It’s hard not to appreciate LMU’s campus, with its beautiful scenery and landscape. Surrounded by bustling college students in search of a passing grade, the most visually breathtaking parts of campus are easily overlooked; yet so are the not-so-beautiful parts. Take a stroll to the Von Der Ahe building and you’ll find a statue of a priest, which I never paid any attention to until my friend explained to me that the statue was of Junípero Serra.
For those of you who are not familiar with California’s history, Junípero Serra was a Franciscan priest who founded the first Spanish mission in California. These missions were intended to evangelize California Natives. However, what happened within the confines of these missions was far from a God-sent cause. The National Catholic Reporter explained that what was intended to act as a place to teach Natives about Christianity while providing them food and protection from the Spanish Inquisition, was actually a prison that separated Natives from their families and implemented them into forced labor.
Vincent Medina, assistant director at San Francisco’s Mission Dolores, said in an NPR segment that “people were enslaved in the missions. They were whipped if they spoke their language. If they tried to escape, they were forcibly brought back, flogged and punished, and kept in stocks.”
Serra’s missions served as a force that systematically dismantled Native American culture. Families were separated and cultural traditions were blocked from being passed down to future generations. Sadly, this understanding of history did not become widely accepted by historians and Catholic scholars until the late 20th century.
I sat down with professor Nicolas Rosenthal from the history department to learn more about why the Serra statue still stands in front of Von Der Ahe, given the history of the missions. He explained that Serra symbolizes one of the first Catholic presences in America, which helped him maintain massive support from Catholics today.
Rosenthal said that the statue was donated by William H. Hannon, a highly successful realtor, alumnus and Serra advocate. Hannon donated identical Serra statues to every Catholic educational institution in Southern California, as he was a part of what Rosenthal described as a “Serra fan-club.” This movement saw Serra as a man who loved California Natives and found the priest’s intentions as more important than the actual outcomes. These supporters also strived to get Serra canonized. In 2015, this dream became a reality as Pope Francis canonized Serra, symbolizing the important role Catholicism held in the founding history of the U.S.
“Serra is a big part of the celebration of the Spanish mission and the history, cultural identity and heritage of California,” Rosenthal said. “The way that the story of the California missions has mostly been taught—up to the last decade or so—is one that celebrates the arrival of the Spanish and bringing of Christianity to California.”
Rosenthal explained this viewpoint and celebration of Serra tell a historically inaccurate narrative of history. One where California Natives praised the Spanish and saw them as saviors, when in reality the Natives were a self-sufficient nation with its own tradition and cultures that were wrongly erased. There’s no way of justifying Serra’s missions, even if they supposedly had good intentions. By even defending Serra, we are ignoring Natives’ grievances and are playing into the huge problem of ignoring Indigenous People’s struggles once again in our problematic history as a nation.
After writing the article “Indigenous Peoples Struggles Need to be Heard,” LMU alumnus and founder of First Nations Inter-Tribal Council (FNIC, LMU’s Native American Club), Jason Clark (‘96), emailed me in shock. He said that he was upset that FNIC was no longer on campus and that there needed to be more groups of Indigenous students on campus to make their voices heard.
Clark was attending LMU when the Serra statue first appeared, and he said it came with no warning. This caused someone to pour red paint over the statue to symbolize the bloodshed that Serra caused. With the outcry from the construction of the statue, Clark sat down with late President Thomas O’Malley to discuss why the statue was placed in front of Von Der Ahe in the first place. The reasoning behind the statue’s construction was unacceptable. President O’Malley implied that the administration wants to avoid offending its late donor, Mr. Hannon, by keeping the statue standing.
Under no circumstances does the Serra statue need to stay on LMU’s campus, even if it was donated by Hannon. It’s one thing to recognize that potential parts of Serra’s history were not known by those working on the construction of the Serra statue. However, understanding the history today, it acts as a sign of disrespect toward the Indigenous community.
If LMU is going to live up to its supposed reputation of having social justice as one of its core values, then there needs to be action taken. Obviously, removing a statue will not solve every problem regarding retributions to California Native Americans today, but it can act as a start to conversations on how to be more aware and inclusive towards the Indigenous community on the Bluff.
Father Sean Dempsey, assistant professor of history, said, “We, as a university community, should rightfully have a conversation about the kinds of figures that we want to memorialize and why. Moreover, that conversation must be as inclusive as possible, and include the voices of those who might feel marginalized and demeaned by Serra’s legacy.”
We need to hold LMU accountable for what is right. Money does not outweigh disrespecting a whole community of people whose ancestors were unjustly murdered and tortured. I cannot speak for the Native American LMU community as I am not Native American. However, I believe that LMU can do its part by not only removing the Serra statue, but also providing more avenues for Native American and Indigenous students to voice their concerns and celebrate their heritage.
I hope that by writing this article, it will encourage Native American students at LMU to strive to make their voices heard and create an open dialogue about LMU’s history.
This is the opinion of Alex Myers, a senior French and philosophy major from Edmond, Oklahoma. Tweet comments to @LALoyolan email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.