Of Fallen statues and father Serra: the radical “cancel” iconoclastic movement of 2020

by Richard K Munro:

Personally, I have no trouble with renaming military bases whose time has come. Most of those bases in the South and elsewhere were named circa 1917-1920 to appease White Democratic segregationists. For the same reasons many federal institutions remained segregated until President Kennedy.. I have no problem with town councils or state governments deciding to remove pubic statuary if it is done in a democratic way with due process. Statues could be placed in museum and given additional context. But destroying the original inscription and defacing the statue or plaque seems sinister to me. Something out of 1984. For example many old Civil War monuments refer to “Negros” or “Colored troops”. In some cases these monuments were put up by ex-slaves themselves. At the time, “Negro” and “Colored” were the accepted and popular terms. Sometimes (in Winslow Homer paintings ) the word Ethiopian is used for African-American but that was not common. It makes no sense to go back and destroy every book, every document, every monument which uses non PC languages.

I am totally opposed however for iconoclastic mobs to deface and destroy in the dead of the night historical monuments and displays which are also public art.

This is not totally new. There have been attacks of Columbus Statues and the statues of Spanish missionaries before usually with red paint accusing them as colonizers killers and slavers. Columbus was certainly a master mariner and a colonizer but he never held a single black slave in his entire life not did he introduce Black slavery to the Americas. Similarly, Father Serra never held a Black slave either, in fact he prohibited slavery at the California Missions.

There was a controversy about the Mohave Cross a number of years ago not far from where I live. It was a World War One memorial to fallen local soldiers. It was shamefully in a box during the back and forth trials because people said they could see it from a public highway and that was offensive to them . The Mohave Cross finally triumphed like some other public war memorials or crosses but it was vandalized and destroyed by opponent AFTER the court case. It has been restored (and is on private land) but it is sad the original monument from 80 years ago was destroyed. The Supreme Court has upheld the legality of public crosses as memorials to the fallen. There are many many crosses in Arlington also but also symbols of other religions and some graves have no symbol at all. The reason is every soldier, sailor, airman or Marine designates his or her preferred religious affiliation. If the fallen warrior is Jewish it would have a Jewish symbol if Muslim a crescent moon etc. et. The reason there are so many white crosses at Arlington, Normandy, Anzio, Bastogne, Salerno is because the majority of the Americans who fell there were from Christian communities. Allowing them to be honored by crosses is free exercise of religion and in any case the cross has for many a non-religious meaning just the acknowledgement of the fallen warrior.

I am totally against destroying or defacing WWII, WW, Civil War monuments in cemeteries or National Park battlefields. I am totally against the Spanish missions being destroyed or defaced. I am totally against all public art as to Spanish missionaries being destroyed or defaced. In San Francisco not only was Francis Scott Key statue toppled but a statue of Miguel de Cervantes was also vandalized (I am not sure of the extent of its damage). I also see in newspapers noble souls like Father Kino, Father Crespi and Father Serra being trashed as cruel slave holders who brutalized and exterminated the native Americans.

The fact is Father Serra -and we know a lot about his service and actions BECAUSE of his letters and the notes of Father Crespi did not allow any slavery at all in the Spanish Missions. Escaped black slaves in the Spanish Missions in Florida or New Mexico or California were considered free men Father Serra personally baptized Black persons in the Catholic church and married them to White Californios or Native Americans.

The most famous example is PIo Pico was the last Mexican governor of California. Pio Pico was legally “Spanish/Mexican” when California joined the Union but was of African descent. So Serra helped free slaves and did no allow for slavery in the Spanish Missions while he was the president of the missions.

We know from his own accounts and the accounts of Father Crespi that he disciplined Native Americans who broke Mission rules -stealing, getting drunk in one instance entering the sleeping quarters of the female neophytes (some as young as nine years old) and sexually assaulting and raping them. On this occasion -it was very rare for Father Serra himself to administer punishment -he did not like but on this occasion (well documented ) Serra publicly flogged the “renegade’. They had a strict discipline at the Missions those who stayed had to work and contribute and had to follow the rules. But it isn’t true that the Indians were press-ganged into the Missions. Many came because water (due to wells and irrigation) and food was more readily available.

Father Serra (St. Junipero) dedicated his life to defend the Indians and to teach them. He and the Franciscan Fathers taught them pottery, leatherwork, metallurgy, ranching, candle making, preserving foods in oil. He introduced many new plants and crops to California like citrus -lemons and oranges. He vastly increased food production through ranching of sheep and cattle. He vastly improved agricultural production by introducing irrigation. He taught the natives music and sophisticated musical instruments were constructed at the missions. He established the first libraries in the history of California. He instructed the Indians in religion and helped assimilate them to Spanish society by learning Spanish. Father Serra, St. Junipero, was a good man in his time. This does not mean he was a perfect person who advocated for woman’s suffrage, self-government, universal abolition of slavery, preservation of the environment and all native languages and customs. We have no knowledge if he advocated the independence of California or Mexico. As far as we know he was a loyal Spanish Subject who expected his missions to continue indefinitely under Spanish rule and under the Spanish monarchy. At the time he lived there was no Mexican nationality. The world Latin American did not even exist. We do know that Serra seemed to sympathize with the American Revolution but he was mostly concerned with his own region.

Very importantly Serra and the Spanish fathers saw to it that local women (Native Americans and Californios) married foreign immigrants and marred Spanish soldiers. So immigrants and mixed race people became Spanish citizens (subjects). The Spanish Empire was not a democracy nor a perfect society but it was a humane society where local peoples had rule of law, relative peace and prosperity. It was never a society that practiced strict segregation of the races. What evidence is there that the Spanish missions were not Nazi-style concentration camps of extermination?

I can think of two powerful pieces of evidence. One was this: when the Mexican government dissolved the Spanish Missions the Indians who lived there did not want to leave and wanted to stay with the Spanish fathers. Why would they stay if they thought they were being ruled tyrannically? And another is this. Why are there so man Mexicans, Peruvians (and Filipinos also?) Because the Indian/or native mestizo populations thrived and increased hugely in the years of Spanish rule.

It is true that the Spanish did not, usually (the Jesuits are an exception) teach or preserve the native customs or dialects. The Franciscans, in general, were not great scholars but practical workers and farmers. But what we know of ancient native languages and civilizations is almost entirely because of what Spanish missionaries documented and preserved. The native tribes of California would not have survived independently as hunter gatherers as California’s economy and agriculture developed. Their only hope for survival as individuals and families was in an around the Spanish missions and ranches. The native Americans and Filipinos had hundreds, probably thousands of languages and dialects. Some have survived Quecha, Aymara , Guarani and Tagalog have survived precisely because Spanish missionaries created grammars and dictionaries in those tongues (this was chiefly the work of Jesuits) and evangelized using those languages as well as Spanish. It is wrong to characterize Spanish rule as equivalent to Nazi rule and to compare Spanish Missions to Nazi concentration camps. It is wrong, it is unjust, it is a calumny to do so. It is a historical falsehood. In short much of the criticisms of Spanish rule and Spanish missionaries are just propaganda. They give a completely false, incomplete and distorted. view of Spanish culture and history.