On July 16, the Ventura City Council unanimously voted to remove the long-standing statue of Father Junipero Serra in front of Ventura City Hall. After a five-hour meeting that included Ventura citizens, Catholic scholars, and Black Lives Matter protesters, the City Council determined that the statue is “not a historical landmark” and called for its immediate removal due to Serra’s alleged atrocities against the Chumash community.
As city council member Sofia Rubalcava, who has a BLM frame displayed on her Facebook profile picture, said that the decision to remove the statue is “a step forward towards the healing of our community. By permanently removing the statue from city property, […] we’re stepping in solidarity with our Chumash community.” At the end of the meeting, she thanked the Chumash leadership for “stepping up.”
Father Junipero Serra is the most recent target of protesters calling for the removal, and often the tearing down, of historical statues across our nation. In late May, protesters tore down statues of Serra in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park and Los Angeles’s Olvera Street. In late June, this movement hit close to home in Ventura.
On June 20, protesters rallied on social media to tear down Ventura City Hall’s iconic statue of Junipero Serra. Hours later, the protesters arrived at City Hall, but they were met with a surprise. Over 200 individuals, mostly Catholic high schoolers, had already rallied around the statue to protect it. While some protesters like local Chumash elder Julie Tumamait-Stenslie pleaded for a peaceful and ordered removal of the statue, the majority of the protesters were prepared to tear down the statue that afternoon, chanting, “Tear it down!”
Weeks of confrontation between the protesters and the Serra defenders ensued. The Serra defenders silently encircled the statue and created a “sleeping schedule” to ensure that the statue was defended at all times, and the protesters turned to the City Council.
During the City Council debates on July 15, the two sides depicted contrasting portraits of Serra’s character. While Catholic scholars defended Father Serra as a philanthropic saint, anti-Serra protesters said, “No longer shall we celebrate the enslavement, rape, and genocide of the original people of Ventura.” So the question remains: who actually is Father Junipero Serra?
Some say if California ever had a founding father, it was Father Serra. Serra was a Spanish Catholic missionary who established nine historic missions across California in the late 18th century. “El Camino Real,” the road connecting Serra’s missions, is known today as the 101 Freeway. These missions became many of California’s major city and county namesakes including San Francisco, San Diego, San Gabriel, and San Buenaventura, now Ventura.
Though Serra initially established these missions in cooperation with the Spanish military, he quickly aligned himself with the Native Americans once he saw the Spanish military’s increased abuse of the Native American communities. In fact, he walked all the way from his home mission in Carmel to Mexico City to plead with the Viceroy of Spain for special liberties to discipline the military who were abusing the Native Americans. Serra died in his Carmel home after a life spent in service to the Native American community, and for this reason, Pope Francis canonized him in 2018.
However, contention remains surrounding Serra’s association with the Spanish military and his desire to convert Native Americans to Catholicism. In a culture considering the ramifications of cultural appropriation, Junipero Serra stands as a controversial figure for many. Our local debate surrounding Father Serra captures the heart of the current national movement to revise history through the removal of statues, raising the following question: when do the faults of a historical figure’s past justify the removal of their memory from our historical heritage?
We see constructive change emerging from the current movement. The Mississippi State Legislature, as an example, peacefully voted to remove the Confederate symbol from their state flag, a symbol that is arguably the most iconic of American slavery. On the other side, we are witnessing the blind desecration of statues, from noted Confederate General Robert E. Lee in Virginia to Union General and President Ulysses S. Grant in San Francisco. Even statues of Abraham Lincoln and famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass aren’t safe from attack.
The current movement to revise history, particularly through indiscriminate hostility towards statues, threatens a vital virtue that unites us as a nation: the virtue of remembrance. Historical statues are more than merely state and federal property. They are a statement of remembrance, linking us to our shared American heritage.
For his alleged crimes, the City of Ventura has determined to remove the remembrance of Father Serra from City Hall. Agreement or disagreement with such a ruling is a matter of personal opinion. However, the Father Serra debate is linked to an overall movement that seeks to remove statues, often indiscriminately, and consequently, remembrance of the past.
We have the power, as American citizens, to preserve or remove the memory of our historical heritage embodied in statues, and this power is exercised through the democratic process, as we should have seen in Ventura. However, the Ventura City Council did not put the matter to a democratic vote of the Ventura citizens, but rather deliberated the decision amongst themselves. According to Council Member Friedman, the popular sentiment concerning the statue was divided “50/50,” yet the City Council voted unanimously to remove the statue. As city council members displayed distinct bias towards the anti-Serra Protesters, such as Sofia Rubalcava, other citizens rightly questioned whether their interests were being properly represented, or whether this decision was already decided based on the private interests of the city council members.
According to James Kaisar, a Ventura citizen present at the city council hearing, “It seemed like this was a very contentious issue that should have been decided by a vote of the people.” But it wasn’t. Instead the democratic process entitled to the citizens of Ventura was kept within the confines of the City Council, where their clear bias won the debate. Kaisar puts it well: “It is especially concerning that city council members were involved in the protests against Fr Serra, before their unanimous vote, showing ‘solidarity’ with BLM and even marching, yet claimed at the meeting that there was no bias.”
The nationwide mob-like activity against statues takes this democratic power away from citizens, and as long as city council members continue to cater to the mob-like interests, interests that are often reflective of their own, the democratic power vested in public vote will continue to be stripped away from local citizens. While the power to democratically determine the fate of our statues unites us as Americans, unlawful destruction of statues and oligarchic legislation will only continue to divide us. Let’s not take the virtue of remembrance lightly, and let’s not surrender our democratic power to the whims of a minority of militant protesters.