Junipero Serra: Hero or Villain? You Decide

The canonization of Junipero Serra has drawn sharp and rather fractious reactions from both sides of the spectrum. Those who see Serra as a great evangelist and missionary to the heathen Native American races, and those who despise him for serving as the bulwark of slavery under a different name – that under the guise of Catholicism.

It comes thus as no surprise that his recent canonization still draws controversy among those concerned with his legacy, particularly that of the American Indians of the west, a conflicting viewpoint of his benevolence and his atrocities that eventually becomes bigger than the subject (imagine the Stalins, the Hitlers, and the Chamberlains) itself.

But what is the root of all this controversy? That’s what we’ll try to find out in discussing what can be a tricky topic.

1. Slavery Under The Name Of Christ

The major sticking point of controversy stems from the interaction within the relationship of the Native American people and the Spanish missionaries – a relationship that has proven to be fraught with bloodshed over time. Undoubtedly many lives were lost due to policies, and Junipero Serra is undoubtedly complicit, if not an active participant himself in the heavy-handed repression and exploitative labor system that the Spaniards instituted over the population and their property….and that can quite frankly be defined as slavery in all but the name. The worst part is, Serra is argued to have been in favor of slavery in the name of Christ himself, regardless of his intentions.

2. A Dramatic Decrease In Californian Indian Numbers

The mission system that was instituted in California then was linked to a dramatic downfall in the indigenous population’s size….which critics directly attribute to the horrific conditions many of them were forced to live in. Regardless of whether it was due to mismanagement or downright malice, the numbers speak for themselves – there was indeed a dramatic downturn in the population.

3. Little More Than Concentration Camps

Indians who worked in the missions were paid next to nothing or not at all, seeing that they were a captive working force for the Spaniards – and this is bandied about by Serra’s critics as part of his complicity in genociding his own people. And this is claimed to have been the start of the famed California wine industry – with indigenous blood as its architecture. And canonizing someone who was the face of the whole movement, as it were, would be pretty much like a slap in the face of all who perished in the missions. Valid points all along, if you are keeping score.

4. Thousands Upon Thousands Of Indians Killed

Yet more fierce critics of Serra and his canonization point to the fact that it is proven as an historical fact that thousands upon thousands of Indians died in unmarked graves that now dot the Californian countryside that make millions of dollars from selling its wine all over the world. Many of these deaths were due to sicknesses, overworking, torture, and daily beatings, and several Indian cultures were totally obliterated from existence during this time period. Though Serra expressed sorrow and remorse over the excesses that occurred during his heyday, no amount of tears will bring back the entire cultures and races that were so cruelly excised.

Regardless of whether you see Serra as a villain or hero, it is undoubtedly his work of spreading Catholicism in the Native American world that was the main point of his canonization, as well as his establishment of 9 missions all over California. But to turn away criticisms of excesses and killings would do a disservice to those whose lives perished during the zeitgeist.