Junipero Serra

While growing up in California in the 50s and 60s, the name of Father Junipero Serra was well known to every school kid. As the title of this new biography states, he was considered California's founding father. There's a statue of Father Serra gracing the U.S capitol rotunda as a representation of California's history. He was the person that "civilized" the west coast. His missions still stand as a symbol of the Western exploration and settlement of California. You didn't have to be Catholic to view Serra as a saint which he seems well on the way to becoming after Pope John Paul took the third of four steps to his sainthood by beatifying him on September 25, 1988.

Oh, how myths die hard. Since then, reality has risen up and gave legend a sound slap in the face. While there is no doubt that Serra is one of the most influential figures in the history of North America, he was also a tyrant and a religious fanatic even by 18th century standards. His role in destroying vast populations of Native-Americans is significant. He saw them as "children" and imprisoned them at will and beating them lest they stray from the Christian path. Serra and the Franciscan priests were essential in bringing agriculture to California but this was mainly a ploy to make the California Indian dependent on the mission community and it damaged the culture immensely. Disease and famine followed his successes, decimating the Native-American population of California. Serra was also a member of the Spanish Inquisition and took his role seriously both in the old world and new.

Steven H. Hackel's importance as Serra's contemporary biographer is in his ability to balance both views of the Franciscan priest. He doesn't ignore the dark side yet acknowledges Serra's role in developing the Western regions of North America. He follows his birth and childhood on the island of Mallorca to his education and rise to importance in the church. The author traces Serra's journey to "New Spain" from Veracruz to Mexico City and finally to the task of building a string of missions in Baja and Alto California until his death in 1784. This is a fascinating look at 18th century Mexico and California with no sugarcoating. Zorro need not apply.

Hackel portrays Serra as one of those figures that does many things well and succeeds by the audacity of his ambition. He was an excellent administrator, a wise professorial teacher who inspired his students, and an ambitious seeker of church power that led to many struggles with the Spanish secular government especially in California. One of the thing that amazed me was that Serra did not start his California missions in California until he was 60. One can excuse some of what Serra did as him simply being a typical figure of his time in a racist and religiously aggressive society. Hackel takes time to note that some of Serra's excesses were actually normal procedures for Spanish missionaries. Yet I can't lose the feeling that Serra with all his success may have been "over the top" even then. After all it was eventually the Spanish government that removed his power from the missions and turned them from church dominated areas to secular settlements easing the intense control, even enslavement, that Serra had over the California Indians.

This is the kind of historical books we need; the kind that is honest about historical figures and not afraid to uncover the dirt while noting their achievements. Highly recommended to students of the history of North America.