, the Jesuit Eusebio Kino, and a handful of others—have often been more the subjects of myth than history, The seeds of Hispanic culture and Catholic religion that they planted across America from Florida and then west to Texas, into New Mexico, Arizona, and California have been dismissed as insignificant, quaint, or even backward.
This national amnesia about the ways in which immigrant Catholic missionaries shaped much of what is now the United States has had deleterious effects on our nation’s character. The ill effects are evident today in the words of bigots, racists, and political opportunists who seek to safeguard an imaginary Anglo-Protestant America from an exaggerated Latino immigrant threat. Yes, those who criticize Serra’s treatment of Indians are right to do so. But debates about Serra’s Indian policy miss a fundamental message that the Pope intends to deliver through Serra’s canonization: our nation’s current wave of anti-immigration rhetoric flies in the face of America’s deep Hispanic and Catholic roots, and sadly it draws on a rich vein of anti-Catholicism in American history. Serra’s life tells us that American history from its beginnings was diverse and multiethnic and that our national creation story is not just one of thirteen English colonies united in 1776 but that it extends far deeper into our past and includes Spanish missionaries and the Native Americans they encountered. Clearly the Pope believes that if Americans can embrace what is Spanish and Catholic in America’s past, they can become more accepting of our nation’s growing Latino and Catholic populations, irrespective of their origins. Time will tell.
Those who wonder about this canonization and the proper place of founding fathers like Junípero Serra in American history should know that Serra rarely lost a fight, even when he faced enormous challenges. Against all odds—when he was old and in poor health from fatigue and a chronically ulcerous leg, with the Spanish military in California turned against him—Serra persevered to found more missions. Just this year he survived an attempt by some California legislators to remove his statue from the U.S. Capitol. In Serra’s defense, Governor Jerry Brown stated that “The Pope is right in recognizing his sanctity.”
The Catholic Church says that Serra worked miracles. Perhaps he will soon work another. This man who is soon to be a saint might just be the symbol that Americans have long needed to more fully recognize another aspect of the complexity of our nation’s origins. As told by the Pope, Archbishop Gomez, and Dr. Carriquiri, Serra’s story—sailing across the Atlantic, venturing deep into Mexico on foot, journeying far north to California—is not just a life of Catholic heroism. It is also a reminder to our nation’s Nativists that Catholics and Hispanics have a long claim to American soil and its history. America is a land of immigrants, and among the first and most important were missionaries like Serra. Many came overland from the south, spoke Spanish, and practiced Catholicism. They left a lasting mark on American history and they will continue to shape its future. It is in honor of them, and future generations of Latinos, that the Pope is canonizing Serra against the wishes of those who rightly claim that Serra’s missions adversely affected California’s indigenous peoples.