Why Junipero Serra statues are crumbling across California

Activists and city leaders nationwide  are taking down statues of problematic historical figures. In California, statues of Junipero Serra are coming down.

Serra is considered the father of the California mission system. The Spanish priest founded 21 Catholic missions in the late 18th century. His mission project brought fatal diseases to the people living here. Spanish soldiers decimated their villages and subjected them to reeducation on Catholicism. 

On Saturday, a statue of Serra, located just south of Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles, was toppled by indigenous protesters and spray painted red.  

KCRW speaks with LA Times culture writer Carolina Miranda, who was there as the statue was pulled down.

KCRW: Where did this Junipero Serra statue come from? 

Carolina Miranda: “That statue has been around the downtown area for close to a century. I think it was put into place in 1932 … by the Knights of Columbus. It used to be closer to what was then Sunset Boulevard and is now Cesar Chavez. It’s been in this little park called Father Serra Park for a number of years. 

This statue and many statues of Serra have been a flashpoint among indigenous activists over the years. When Serra was canonized in 2015, numerous statues were vandalized with red paint. There have been ongoing dialogues about taking the statues down or perhaps putting them in a different place, to be able to recontextualize them, so they don't read as monuments but instead as historical artifacts. … 

The missions were essentially these kinds of prison camps in which indigenous people were not allowed to speak the language. They were claimed by fatal diseases and often they would be captured and flogged if they tried to escape. So for the indigenous groups of California, those statues really represent a very difficult, very terrible period in history.”

The California Mission Project, the fourth grade project, has been changed significantly because of protests and because people now understand how insensitive and offensive this project could be. 

“It was a project that was done without context. It's like everybody built a mission and there was absolutely no discussion about what the side effects of those missions were to the native people of the area.”

(Now there has to be context if a school wants to do the mission project at all.)

Talk about the kind of moment we’re in — now there’s a sustained effort to take down these statues. 

“We are at a moment in which statues are coming down everywhere. You know the statues of King Leopold, the colonialist king in Belgium, Confederate statuary in the American South. The Museum of Natural History in New York City announced that a statue … that shows President Teddy Roosevelt with an indigenous man and an African American man, it's a very paternalistic statue, they are going to be moving that statue as well. 

It's this moment in which there's a real questioning of the monuments that are part of our landscape. … A lot of people who criticize this kind of iconoclasm say, ‘Oh, but it's our history.’ 

I would make a difference between what a history is and what a monument is. I think a monument is something that we use to celebrate certain aspects of our culture and venerate them as a daily part of our lives. When you have these statues that you are venerating, literally of slaveholders, slave traders, and colonialists, what kind of message is that sending? 

I feel like this moment … has been the moment in which these long running debates come to the fore. That's something I want to highlight, because a lot of people treated it like, ‘Oh my God, this statue came down!’ 

But there have been long running debates about these Junipero Serra statues all over California. For example, Stanford University changed the names of some of its academic buildings several years ago named after Serra. This is something that has been brewing for a very long time. It didn't just all of a sudden happen.”

You cover the art world. Are there any art historians who are pushing back on this idea and think the statues should not be toppled and maybe put somewhere else, to kind of remember where we were and how we viewed our heroes from a pedagogic standpoint?

“Just last week, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, which has always been rather quiet, say, on the issue of Confederate statuary ... issued a much more firm statement supporting the idea that there really is no place in a society that aims to be equitable — for Confederate statuary. 

They still advocate those statues should probably be taken down in an official manner, partly for the safety of the people taking them down. People have been hurt during some of these statue topplings

I do feel like even among preservationists, there is a shifting. While no one is saying, ‘Yes, tear the statues down,’ there is a shifting idea about what these represent and whether it's appropriate to have some of these statues in our landscape.”

—Written by Jennifer Wolfe and Amy Ta, produced by Rosalie Atkinson