By David Moye / Photos by Kristina Yamamoto
If anyone had a mission in life, it's Junípero Serra. Born in Majorca, Spain, in 1713, Serra dedicated his life to becoming a Franciscan Friar. He went halfway across the world to build nine missions in California, including Mission San Diego de Alcalá, in 1769, above what is now known today as Mission Valley . In the process, Serra became the original San Diego Padre, laying both the groundwork and the ground floors for the settling of California by Europeans, a momentous feat with repercussions, both positive and negative, that are still being felt.
But if you were to see Serra in real life, you might not recognize him as one of the most influential men of the last 300 years. "He was only five-foot-two and 110 pounds, but he was, for his time, very educated and charismatic," says Janet Bartel, former official historian for Mission San Diego de Alcala. She says Serra's assigned mission to start missions was, for Spain, as much political as it was religious. "Spain wanted to build settlements here because they feared the Russians were on their way down from the North, and unless they had settlements, they might lose the land," Bartel says. "But Father Serra had a missionary ethic. He wanted to come for the church, not for political reasons."
At the time, California was not the center of culture it became in the 20th Century. "It was thought to be an island until the mid-17th century," she says. "The native Americans who lived in the region had never seen cloth until Serra's arrival." Although many of the military officials and monks traveling with Serra thought the Kumeyaay Indians were stone-age "primitives," Bartel says Serra prohibited them from using such terms.
"He just felt they were different from him and treated them like a father would treat his children," she says. At that time, San Diego was a barren desert area, but Serra found beauty here. "He wrote about how he saw wild roses here that reminded him of Castile," Bartel says. "However, they ran out of supplies that first year, and the military wanted to give up. Father Serra was stubborn and did a nine-day novena prayer in honor of the patron saint, St. Joseph. On the ninth day, the supply ship arrived."
While no one is denying Father Serra's achievements, in recent years, his alleged treatment of the Native Americans has come under fire from critics such as Professor Richard Carrico, who teaches Native American Studies at San Diego State University. Carrico says that while the Vatican has beatified the Padre-a key step toward what could become sainthood-Serra's role in the treatment of the native population wasn't so godly. "He wasn't a Hitler. He didn't try and kill a whole group of people, but the Native Americans here in San Diego were worse off after he arrived in terms of their food supply and their view of the world physically.
"Before Serra's arrival, the Kumeyaay had as high a life expectancy as people living in Europe and a rich culture," Carrico says. "They understood their land. Although the Spanish brought cattle and sheep, those animals drove off the food the Kumeyaay were used to eating." Carrico says that rather than being a saint, Father Serra was truly human and had the contradictions we all share. "On one hand, the military thought he was too protective of the Indians, and they thought he demanded too much church service," he says. "But his contemporaries admired his length of service, and he was very good with politicians and was able to get money when others were getting cut."
Bartel concedes that Serra did whip some of the Indians as punishment, but says he didn't do anything to them he wouldn't do to himself. "He would self-flagellate when he didn't live up to his ideals," she says. "But he was not cruel. In fact, when he was traveling up the tip of Baja, he wouldn't even ride a mule, despite having a serious ulcerated leg from a mosquito bite. "As for the Indians, he had pure motives. He wasn't trying to take their land, he was trying to make them stronger."