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Mission Bells: Marc Haefele on the Huntington's re-evaluation of friendly friar Junipero Serra

R.D. McLean portraying Junipero Serra in the Mission Play at the Mission Playhouse in San Gabriel in 1926, with two actors portraying Indians.
R.D. McLean portraying Junipero Serra in the Mission Play at the Mission Playhouse in San Gabriel in 1926, with two actors portraying Indians.
LA Public Library/Security Pacific National Bank Collection

Like many other Midwest children my age, I first learned of Mission Era California from a Donald Duck comic. One of the late Carl Barks’ masterpieces,  Donald in Old California, appeared in 1951, giving us a dreamlike color-cartoon picture of the pre Gold Rush days,  of red-tile roofed haciendas and mission bells, of genteel Spanish-descended rancheros.  It was my first realization, at age 9, that there were states in the union that did not share our Eastern legends of pilgrims and Plymouth Rock.

At the very same age, California fourth-graders were learning the complete official version of the Disneyfied old California—the story of kindly friar Junipero Serra, spreading his utopian Catholic mission communities, and with them the arts and benefits of basic Mediterranean civilization, up the West Coast from San Diego. 

School children by the thousands toured—and still tour—these missions, their alluring restored gardens and orchards, stables and workshops. The mythified Hispanic mission and ranch culture became the official historical backbone of a state that was otherwise considerably short of a recorded past. It inspired plays, paintings, a severalty of Zorro movies, and  heartfelt  efforts by the likes of Charles Lummis and Helen Hunt Jackson to recover and reconstruct the pre-Anglo culture.

But by the time they got into college, those same school kids might be hearing a different tale of the missions—of the huge number of deaths of the Indios who were forced to live around them, of the bureaucratic blindness of the friars to the cultural catastrophes they were causing.

The Huntington’s new exhibit, Junipero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions, does a decent job of bridging the huge gap between both versions of the state’s history by adding two important elements to the story. 

First, the literally insular background of Serra himself,  born and educated on the Mediterranean island of Majorca and unable to grasp the complex American native cultures he first encountered at age 55. Second, the modern-day survivors of the Mission Indios themselves, who still use words like “genocide” to describe the fate of their ancestors, yet often maintain certain links to the missions their own forbears built, decorated, and maintained.

UCR Assistant Professor Steven Hackel, who assembled the excellent show with his UCR colleague Catherine Gudis, notes that the Native American was kicked out of the Mission Myth. Though far too many of the 80,000 or so Indios kept on the Missions died of European diseases that concentrated there, in Gudis’ words, “like Petri dishes,” plenty of their descendants survive. The exhibit includes impressive works of art by these descendants that reflect the hardships they endured then and since. Like Cahuilla artist Gerald Clarke Jr.’s  “Continuum Basket,” assembled from crushed beer and soda cans—symbolizing the modern plagues of alcoholism and diabetes.

(Photo courtesy Gordon Johnson)

A display by Luiseno artist James Luna shows film and photographs of modern Luiseno families for four generations, stressing the strength, solidarity and integrity of the beleaguered Indo culture. In contrast there is a rather cringe-inducing rotating display of Kodacolor slides of tourists like you and me posturing in front of the various missions.

But in the end, the exhibit leaves us to make up our own minds about the man who created the 50-year holy empire of the California missions. Even in that context, Serra does not come off well.

The history of Spain’s colonization of the Americas contains some majestic missionary heroes, like Bernardo de Sahagun and Bartolome de las Casas, who took the Indians’ side and preserved their cultures and even lives against terrific odds.  Their contrast with Father Serra couldn’t be more dramatic.  Serra wasn’t an intentional Eichmann, but he had priorities that few people now would consider sane. His idea was to gather in all the Indians and convert them, and if that caused them to die off, that was not his problem. Better, in Serra’s eyes, that a baptized Indian toddler die of diphtheria at two than that she live unconverted to 86.  Even as he was building his handsome missions, Europeans like Voltaire were already ridiculing such reasoning. 

Yet Serra has been beatified by the Church, and is on the road to sainthood.  The wrongs of his era are beyond correction, but maybe this one is not.

Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions, in the Virginia Steele Scott Galleries of American Art at the Huntington, is on exhibit through Jan. 6, 2014.