“Junipero Serra” by Steven W. Hackel


Junipero Serra, a native Mallorcan, had a comfortable existence as a religious teacher and scholar at the Llullian University in Palma. In his mid-thirties, around the mid-1700’s, he felt the call and volunteered for service in New Spain. He spent the rest of his life in Mexico, and later what would become California. Just from that, you know we’re talking about someone with courage, faith, and determination. An adventurer into the unknown.

One thing that Serra and other Franciscans reveled in was personal physical suffering, since it helped them become one with Christ. Self-flagellation, tight bands embedded with spikes around arms and legs, hitting one’s chest with a rock, and wearing shirts made from hair (because they were itchy, I guess?) were all part of the game. Serra also suffered a leg injury early in his time in Mexico for which he refused treatment — the pain and inconvenience it caused him throughout the remainder of his life were great pluses in his mind.

Some Franciscans at the time believed the prophecies of a Spanish nun who “bilocated” periodically to California and proclaimed that the natives would fall to their knees and become converted merely upon seeing a Franciscan. Turns out this was not the case, but it was a worthy carrot for Serra and others to pursue.

As missions were established (starting with San Diego in 1769, shortly followed by Serra’s HQ of San Carlos, near Monterrey the following year), Serra struggled more and more with the local Spanish authorities for control of the converts and the mission economy. Some in the government wanted the missionaries to solely concern themselves with preparing Sunday services, but Franciscans saw their role as much more overarching and paternalistic than that.

The modus operandi seemed to be to entice the natives with free food and gifts, teaching and baptizing when they could. Once a convert, each Indian was expected to take up Spanish-style agriculture and live at the mission, and follow all Catholic strictures. Whipping was the standard penalty for desertion or disobedience.  According to Hackel, corporal punishment, common in Europe, was unknown among the California tribes.  Some modern-day critics have called the arrangements more concentration camp than religious center, but ya always gotta judge to the local/temporal standards…

One thing that dovetailed into recent reading of 1491 was the remark that the natives were punished for burning the landscape.  As we know from that other book however, this was a key component of native subsistence agriculture, which they were now punished for practicing.

In Serra’s time, native convert populations at missions slowly grew. Success (a utopia of Catholic natives?) seemed to be at hand … but shortly after Serra’s death, the missions were repeatedly struck by disease. California’s native population went from about 300,000 in 1769 to 50,000 during the Gold Rush, less than 100 years later.


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