Bringing Junípero Serra to Life
New Book Sheds Light on the Man Who Built the First California Missions
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Anyone who ever attended 4th grade at any California public schools during the past 50 years has probably been forced to learn how Father Junípero Serra — the 18th-century missionary who founded the first nine of the state’s 21 missions — hovers in the pantheon of founding fathers right up there with George Washington. For European colonials convinced they “discovered” California, Serra was the ultimate pathfinder, establishing new missions at a remarkably frenzied pace. Beyond that, however, little of the man radiates through the ages. For so pivotal a figure, Serra is strangely dull. Images are uniformly stolid and severe. Aside from what look to be — but aren’t — hair plugs sprouting comically from the crown of his head, he might as well be a big block of wood.
Nonetheless, Serra has been the subject of at least four new books in the past two years. Rousing new interest in Serra has been Pope Francis, who aggressively fast-tracked what would otherwise have been an uncertain path to sainthood for the polarizing California missionary, even waiving one of the key requirements normally required for canonization. The Argentina-born Francis urgently wants a missionary saint who brought the gospel to the New World. Despite vehement objections — leveled by tribal representatives and many historians — that Serra drew up the colonial blueprints that led to the physical and cultural extinction of many native peoples, it appears the pope will get his wish on September 23.
Of the new tomes on Serra, the one that exhumes the spirit of the man most vividly is Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary by Rose Marie Beebe and Robert M. Senkewicz, the husband-and-wife team of historians who teach at Santa Clara University. To an exceptional degree, they manage to penetrate the historical mustiness that’s dogged Serra for so long. Beebe, a professor of Spanish, time-traveled through Serra’s vast trove of reports and letters, many of which are kept at Santa Barbara’s Old Mission Archives. Her translations detail various feuds, recollections, reports, and encounters that Serra had and wrote extensively about. The new translations pop with fresh energy and suck even the most reluctant reader in. Senkewicz, a professor of history and a former Jesuit priest, sets the context for these missives, explaining — with authority and restraint — what was going on with Serra at the time. Together, they manage to conjure a more complicated, intriguing human being than the Junípero Serra extolled by supporters or vilified by critics. Those searching for a clear and tidy resolution should look elsewhere, but for those comfortable with the clutter of human complexity, their book is a major contribution.
Santa Barbara Independent writer and wannabe historian Nick Welsh recently interviewed Senkewicz. The following is an edited version of their conversation.
REVOLT OF 1775: About 600 Kumeyaay from 15 villages attacked Mission San Diego, burning it to the ground and killing Father Luís Jayme — shown in graphic detail — plus a carpenter and a blacksmith. Serra would successfully fight to protect ringleaders from execution, but for military authorities — already dubious about the vulnerability of the missions — it was a breaking point. Serra himself was strikingly more cantankerous and sour afterward.
There are so many books out on Serra. Why another one? What did you think you might find out that would be different? Rose Marie Beebe and I were doing some work on early California, and the missions always kept coming up. We’d consult the translations out there of Serra’s letters, and they were really, really stiff. So we began to wonder, “Serra can’t be that stiff.” We started wondering what a different translation of Serra’s letters would look like. That was the main thing. A lot of stuff on Serra, he’s presented in one extreme or the other: selfless, magnanimous saint or genocidal-maniac-type person. We thought let’s try to avoid the extremes and take him on his own terms and see where that leads us. That turned out to be something that hadn’t been done about Serra.
How did your translation differ than what had been done before? How does Serra shine through the ages in a different way? What happens is his emotions tend to come out more openly in the translation that Rose Marie did. He’s an administrator, so he writes a lot of boring bureaucratic stuff. Unfortunately, that tone in previous translations seeps into letters that are personal. We tried to separate those so when he’s writing another missionary or the governor, his emotions come out. This allows us to see him as a much more complicated, complex kind of figure.
There’s the instance where he’s talking to a fellow missionary who’s really depressed and wants to go home and Serra talks him out of it, but it’s really intense, and Serra’s eyes well up. That was in Baja California. Most of the books on Serra don’t give that a lot of space. We found that his emotions really come out there and also his excitement about being with unbaptized Indians, you know. That’s what he desperately wanted to do.
Why does this 55-year-old priest from Spain so desperately want to go to Mexico to be a missionary? Serra growing up on Majorca was a big deal. Majorca is a small little island, but it was at the intersection of a lot of trade routes in the Mediterranean, and he comes of age knowing that the wider world is out there. The other thing about Majorca — a bunch of people there had been missionaries among the Muslims in northern Africa; there was a missionary tradition. So when Serra begins to have this personal crisis in his mid-thirties — I resisted calling it a midlife crisis because that’s too Freudian — he’s not happy. He’s gotten to do everything he’s going to get to do. He’s got a chair at the university; he’s well known. But still, he’s wanting something different. He couldn’t move to a commune, you know, so he travels across the ocean to become a missionary.
When he was in Mexico, he was an agent of the Inquisition. You have these letters explaining how he interrogated a woman accused of being a witch because she practiced herbal medicine. Even in the context of his own times, he seems to have been really old school. He was forward-looking in some ways, but in others he always looked backward. He was an investigator of the Inquisition. That case involved a woman in a small village in the mountains of Mexico who’s accused of being a witch. Another lady had gone to her for healing. It didn’t work. So if the healing doesn’t work, she must be an agent of the devil. That is interpreted through the prism of the Inquisition, which is possession by the devil.
So what happened to this woman? She was sent to Mexico City and put in jail. She dies in jail. It’s not clear what the circumstances were — very vague, very murky in the documents. She is supposed to have suffered an accident. But she dies in jail.
But she was also accused of turning herself into a bat and sucking the necks of children! That’s a typical accusation that shows up in Inquisition records from northern Mexico. She also cavorted with Poway Indians. She probably had sex outside of marriage.
BIG HURRY: When Junípero Serra showed up in California, he was a middle-aged man in a very big hurry. He’d rather get stuff done than get along. In his first eight years, he established no fewer than eight missions. “I think if you saw him coming down the street, you’d run for the hills,” said Robert Senkewicz.
Other than his emotional expressivity, what surprised you? Serra’s time in California really gets divided into two: before the destruction of the mission in San Diego in 1775 and afterward. [Mission San Diego — California’s first — was attacked by about 600 Kumeyaay Indians and burned to the ground in response to the harsh punishment meted out there. One missionary was killed in the attack.] Before 1775, Serra goes to Mexico City; he gets an audience with the viceroy, the military commander, and he’s thinking things are going really well. He wants to do more missions; the world is his oyster. But after the destruction of Mission San Diego, the military people are saying, “No more missions. Look what happened at your first mission.” Serra gets kind of depressed, and he gets cranky, and until his death, he’s more sour than anything else. That surprised me. He’s still doing all the stuff he’s doing, but he gets more cantankerous and a lot less patient.
What’s the weirdest thing you found out about him? His notion that he was always right. He was an impatient guy, very self-assured. Probably overly self-assured.
You give the sense that he feuded with every governor, every military commander, and a lot of his missionaries, too. I don’t think he was an easy guy to get along with. He never met a military commander he liked. He got one fired; he didn’t like the replacement. He doesn’t like most of the soldiers he deals with. Some of his fellow missionaries find the guy wants do more and more and more, and the others are saying, “Hey, let’s slow down a little rather than running off and founding another mission.”
I was struck by how hostile relations were between Serra and the military commanders. You indicate it’s because he thought the soldiers were raping the Indian women and taking advantage of Indian labor. That’s exactly right. The relationship between missionaries and soldiers was always strained. Missionaries tended to regard themselves as the friends of the Indians, and they tended to think the Indians were their friends, too. The presence of soldiers at a mission was a visible sign that this self-image was incomplete. They had to be protected from the Indians. The fact is they needed soldiers, they knew they needed soldiers, but they didn’t like the fact. My own sense is they probably blamed the soldiers for too much. Much of the stuff about the soldiers mistreating Indian women was certainly true. But my own sense is that some of it may have been exaggerated in Serra’s writing.
SERRA AND SANTA BARBARA: Serra would not live to see the founding of Mission Santa Barbara, because of irreconcilable policy differences with Governor Felipe de Neve. Mission Santa Barbara would not be founded until two years after “the exemplary death” of Serra in 1784. In this painting by Mariano Guerrero, Serra is shown receiving Holy Communion right before his death.