For safekeeping or the ousting of a noxious symbol, Serra statues come down

Jul 1, 2020

In late June, a mountaintop cross in Riverside that bears the name of Franciscan friar Junipero Serra became the most recent target of those who call for removal of all Serra statues and namesakes, part of a renewed focus across the country to remove monuments associated with racism, colonialism or slavery.

A statue of Serra at Mission San Luis Obispo De Tolosa is now in storage, after being removed by church administrators around June 23.

Serra is a saint of the Roman Catholic Church, canonized in 2015, and the founder of the California mission system.

While the pastor of San Luis Obispo’s Mission says Serra’s life was “inspired and honorable,” the missions that Serra founded were violent places, where indigenous people were forced to assimilate to a foreign culture and exposed to disease, causing the deaths of tens of thousands of indigenous people.

The Northern Chumash Tribal Council spokesperson Violet Walker said tribal leaders have been asking for the statue’s removal for decades.

“Junipero Serra is a symbol of one of the beginning demises of our community and our families and here in [San Luis Obispo] the missions were equivalent to death camps,” Walker said.

Starting in 2016, the California Department of Education changed its history curriculum standards to reflect that missions were sites of conflict, conquest and forced labor.

“What we learned in schools is not true,” Walker said. “History told by the conqueror is usually not accurate.”

Walker said she thinks the local diocese removed the statue as a knee-jerk reaction, after seeing Serra statues in Los Angeles and San Francisco being torn down by protestors. In a letter to his parishioners, the SLO mission’s pastor said as much, saying he had received “credible reports” that the statue faced damage.

“They were just protecting their property,” Walker said. “We’ve asked them for years, not just us but the other broader American Indian movement and other organized Native American groups have asked them to remove the statues at all of the missions.”

Father Kelly Vandehey, pastor of the Old Mission parish at San Luis Obispo’s mission, said in a statement on the SLO Mission’s website the parish can’t “support the destruction of the historical images of our founders.” In another statement issued last week, the California Catholic Conference defended its Serra statues across the state, saying “Serra made heroic sacrifices to protect the indigenous people of California from their Spanish conquerors, especially the soldiers.”

“This is not a form of protest, [church officials] are participating in white saviorhood and protecting the statue from disfiguration,” said Mario Espinoza-Kulick, a lecturer in the ethnic studies department at San Luis Obispo’s Cal Poly. Espinoza-Kulick faults the Serra statue removal in San Luis Obispo to protect property and not “to join coalitions or build bridges with underserved or marginalized communities, especially the Chumash community.”

In a post on Instagram, San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon said she is grateful to see this “painful reminder removed from our public space,” and thanked the church leadership for “proactively tearing down” the statue of Serra.