Time to re­tire Serra’s statue?

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

De­cid­ing which his­tor­i­cal fig­ures to honor is a com­pli­cated busi­ness. The U.S. Capitol is full of stat­ues of slave­hold­ers and Con­fed­er­ate lead­ers and killers of In­di­ans, yet we don’t au­to­mat­i­cally re­move them be­cause, well, our his­tory is our his­tory, even when it’s em­bar­rass­ing. And just be­cause some­one was a prod­uct of his (or, less likely, her) time and did things that are unimag­in­able to­day doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily mean that he or she was en­tirely with­out merit or de­serves to be wiped out of the his­tor­i­cal record like a purged Soviet com­mis­sar.

Which brings us to Fa­ther Ju­nipero Serra, the Fran­cis­can priest who founded nine mis­sions from San Diego to San Fran­cisco dur­ing the 18th cen­tury. Should Fa­ther Serra still be one of the two peo­ple cho­sen by the state to rep­re­sent Cal­i­for­nia in Na­tional Stat­u­ary Hall of the U.S. Capitol? Serra’s statue has been there since 1931, but there’s a move afoot to top­ple him. In fact, a bill has passed the state Se­nate that would re­place him with as­tro­naut Sally Ride.

Its spon­sor in­sists this is about hon­or­ing Ride, not dis­hon­or­ing Serra, but the fact is that many peo­ple now view Serra as a re­li­gious fa­natic whose bru­tal mission sys­tem mis­treated na­tive peo­ples, con­verted them to Catholi­cism un­der duress and nearly erad­i­cated sev­eral tribes en­tirely. Oth­ers, how­ever, call that a car­i­ca­ture and point to Serra’s role build­ing the mis­sions, of­ten pro­tect­ing na­tive peo­ple from sol­diers and set­tlers, and help­ing to cre­ate Cal­i­for­nia as we know it. Does the good out­weigh the bad? Should we re­move peo­ple from our pan­theon as our val­ues evolve, or stick with our flawed but foun­da­tional lead­ers?

Some na­tive peo­ples un­der­stand­ably say that it’s time to knock Serra off his pedestal. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, not only wants to keep him in the Capitol, but wants him can­on­ized as well. School­teach­ers, no doubt, are won­der­ing what they will do if Serra’s pop­u­lar­ity drops so low they can’t have their fourth-graders build model mis­sions out of sugar cubes and plas­ter.

So here’s a com­pro­mise. Noth­ing has to be for­ever. Fa­ther Serra has had 84 glo­ri­ous years in the Na­tional Stat­u­ary Hall (along­side the likes of Sa­muel Adams, Jef­fer­son Davis and Brigham Young), but a decade or so ago, Congress passed a law let­ting states re­move and re­place their stat­ues. Cal­i­for­nia did so al­most im­me­di­ately, re­plac­ing Thomas Starr King (Thomas Starr Who?) with Ron­ald Rea­gan. A crowd pleaser.

Why not switch it up a bit? Fa­ther Serra had his turn, and, with­out cast­ing judg­ment on his le­gacy, why not sub him out for an­other Cal­i­for­nian? Ten years for John Muir? Jose Figueroa? Earl War­ren? Hi­ram John­son? Ce­sar Chavez? Joan Did­ion? Wil­liam Mulholland? Steve Jobs? Johnny Car­son?

We’re not per­suaded yet that Sally Ride is the right per­son for the po­si­tion, but maybe she is. Let’s open a statewide dis­cus­sion — and let’s do it quickly, be­fore the gover­nor and the Leg­is­la­ture de­cide to auc­tion off the space to a cor­po­rate spon­sor and we end up with Mickey Mouse on a pedestal.

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