Whose history counts? Write Ventura City Councilmembers to relocate the Serra Statue! Get ready for the next meeting on Wed. July 15.
Although Ventura Mayor Matt LaVere, Father Tom Elewaut of Mission San Buenaventura and Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, tribal chair of the Barbareno/Ventureno Band of Mission Indians (Chumash), had already agreed that the statue of Junipero Serra should be transferred from City Hall to the mission grounds where he belongs, a contentious city council meeting spooked some council members to abandon this civilized solution, and punt their decision to a later meeting on a CEQA technicality (Wed. July, 15th) or even to a costly public vote.
Taking down monuments does not erase history. On the contrary, it signals a deep societal awakening where people are willing to learn and confront the truths of our past. This statue actually presents two problems, as both an icon for a specific religion in front of a seat of secular government and as a colonizer of California’s native population. (VCReporter) “[Tumamait-Stenslie] hopes those who might not understand why the statue is being removed will consider that while Serra “is an iconic figure representing a lot of history,” that the Chumash people had a history that is not being told. “That was a very dark time for our family, and it continues past the missionization [era]. It went on… and it continues.”
“History has just changed to a different color, with different protagonists. Now we are not getting punished, we have the freedom to move about. We’ve found our voice to speak freely about our concerns and advocate for our culture.’”
Write to our local city councilmembers – all of them and tell them that it’s past time to make this right for our Chumash neighbors. Obviously the city managed without such a statue up until 1936, and if it hadn’t been for a Depression WPA grant for artists, we’d be living in a Serra-statue-free environment now. Ask them to remove this monument and convey it to the grounds of his own creation – the San Buenaventura Mission. There is also an interior wood statue that should be returned to its owner, as it is on loan to the city. (Attachment “C” of the City’s July 7 Staff Report regarding Agenda Item #12A.) Feel free to give them some creative ideas with what to do, if anything, with the traffic island space the statue leaves behind. Maybe it’s time for a grant for an artist of this century to create something new.
FAQ’s and references.
An alert reader catagorized the main responses of the statues proponents.
“Father Serra founded Ventura”
This is as accurate as saying “Columbus discovered America (at least the America with the national holiday in his honor).” Neither is true.
Father Serra founded Mission San Buenaventura , the last of nine missions throughout California, but there was already a town here named Shisholop (“in the mud”) and the land had been inhabited since around 1000 AD, or for approximately 800 years. Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, the first Spanish mariner to arrive in 1522, called the place El Pueblo de las Canoas (The City of the Canoes) for the ubiquitous Chumash watercraft they encountered.
A Franciscan missionary noted in 1769 at the outlet of the Ventura River: “we saw a regular town, the most populous and best laid-out of all that we had seen on the journey up to the present time.” The quote is from Fray Juan Crespi’s diary (page 158) available here: https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/000288788
Shisholop and the parcels of land around the mission grew together. It was Chumash territory when Spanish missionaries came in the 1760s the mission was established in 1782. Land was sold in pieces around it by first the Spanish and then Mexico (once it won independence) and then to American settlers after California became a state in 1848. So the area transformed from a long established native settlement in fits and starts, sometimes organically and sometimes with force, over a long period of time. It wasn’t like the missionaries came in, razed the town and made everything new.
“Removing the statue erases history!”
This is not accurate. It would mean that knowledge of Serra’s presence in Ventura disappeared from the time of his death in 1784, until the WPA-funded statue depicting him was created in 1936. It would be a civic benefit if the statue is moved to an accessible location on mission grounds where it would still be available to the public. It’s inappropriate as an item in a place of veneration central to the city, not as an item existing in the world. The history of the mission era will not be impinged, that’s safely contained in books, minds, artifacts, etc. And the statue can still exist, just in another geographic location more exactly suited to his history.
“Nobody cared until recently”
This statue has long been controversial. Protestors gathered in 1988 before the statue was bronzed and when the wooden replica was displayed in the city hall atrium. The statue has been vandalized several times, notably in the 1990s when the words “Spirit of Crazy Horse” and an image of a clenched fist were spray-painted in 1991. Its hands were painted red in 1992. Protests and vandalization surrounded his canonization in 2015 at several Serra statues in California. And in 2017 an op-ed in the Star called for its removal: “To have statues such as the one in front of Ventura City Hall is a direct slap in the face of all Chumash and other Native American cultures.”
You’re giving in to a mob”
Many disparate groups assembled at the rally on June 20, 2020, as well as the march July 4, 2020. The 10,000+ people that signed the petition likewise are not a singular entity. This is an organic effort. Many people are collaborating, yes, but no single group is directing it. One would hope that when people organize to petition their government, an elected official’s response is one in which you are “responding to your constituents” not “giving into a mob.” It has been pointed out that at the meeting the side threatening to chain themselves to the statue, vote council members out, and sue the city was not the “pro-removal” side.
“If we give in to this where will it end?“
People aren’t suggesting we change the name of the city or remove mission architecture. Further steps might be warranted with regards graphical representation of the statue standing in front of City Hall following its removal in various contexts. For now, the proposition involves the relocation of the statue only. If there should be further propositions in the future, consider them at that time. As for precedent, you’d be following the precedent set by numerous communities around California who have already relocated their Father Serra statues.
“Father Serra was a man of his time.”
This was the point pushed perhaps the most by the Father Serra statue supporters at the meeting July 7, 2020, that Father Serra himself was a good man, doing what he thought best at the time and who tried to prevent harsh treatment of the native people. Without diving deep into competing contemporaneous accounts, we can agree that his drive to convert the native population to Christianity resulted in cultural genocide, which in and of itself, is now considered unacceptable. However benign his original intent, or any humane measures Serra undertook to limit damage, his work indisputably stripped the native people of their religion, language, and culture. This kind of missionary work is now outlawed in countries around the world, whose governments see it as a form of imperialism and white supremacy. As the recent death of John Chau, who intended to Christianize the Sentinelese tribe demonstrates, this issue is as relevant now as it was in the 1700’s.
(guardian) “For those who argue that we should not judge the values of the past by those of the present,” said Vatican expert John Cornwell “one could, and should, object that it’s important to learn the lessons of history…
…To Native Americans like Valentin Lopez, the chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band based in Sacramento, those lessons are not complicated. Serra, in his view, was part of a colonial enterprise whose goal was the complete subjugation of California’s native peoples….“It’s amazing to me this is even a debate. There is no debate – it’s like debating the pros and cons of the genocide of the Jewish people in world war two. The only reason this is not treated as a black and white issue is because of the lies that the church and the state of California have perpetuated from the time of the missions.”
“Father Serra’s letters show he was good to the native people”
Quoting from Serra’s letters and journals is deeply problematic, as they they’re from one perspective, they’re sometimes for an intended audience, and things that are negative or common place get left out that would give us a full sense of the picture.
Revisionist history fills in the gaps. Much like past and present peddlers of the “happy slave” narrative, unreliable narrators of mission history have stated that the native populations were filled with “song, laughter, good food, beautiful languor, and mystical adoration of the Christ”. Similar to “Gone with the Wind“, “Helen Hunt Jackson’s 1884 bestselling novel Ramona set the tone for a mythologised history of the Missions, giving the impression Spanish colonialism had been an idyll for settlers and Native Americans alike and that the natives only suffered after the gringos began arriving. Even the most ardent Catholic historians now accept this is flat-out wrong.”
In unsentimental reality, Father Serra created a system in which native people were brutalized – beaten, pressed into forced labour and infected with diseases to which they had no resistance. Spanish soldiers at the missions acted both as guards and trackers of escaped natives, who, similar to Black slaves, were then beaten and shackled. The journalist and historian Carey McWilliams wrote almost 70 years ago the missions could be better conceived as “a series of picturesque charnel houses.” She would have been surpised to see this man canonized as a saint.
The statute can’t represent Father Serra independent of the mission era. Father Serra founded the missions, a system that continued to decimate native people of Southern California. He wasn’t a passive observer of the mission era or a pawn of the Spanish government. It was through his very actions that the mission era occurred.
“Pro-removal supporters mischaracterize the mission era”
The Vatican and local archbishops want to rewrite history – describing Serra and the missions as being somehow separate from the Spanish colonial enterprise, and that the army’s abuses and the lasting damage to native communities should not in any way be laid at his feet. Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles issued what is essentially an alibi, stating that he know the missions evoke “painful memories for some people,” but that the crimes and abuses Serra is blamed for happened after his death. He also stated that Serra “did not impose Christianity, he proposed it” and he should be credited for writing a “bill of rights,” which is ironic as the indigenous population only needed one because of their abuse under the mission system.
The Catholic official versions are verifiable nonsense. Lopez notes that Serra’s journals prove that the “The church and the army were partners. Junípero Serra’s own handwriting details the cruelties. His policy was to enslave the Indians – he didn’t let them leave the missions. You can’t blame that on Spanish soldiers.”
Below is an excerpt written by Father Serra at Mission San Gabriel about an incident that occurred in October 1771 “…a soldier, along with some other, killed the principal Chief of the gentile; they cut off his head and brought it in triumph back to the mission.” Gentile was the word used for the term used for unbaptized native people. Why was the chief’s head brought in triumph to the mission if the violence was unconnected to the mission system? The mission system and the violence were clearly tied together.
(religion news.com) “Through a project known as Critical Mission Studies, University of California researchers and Indigenous scholars are working to provide a more nuanced understanding of the state’s missions. The research highlights Native, Mexican and Mexican-American voices and “supports Indigenous perspectives on the California colonial missions and their aftermath.”As part of this project, Native people and Indigenous scholars will virtually gather on July 15 for a Zoom event titled “Toppling Mission Monuments and Mythologies: California Indian Scholars and Allies Respond.” (This is noted in our events page here.)
“We should all get to vote.”
Voting on minority issues is inappropriate for reasons that are perhaps redundant to state. Minorities are outnumbered, but their issues are no less important. One example: In 2008, CA’s Prop 8, a proposition largely supported by the Roman Catholic church and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, asked a heterosexual majority to strip a LGBTQ minority of their basic right to marry.
The Father Serra statue controversy is deeply personal to the native people of this community who make up just 1.2% of Ventura’s population according to the last census. By contrast, according to the Pew Research, Catholics make up 28% of adults in California. If Ventura’s make-up is anything like California’s, the two groups most directly and historically affected would be unfairly matched at the ballot box. And while both sides have allies and everyone in Ventura has an opinion, an issue such as this that viscerally affects the core of a group’s history or religion, should not be left to the capricious whims of those not equally affected.
Our city is named after a saint, after all, so why not keep a saint’s statue?
But it’s not the same saint, we are not a Catholic country and the city’s full name of San Buenaventura is a historical relic that comes as a surprise to many who live here. The mission was completed in 1782, and named in honor of Italian Franciscan philosopher St. Bonaventure, a contemporary of Thomas Aquinas, and now the patron saint of bowel disorders. Our city was incorporated as “San Buenaventura” in 1866, when the the population was primarily Spanish speaking. However, the shortening to the secular “Ventura” had already occurred in Spanish-era records, where San Buenaventura River was shortened to “Ventura River”, and the Spanish term for the local Chumash tribe, still in use, was “Ventureno.”
The functional renaming of our town has been attributed to a number of influences: The influx of non-Spanish speaking Yankees, European and Chinese immigrants, our splitting off from Santa Barbara County to become Ventura County in 1873 (first proposed in 1859), the 1887 arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which used “Ventura” on its tickets or the the U.S. Postal Service adoption of Ventura in 1889. The city’s first newspaper was called the “Ventura Signal” and by the 1960s, San Buenaventura remained our official name in concept only – city officials were using the shorter Ventura on city stationery and official documents.
Ventura is not the only city to change an unwieldy name, either officially or functionally. Los Angeles, now ‘LA,’ was originally ‘El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula.’ Carmel in Northern California, was originally “San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo” after the mission Serra founded there. San Diego was at one time “San Diego de Alcala” before city fathers changed its name.