Fray Junipero Serra, Defender of the Indians

José Carlos Mena Sánchez

Iconoclastic Madness

We are witnessing, with astonishment, studied and managed movements that, under the excuse of fighting racism, seek to rewrite history. And, like gunpowder, it is spreading throughout the West, sticking its hand into any issue that sounds homophobic. From the removal of the statue of the Roman Emperor Constantine in England to literally “bashing” the trademark “Congitos” for alleged racism. It’s crazy. I said as much in my article on Hispanophobia.

It is true that, as Héctor Ríos, a follower of my blog, says, to focus on the USA it is necessary to know its multicultural reality, even to visit the country, because in most states (including Puerto Rico) we can find statues, streets and public buildings that pay homage and tribute to Spain, for its legacy in those lands. Can one question the greatness of Hispanic culture and the violent nature of the attacks on monuments to Spanish figures in the United States? They are minorities who do a lot of damage when they vandalise busts of Cervantes or Columbus, but it must be said that they are influenced by ideological agendas, exhibit exaggerated victimhood and seek to impose their weak morals. And all, under the trigger of the regrettable murder of George Floyd. But now I wonder how many victims there still are, how many Catholics are dying in Africa, how much slavery there still is in the world, and is anyone saying anything or speaking out about it?

The Defender of the Indians

While agreeing with Mr. Ríos and saying that American society should be better known, I would like to insist on the Hispanic legacy in America. And, following the path of Isabelthe Catholic Queen, with her fierce defence of the Indians, today I want to talk about Fray Junípero Serra, whose statue has also been pulled down. Does anyone know who he was? Did any of those who have pulled down his statue know him? Well, people like Fray Junípero, a staunch defender of the Indians, are to be admired.

unípero Serra in National Statuary Hall Collection - Jim McIntosh

unípero Serra in National Statuary Hall Collection – Jim McIntosh

I am not going to write an extensive biography of this Franciscan friar, but I would like to give a few brief glimpses of his work. First of all, I would like to mention that he is the only Spaniard to have a statue in the National Statuary Hall of the Capitol in the USA. The most illustrious figures of the American nation are represented here, and each federated state has the right to propose two names of illustrious figures to be immortalised with a monument. The statue of Fray Junipero is in the main aisle and was proposed by the state of California. Why? We will now see.

José Miguel Serra y Ferrer was born in Petra (Mallorca) in 1714 and in 1731 he professed in the Franciscan convent of Palma, changing his birth name to Junípero. In 1749 he travelled to New Spain (Mexico) along with other priests as an apostolic missionary. Stationed in the Sierra Gorda region, he held various posts in the Franciscan convents of the area and carried out his mission. He stayed there for 9 years.

But Fray Junípero’s aim in the missions went far beyond the promotion of Christianity, baptism and evangelisation. He carried out material subsistence activities, such as cattle raising and agriculture, teaching these tasks to the Indians, including spinning and weaving. He also educated the Amerindians in various areas and built numerous churches.

Missions in California

Carlos III then expelled the Jesuits from all the dominions of the crown, including the Viceroyalty of New Spain, by pragmatic sanction in 1767. Thus, the Jesuits who served the population of California were replaced by 16 Franciscan missionaries, headed by Fray Junípero. Once in the new territory, they decided to continue exploring it in order to take the Gospel as far as possible and, above all, to teach the Indians how to cultivate and mould clay, among other basic survival skills.

Fray Junípero, in addition to the missions he visited, founded the mission of San Diego de Alcalá (present-day San Diego) on 16 July 1769. On 3 July 1770, he founded the mission of San Carlos Borromeo. In 1771, he laid the first stone of the mission of San Antonio de Padua and in August of the same year that of San Gabriel (present-day Los Angeles). In 1772 he founded the mission of San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, in 1776 that of San Francisco de Asís (now San Francisco) and in 1782 that of San Buenaventura. Most of these missions were connected by the route known as the “Camino Real”.

In his tireless work, he confronted every military commander he met in defence of the Indians and their rights. Even when the leadership of the California states fell into the hands of Pedro Fages, who subjected them to enormous pressure and mistreated the Indians, he travelled to Mexico City to meet with Viceroy Bucarelli. He presented him with a text entitled “Representation on the Temporal and Spiritual Conquest of Upper California”, also known as the Representation of 1773, which has been described as a Bill of Rights for the Indians. And what he asked was basically that the responsibility for governing them should fall to the missionaries, who were concerned with their welfare, and not to useless and cruel rulers.

An enormous legacy

Fray Junípero, fought, defended to the hilt, educated and taught the Indians of California to survive, so that, settled around the missions, they would cultivate their lands and eat their bread. Thus, with enthusiasm and energy, while those missionaries catechised, taught notions of agriculture, cattle raising and masonry, they provided them with seeds and animals and instructed them in carpentry, masonry and blacksmithing techniques, as well as in other important tasks. This change in the indigenous culture was so profound that it continues to this day.

Fray Junípero died at the mission of San Carlos Borromeo on 28 August 1784 and his remains rest in the church of the Mission he founded. In 1988 he was beatified by John Paul II and in 2015 canonised by Pope Francis. His legacy, his impact, has survived to the present day.

It is true that his arduous mission began in Mexico, but apart from Querétaro, in Sierra Gorda, where there is a statue of him in the Plaza de los Fundadores, and a few references on stamps, there are hardly any visible testimonies that pay homage to his memory. A pity for all that he did, for all that he fought to protect and improve the lives of the indigenous populations.

History as a witness to the past

And now I ask again, do the people who threw his effigy or attack it in Mallorca know who Fray Junípero was? In California he is venerated and respected for what he did and for what he sowed, an eternal defender of the indigenous people, hence the choice to erect a sculpture of him in the Capitol. Thus, at the other extreme, and as an example for the history that was, we can cite the Yankee army which, in order to annihilate the Indians of California and take their land (because there was gold), distributed blankets with smallpox among the tribes. Or the American officer Philip Sheridan who, during the Indian wars, said: “The best Indian is the dead Indian”. Who was really protecting the Indians? The key is to learn a little from the past and not to make absurd claims. The funny thing, for better or worse, is that it is all part of history.

In spite of everything, I do not doubt that North Americans, even most Hispanic Americans, know the history of their country, of the Hispanic legacy and of the yester-years, with their lights and shadows. Napoleon said that it was necessary to know history in order not to repeat it. And the great Cervantes said: “History is a witness of the past, an example of the present and a warning of the future“. I can’t say it clearer. Let us accept the past, live the present, learn from our mistakes and prepare for the future, trying to leave a friendly and kind planet.

To Fray Junipero Serra, defender of the Indians.


This post was translated from:

Mena, J.C. (2020) ‘Fray Junípero Serra, defensor de los indios’, 9 July. Available at: (Accessed: 21 June 2021).

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