On the 300th anniversary of Father Junipero Serra’s birth, an ambitious exhibition at the Huntington Library in Southern California sets out to explore his life from his days as a young Spanish priest to his controversial role as one of California’s founding fathers.
Some of the story is told in Serra’s own words, through letters and diaries written during his evangelical quest, and some of it is told in art.
In one painting, commissioned by the Catholic Church, the Franciscan priest stands heroically atop a hillside. He is gripping a wooden staff, standing beneath a fiery orange sky. It’s a portrait unlike the Spaniard who actually landed in Baja California some 250 years ago. He was healthy enough for a man of 55, but he was also skinny, asthmatic and prone to illness. Yet he burned with ambition.
“He served those interests of the Spanish crown: Economic exploration, acquisition of new territory, creation of new citizens for Spain that they could tax,” said Steven Hackel, the exhibition’s curator. “But those were not Serra’s interests. His personal desire was to convert Indians to Catholicism.”
“Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions” is the first major exhibition to explore Serra’s entire life, as well as the lives of those in California before him.
“(Serra) says in translation: ‘They go entirely naked like Adam in paradise before the fall,’ ” Hackel said. “And of course that is just Serra imagining this untouched world that he thinks he would easily remake into one of beautiful missions, with Indians singing Catholic songs and farming the field. And this, of course, is his imagination.”
Most Native Americans simply fled upon first contact with the Spanish. Others surrendered and were converted -- sometimes under intense coercion, according to co-curator Catherine Gudis.
“The example that we have in the exhibition is a line illustration of what’s called a hobble, which would have been to punish people but still enable them to work in the fields, so it would have hobbled your feet,” Gudis said.
But many Native Americans lashed out at the missionaries. Another, much bloodier painting depicts the massacre at San Saba, where hundreds of Comanche warriors destroyed a Catholic mission in Texas, killing eight people. One of Serra’s missionaries was also killed in an attack in San Diego.
The violence was a turning point for Serra, Hackel said.
“By the 1770s, Serra writes in his letters still with great faith that Indians would still be converted, but also wariness that they could turn on the padres like tigers and kill them,” he said. “So he lets go of his Adam and Eve image and has a much more realistic understanding of the challenges the Spaniards faced and the resilience of Indian culture.”
It was a culture, according to Hackel, that Serra either could not or did not want to see. But the exhibition lifts the curtain for its visitors, exploring the ways in which Indians wove, sometimes literally, Spanish and Catholic influences into their own traditions, including basket weaving.
One basket in the exhibition, for example, follows traditional Chumash patterns and production. But inside, the maker wove in crosses.
“It’s interlaced with a Catholic iconography, so that it can be deployed for different purposes, though it’s still following native tradition,” Gudis said.
Another installation memorializes the roughly 80,000 Native Americans baptized by the missionaries. A video projects their names one by one on a wall in the Huntington’s central gallery. It shows the year they were baptized, the year they died and the Indian name they came with to the mission.
Today these birth records are a valuable tool for Native Americans to trace their lineage and secure federal recognition.
“It’s also a means of being able to discern other elements of native tradition. For example, some of the native speakers didn’t write down their language until there was pressure to do so,” Gudis said.
For instance, on display is an old Catholic prayer card in phonetic Chumash, one of many native languages spoken in California at the time that is now nearly lost. There is also a recording by a woman named Ernestine De Soto, whose mother was the last native speaker of the language.
A film playing at the exhibition explores the lasting impact of Serra and the missionary system on Native American culture. It features Andrew Salas, the chairman of the nearby Gabrielino band of Mission Indians.
“Over there at Mission San Gabriel my great-great grandfathers and grandmothers were baptized about 1789, 1785,” Salas said. “We don’t go to church every day or anything like that, but the relationship we have there is the remembrance of our ancestors. My role is to carry the legacy of our history, to spread the word of our true identity.”
"Junípero Serra and the Legacies of the California Missions," is on view at the Huntington Library in San Marino through early January.