What Do We Do With LA's Junipero Serra Statues?
On August 26, 1934, the streets around the old Plaza in downtown Los Angeles were packed with some 4,000 people. They had come to see the unveiling of a bronze statue of Junipero Serra, often called the "father of the California Missions." Cast by sculptor Ettore Cadorin and donated to the city by Catholic fraternal organization Knights of Columbus, the seven-foot tall sculpture featured the Franciscan friar holding a miniature version of a California mission in his hand.
Mayor Frank L. Shaw accepted the statue on behalf of L.A. and California poet laureate John S. McGroarty recited a verse he had written for the occasion, celebrating Serra as one of the "dreamers of God."
Another group of Californians were also an important part of the ceremony, which began with a parade from Pershing Square. The same Los Angeles Times story that lauded the "firmness of purpose and self-denial" in this rendering of Serra reported:
"In the parade, which preceded the unveiling ceremonies, a number of Indian youths from the government school at Banning participated. Serra is looked on as California's apostle to the Indians. It was one of the Indian youths who was first to place a wreath of flowers at the statue base following unveiling."
Had the L.A. Times asked those students what they thought about Junipero Serra and had they felt as though they could speak freely, they might have chosen a different word than "apostle."
The chain of 21 California missions, stretching from San Diego to Sonoma, was responsible for forced labor, forced religious conversions and tribal genocide. The mission system led to the deaths of thousands of Native Americans and the destruction of cultures that had flourished in California for millennia before the Spanish began arriving in the 16th century.
More than eight decades after the Serra statue in downtown L.A. had its grand unveiling, another group of Californians gathered around it. They hadn't come to pay homage to the man but to reckon with his devastating legacy.
On June 20, 2020, during a wave of demonstrations throughout the United States against racism and police brutality, tribal activists toppled the Serra statue to chants of "Take it down! Take it down!"
Alan Salazar, of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, performed a blessing before the Serra statue was pulled down, asking for guidance "from the great spirit in the sky... from all of our ancestors."
The 69-year-old storyteller and tribal educator says the removal "was an opportunity to be involved in a historical event. I realized I haven't been involved in a lot of civil disobedience, a lot of protest. I've worked my whole life, raised a family, been involved in my tribal issues and things like that, and I thought it was important that I took a stand as a Tataviam and Chumash elder."
For Salazar, the statue's removal was a profound emotional experience.
"I saw a lot of tribal people crying, a lot of tribal people cheering, and some tribal people getting a little rowdy. The ceremony was to pay respect and to ask that things be done in a good way. Even though we had to forcibly pull the statue down, we still didn't want any violence," Salazar says.
Serra, whose 2015 canonization by the Catholic Church was condemned by 50 tribes, was anything but a benevolent figure to California's Native Americans.
In the Los Angeles area alone, Mission San Gabriel, founded in 1797, coerced and seized members of the Tataviam, Tongva and Chumash tribes. Tribal people also often ended up at the missions because European disease and the disruption of their ecosystems had made them ill and starving. There, and later at Mission San Fernando, they were made to relinquish their land, perform hard, manual labor and give up their religious practices. This system of forced labor was initiated under Serra and Salazar believes that as mission system founder, he was responsible for these human rights abuses.
"Our tribal land was taken from us by the missions, by the Spanish, and they promised to give us the land back if we became citizens and became Catholics," Salazar says. "We did both. The land was never given back to us. Regardless of 'Did he beat people? Did he forcibly take the land? Did he have a gun to our heads?' No, but he was the founder... and while he was leader... all those tribal cultures were destroyed, all those tribal languages were destroyed. Our way of life, gone. Our songs, our stories, gone. Our land, gone."
A European-Centric "California Story"
Between 1769 and 1900, the number of indigenous Californians plummeted by 93%, from 310,000 people to approximately 22,000, according to the 2016 book California Through Native Eyes: Reclaiming History, by William J. Bauer Jr. Thousands of Native Americans died from grueling forced labor in dreadful conditions and from diseases brought by European settlers such as smallpox and typhoid. The persecution continued during periods of Mexican and American rule.
By 1900, the European-centric "California Story," a term coined by historian Tony Platt to describe the depiction of Native Californians as "racially inferior, predestined to doom and salvageable only by an authoritarian regime," had been fully established.
White Southern California boosters use the fable to sell the state to potential residents and investors. Writers such as Helen Hunt Jackson, author of the hugely popular 1884 novel Ramona, invented a romanticized Spanish past where kindly padres brought backward, heathen Indians to the glory of Jesus Christ.
Creating the romantic mythology of a European paradise was a smart economic move for white settlers.
When the mission system peaked in the early 1830s, the Spanish system controlled one-sixth of land in colonial California, according to historian William Wilcox Robinson. But in 1833, Mexico won California from Spain. The missions were secularized and abandoned by the Franciscans before they were plundered by Mexican and American populations. During the first few decades of the 20th century, many of the missions reopened as tourist attractions.
If you went, you were likely to see icons honoring Franciscan leaders and hear romantic tales about daily mission life. The story of the indigenous people who lived at the missions was virtually ignored.
"They were pretty much cleansed of any connection to the people that actually built it and died there and, in many cases, are still buried there," says Gregg Castro, an activist, educator and member of the Salinan-Ohlone tribe in Northern California. "The cemeteries were either hidden, lost or pushed to the side and diminished so that people wouldn't notice."
This mythologized version of the state's history was enshrined in other ways. On August 15, 1906 in downtown L.A., members of the California Federation of Women's Clubs and the Daughters of the Golden West unveiled the first of the famed El Camino Real bell markers, which commemorate the 700-mile trail that had once linked the missions. There would eventually be 450 bells.
Officials and civic groups continued erecting statues to Serra throughout the state, including in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in 1907 and in Sacramento's Capitol Park in 1965. Both of these were also torn down by tribal activists and their allies this summer. In early August, a Serra statue at the Serra Retreat Center in Malibu was smashed by unknown assailants.
Salazar had long encouraged officials to remove the Serra statue in front of Ventura City Hall, which has stood there since 1936. On July 23, 2020, the city council voted to remove it.
"The plaque at the base of the Father Serra statue in Ventura says that Father Serra is responsible for the California civilization, that he started the California civilization. The Chumash have been here for over 13,000 years. They had a very complex civilization. The Gabrielino-Tongva, over 12,000 years," Salazar points out.
In the early 20th century, as white Californians burnished Serra's legacy, many of the people whose cultures his missions had torn apart were struggling to survive. As Castro notes, most people believed Native Californians had vanished and since many Native people had been forced to take Spanish names, they often flew under the radar of white people's gaze.
"The majority of the public thought they were all gone," he says. "And that made it much easier to develop this fairy tale of California that's highly whitewashed and sanitized, and led to the ability to put up these statues of not just Serra but also Columbus, Portola and De Anza, all the explorers, colonizers and exploiters of native people."
Serra's historical legacy wasn't a concern for most Native Californians during that era. "The native people at the time were like, 'We're okay with that because if they think we're gone, they're not going to try to hunt us down and kill us.' Statues were not something they were concerned with," Castro says.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, during the decades after the missions disbanded, the Native Californians who had lived at them and worked for the church often settled nearby, becoming ranchers and farm hands for others on land that had once belonged to them.
"At the turn of the century, most communities are still deep in recovery and still afraid of the genocide that had happened a half-century prior to that during the American period. So there was a lot of fear on behalf of a large part of the population, especially in the... more urban areas, close to the Bay Area, Los Angeles, San Diego," Castro says.
Rural tribal people, Castro says, would "hunker down in their homelands and in villages and kind of keep to themselves if they possibly can, but in most cases they couldn't cut off contact entirely because... the landscape... had been radically changed so that it no longer could support that kind of [traditional] life, even if they could go back to it."
Native Americans weren't granted U.S. citizenship until 1924, when the Indian Citizenship Act passed.
Government programs like the Agricultural Extension Service, implemented from 1910 to 1932, promoted modern agribusinesses modeled on the "harmonious hierarchy" of Spanish ranchero days, with a "non-white laboring class," according to historian Angela Firkus. The government also failed to supply water to reservations, making it impossible for tribes to successfully farm on their own.
In her essay "The Agricultural Extension Service and Non-Whites in California," Firkus writes:
"Delfina Ceuro, a Kumeyaay Indian born in 1900, remembered that her family moved around a lot when she was a child, always heading further into the mountains when evicted from land by whites, noticing that areas of water became dry over time."
Alan Salazar's family, which had lived around the San Fernando Mission for six generations, survived as ranch hands and farmers during the early 20th century. His grandfather, who had been forced against his will to attend the Sherman Indian School in Riverside, had escaped from the institution and married his grandmother. The pair were barely surviving in 1934, the year the Serra statue was erected in downtown L.A.
"The Great Depression was extremely difficult on my family, and the tribal community in San Fernando were barely keeping their heads above water. They did whatever it took to survive. My father was shining shoes when he was like six, seven years old in San Fernando for a penny, for a nickel, to help the family survive," Salazar said.
However, starting in the 1920s, Los Angeles was also home to a growing movement of Indian-led organizing, activism and education. In Indigenous Urbanity in Los Angeles 1910-1930s, educator Larry Smith, a member of the Lumbee Nation, meticulously documents the activities of Native people in the city. During this time, many California Indians living in Los Angeles or Orange County worked as seasonal workers or laborers.
Indigenous people also worked in the film industry, mainly as actors in Westerns. This led to the creation of the War Paint Club in 1926, later renamed the Indian Actors Association and headed by Olympic gold medalist and Inglewood resident Jim Thorpe.
According to Smith, the organization "advocated for Indigenous peoples' employment rights and maintained an 'authentic' labor pool of Native American actors for film employment purposes." It encouraged Hollywood to cast Native American actors in roles that went beyond stereotyped "Hollywood Indians."
The Indian Actors Association held educational events and performances in Sycamore Grove Park, located in Highland Park at 4702 N. Figueroa Street. These gatherings became a popular place for tribal groups such as the Wigwam Club, which according to Smith, "facilitated instructional courses for urban Native Americans on how to adapt to middle-class American values and lifestyles." In the 1920s and '30s, Sycamore Grove was also home to the annual Indian Day Pow Wow, which drew thousands of Native Americans from across the United States.
The area's most prominent resource, the Los Angeles Indian Center, opened in 1935. Located for many years on Beverly Blvd. near Rampart Blvd., the center would serve Native people for more than 50 years.
"The ICI was the urban center for most Native American Los Angeles residents and Indigenous peoples traveling through the area," Smith writes on the story map Indigenous Urbanity in Los Angeles: 1910s-1930s. "Social services, employment programs, cultural activities and workshops, fundraisers, visiting Native American dignitaries, American Indian artists and musicians often frequented the Los Angeles Indian Center Inc. for over fifty years."
Between 1890 and 1950 the number of Californians who identified as Indian decreased from 1.4% of the population to 0.2%, according to Smith. The civil rights movement and protests of the 1960s, as well as the 1969 occupation of Alcatraz in San Francisco, drew attention to the deplorable treatment of Native Americans. More recently, the Indigenous Peoples Movement has drawn strength from Black Lives Matter.
What Do We Do Now?
Los Angeles and California now face a reckoning.
What should we do with the bells, statues and other monuments to Junipero Serra?
Many Native American activists believe these memorials should be destroyed or put in museums and contextualized.
Representatives of the Catholic Church, including Salvatore Joseph Cordileone, the archbishop of San Francisco, want them to stay.
The Catholic Conference of Bishops also released a statement after the L.A. Serra statue was toppled, stating:
"The historical truth is that Serra repeatedly pressed Spanish authorities for better treatment of the Native American communities... He made great sacrifices to defend and serve the indigenous population. If that is not enough to legitimize a public statue in the state that he did so much to create, then virtually every historical figure from our nation's past will have to be removed for their failings measured in the light of today's standards."
For Castro, the statues aren't the true problem -- it's the way we teach history.
"It's the curriculum in K to 12 that has to be addressed," he says. "If they want to put these statues in museums rather than public places as a trophy, then let's put them in museums."
He and other education reformers also want to see revised textbooks with nuanced terminology and lesson plans put together by tribal leaders. Castro is currently working with a group at Cal State Sacramento to accurately depict the history of California and Native Americans in schools across the state. They have begun to compile free online history lessons that teachers and parents can download.
Salazar, with the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians, wants to replace statues of Serra with ones honoring Native tribal leaders.
"In Los Angeles, there was a Tongva woman who stood up and started revolts and fought the mission priest at San Gabriel. Her name is Toypurina. In Ventura, Petra Pico was a famous Chumash basket weaver who lived in the late 1800s," he says.
Salazar also cites Chumash storyteller Fernando Librado from the Channel Islands.
"He was a wealth of information, an extremely intelligent, knowledgeable man, and people don't know about him," Salazar says. He would also like to see oak trees planted in the location of the Plaza statue that was torn down, to replace a few of the thousands that once covered the Los Angeles basin.
When asked for comment on the Serra statue and Native Californian representation, the Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs sent the following statement to LAist:
"On June 30, a Council Motion was put forth to develop a deaccession policy that would address how the historical record of a symbol can impact a community. The development of this policy will elicit the City's position on the removal of culturally offensive statues," said Danielle Brazell, General Manager of the City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs. "At this moment the Department doesn't have any pending projects that include Native or Indigenous Californians, that's subject to change as new projects are brought to the Department from our Councilmembers or through the community."
The statement suggests that the council is creating a way to identify, deal with and possibly remove controversial monuments, but the vague language leaves many questions unanswered.
From the imposing, 26-foot figure towering above the 280 freeway in Northern California to the statues remaining at Solvang's Mission Santa Inés, to the monuments dotting the state's Catholic colleges, there's no precise count of how many Junipero Serra statues remain in California. But activists are pushing to remove them wherever they find them.
For Native American activists and educators, this is an opportunity for indigenous people to take control of their narrative -- both in the past and the future.
"We've been diminished, ignored, pushed to the side, patronized in terms of our opinion all along," Castro says. "Now we're going to be much more assertive in what we need and want, and some people are taking the matter into their own hands."