Cloying book skirts damage Serra wrought

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JOURNEY TO THE SUN: JUNÍPERO SERRA'S DREAM AND THE FOUNDING OF CALIFORNIA
By Gregory Orfalea
Published by Scribner, $30

In a February 2014 "Google Talk" on YouTube to promote his book Journey to the Sun: Junípero Serra's Dream and the Founding of California, Gregory Orfalea admits, "I'm a literature guy, not a historian."

The controversy surrounding the life and imminent canonization of Junípero Serra ought to raise the standard for how the story of the 17th-century Spanish missionary is told. Despite Orfalea's pursuit of primary documentation and evidence, throughout Journey to the Sun he writes with the same sort of missionary zeal and blind romanticism as the Franciscan friar he chronicles.

It isn't until the book's final pages that Orfalea acknowledges that the story of Serra is challenging in its need for interdisciplinary competency and advises the reader that he has "taken some liberties in reconstructing Serra's thoughts and feelings."

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The lack of historical rigor becomes clear as Orfalea artfully neutralizes the fact that Serra was a colonial functionary, a conquistador whose primary assignment was to help Spain claim the lands of California. Through his embellished stories of Serra's virtue, the author drains Serra's story of any substantive examination of the real harms that accrued to the indigenous peoples of California after the friar's arrival.

Orfalea's unrestrained and cloying prose in Journey to the Sun instead results in a 368-page reverie in defense of sainthood for Serra. Orfalea vigorously asserts that Serra's actions were based on the "Gospel of love" rather than the clearly evident strong-arm tactics of a priest and his army.

Journey to the Sun has received positive attention, and the book tour to promote the volume has provided Orfalea with opportunities to expound upon what he sees as the misguided critiques of Serra. In January 2014, he opined in the Los Angles Times that "the missions were not places of unrelieved misery, and that in most things, Serra was exemplary."

Orfalea and his publisher, Scribner, are not just interested in promoting what they see as Serra's "exemplary" character. It can be argued that they use Serra in a project to re-inscribe and refresh the romance of American exceptionalism. In the afterword, Orfalea quotes his editor, Colin Harrison, as saying that he chose to publish Journey to the Sun "because I am interested in alternate foundation stories for this country."

Orfalea's embellished history of the California missions frames the conquest and the Christian settlement of Indian lands as moving from West to East, and originating with Serra. His language reveals an excessive adulation of Serra, writing that "the foundation story of the West -- that is, Spanish Catholic -- is distinctly antimaterialistic, unabashedly colorful and sensual, mystical in its approach to the natural world, and more complicated by and interlaced (by virtue of its blood ties) with aboriginal peoples."

The florid adjectives that Orfalea uses to describe the conquest and oppression of the indigenous peoples of California under Serra can be refuted by hard evidence of abuse, land theft, and dispossession of critical natural resources used by indigenous peoples -- violations that made it possible for Serra to construct the missions.

The foundation stories of the United States, whether conventional or alternative, are told at the expense of the indigenous nations who had fully functioning political, cultural and economic nations at the time of the European conquest and settlement.

By reducing the diverse peoples and cultures of that region to the monolithic nomenclature of "the California Indian," Orfalea glides over the important distinctions and uniqueness of every indigenous community that Serra encountered. These indigenous histories must be trivialized, minimalized and ultimately erased in order for the fiction of American exceptionalism -- in this case, the Catholic version -- to prevail.

In this new American exceptionalism narrative, Orfalea reverts to the standard argument of a "lawless frontier" that benefitted from Serra's imposition of discipline on an unruly people who had no conception of legal authority. Orfalea dedicates only 15 pages of his 368-page text to a discussion of the indigenous nations of what is now called California. The content of these pages is supported by minimal and, in some cases even discredited, anthropological sources.

Orfalea attempts to acknowledge the abolition of Indian autonomy, but he rationalizes the extermination, removal and assimilation of indigenous peoples by insisting that Serra's actions were somehow redemptive. He writes, "Something went right, despite the misery, and despite the violation of Indian sovereignty that the whole colonial regime entailed."

Orfalea not only mutes the obvious acts of domination and conquest, he also manipulates the story so as to excuse or mitigate the negative view of Serra in these stories.

One important example is Serra's landing at what would become the mission of San Fernando. As Serra tells the story in his diary, "Soldiers were drawn up under arms, with their leather jackets and shields." The Mass, according to Serra, "was solemnized by the ... discharges of the muskets of the soldiers; the fumes of the powder supplying ... incense."

Serra notes that not a single "gentile" was visible, surmising that "they were scared by so many thunders."

Orfalea mentions this incident, but he characterizes Serra as "irritated" by the gunfire of the soldiers. Serra does not indicate irritation in his own accounting of that first Mass at the San Fernando mission. Orfalea attempts to excuse Serra by separating him from the actions of the soldiers, but Serra's own words could be interpreted as delight in the spectacle of guns blazing to consecrate the sacrament.

In the final chapter, "The Serra Legend and the Question of Sainthood," Orfalea uses a quote from historian Richard Pointer to support his belief that "spiritual encounters between Europeans and Native Americans 'were fundamentally reciprocal and often mutually transformational.' "

This is a neutralization, depoliticization, and romanticizing of the entire Serra story. Serra brought Christianity to the continent's western shores literally at the barrel of a gun -- even in the most spiritual moments that Pointer wants to call "mutually transformational." There was nothing mutual in the disparity of power that Serra made sure was evident to all indigenous peoples he encountered.

Orfalea's equivocating analysis of Serra persists to the end. In the conclusion of the chapter on Serra's legend and sainthood, he writes, "The man, after all, created a world. It was utopic, it was tragic." For a specialist in literature, Orfalea does not seem to understand the distinction between tragedy and romance. His version of Serra's life is clearly a romance, and he cannot claim to have adequately addressed the tragic consequences of Serra's invasion of the indigenous nations of California.

Through his manipulation of facts and elaborate use of language, Orfalea has succeeded only in perpetuating the myths of Serra -- stories that continue to deny the violence the Franciscan brought to indigenous peoples.

[Loring Abeyta holds degrees in anthropology, Catholic theology, and international relations. Her research focuses on indigenous peoples.]

This story appeared in the Sept 25-Oct 8, 2015 print issue.

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