Pictured: People calling for the removal of the St. Junipero Serra statue, with a few dozen supporters of the statue, protest in front of Ventura City Hall on Saturday, June 20, 2020. Photo by Kimberly Rivers
by Kimberly Rivers
On Saturday, June 20, about 200 people gathered around the base of the bronze sculpture of Saint Junipero Serra located in front of Ventura City Hall. Most were there calling for the removal of the statue. Some wanted it torn down that day, about two dozen people stood around the statue with signs supporting Serra, and others prayed nearby.
The nine-foot bronze statue of Serra was erected in 1989, replacing a cement version that had deteriorated since it was first erected in 1936 with funding from the New Deal. A wooden version stands inside city hall.
Several speakers of Chumash descent spoke about the pain the statue causes and the desire to have it removed through a process involving the Ventura City Council. Others at the protest spoke about the need to tear it down now, and at one point, after the main protest ended, a speaker said they could take it down that day. A small group of three or four from the crowd rushed the statue. One person held a black rod or stick and appeared to mean to strike the statue, but did not.
Two Ventura Police Department vehicles arrived on Poli Street, but the officers stood by their cars and observed. The interactions did not escalate further. The officers moved to the north side of Poli and remained standing on the sidewalk, observing the crowd for the remainder of the event.
The action was planned by local youth organizers who started an online petition calling for the statue’s removal. At press time, the petition has over 6,100 signatures. An opposing petition, to keep the statue in its place, has also been started, with a little over 2,800 signatures as of press time.
“I’m grateful to the local activists and organizers, inspired by national events, for focusing their indignation on the statue of Junipero Serra,” said Matthew Vestuto, tribal member of the Barbareño/Ventureño Band of Mission Indians (BVBMI). “History won’t be erased by the removal, but history will be made.”
An uneasy history
Serra founded Mission San Buenaventura in 1782. It was one of nine missions he founded during the Spanish occupation of the area. Many consider him the founder of the City of Ventura.
Prior to Spanish colonization, indigenous people had been in the area for at least 10,000 years. The land had been part of Mexico prior to Spanish conquest. During the mission era, local indigenous people were compelled to convert to the Catholic faith, learn the Spanish language and build the missions. The conscription of indigenous people was “defacto slavery” (1) and it led to a loss of culture, property and, in many cases, life. Chumash tribe members could be punished for resisting mandates coming from the mission. Those punishments included whippings, rape and death, (2) endured by indigenous people across California through the Mexican overthrow of the Spanish and then the westward expansion of the U.S.
Much of the discussion during the Saturday protest, between people yelling and speaking at the microphone, centered on erasing, knowing and understanding history. One man, holding a sign stating ‘I love Serra,’ said, “That’s a lie,” when tribal members shared parts of their history.
Liz Campos of Ventura spoke about her work decades ago for the Franciscan Friars of California. Her job was “to go page by page [through historical records] and remove all references of natives murdered by friars and also to remove references of friars subsequently murdered by the people whose wives and children were killed. It was not a pretty time in California history.” She described, holding back tears, how she worked backwards, eventually getting to the dates when Serra was alive.
“They were listing the names and ages of people beaten to death by friars and some of them were as young as 2 and 3 years old,” Campos said. “The day I read that, I left the job and I left the church . . . That statue represents murder and it does not serve well the city of Ventura.”
Greg Wood of Ojai was with a group of eight people praying at singing at the protest.
“We are praying for peace and a prayer of thanksgiving for Saint Serra and we’re praying for the healing of our broken culture and the division that we’re suffering now,” Wood said. He said the group represented multiple Catholic parishes. He declined to comment on the potential removal of the statue.
Working together toward change
During the Saturday protest, amidst the calls and chanting to “tear it down,” members of the tribe stood up and asked the crowd to respect their wishes as they were working with the city and church.
Earlier in the week, Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, BVBMI board chair, learned about the petition and plans for a weekend protest. A meeting was called between several tribal members, Father Tom Elewaut from the Ventura Mission Church and Ventura Mayor Matt LaVere to discuss the issue. The result of that meeting was a joint statement, signed by all three and released on Thursday, June 18, that stated they all “believe the time has come for the statue to be taken down and moved to a more appropriate non-public location.” That process is underway. A city spokesperson said the item will be agendized at a future city council meeting. As of press deadline that date was not yet set.
“It also gives the city the opportunity to build allyship, to work with us. That itself is change,” said Dayna Barrios, talking with the VCReporter on Sunday, June 21, in Ventura. Five BVBMI tribal members sat down to discuss the event and issue. “We’ve seen it for 100 years, we can handle a few more weeks. Allow the Chumash and city to work on that.”
“I would like to see the statue stay, personally,” said Elewaut, speaking with the VCReporter on Friday before the protest. He does support the process of determining if the city will approve removal. “I’m doing it out of a sympathetic awareness of the mission statement of the California native tribes and the suffering they’ve endured. They lost their culture. They’ve lost their people. They’re hurt. And if the statue [removal] helps to bring some healing . . . maybe the time has come.”
“A layered situation”
Elewaut emphasized that the church does not own the statue and said that if the ultimate decision by the Ventura City Council is that the statue be removed, he, on behalf of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles (comprised of Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties), has requested the church be allowed to take possession of it “to place in an appropriate location on church property.”
On Saturday, Elewaut at several times stood between the Serra supporters and protesters who were yelling. He does not agree with the language of some protestors and the use of the word “genocide” to describe the mission era. He says the intention of the missionaries and the Spanish crown was to enfold the native people as “subjects of the crown. Why would he walk all the way to Mexico for a bill of rights [for the indigenous people] if he wanted to kill them?”
Speaking to the crowd, Elewaut acknowledged that there are over 3,000 unmarked burial sites on the mission grounds and he pledged to work with the tribe to rectify that.
He said he is hearing from Catholics with many views on the statue, some supportive of removal and some opposed. “But let’s quote the man himself . . . He stated, ‘There is no reason my name should be mentioned save for the mistakes I have made carrying out my work.’ That is very humble. You can take the statue down, it doesn’t change anything.” Serra will remain a saint and Elewaut emphasized that the history everyone is referring to “is a layered situation that brought about the indigenous people [being] decimated. And it didn’t just happen during the mission era.”
He pointed to the mission era ending in the late 1820s, “when the new Mexican-formed government overthrew the Spaniards.” Mexico then closed the mission and “chased the people associated with the mission, the indigenous people, off and then sold the land grants. When it became a United States territory, there was another layer of hurt and crime and abuse of the indigenous people.”
“A statue may come down. That doesn’t negate the fact that Junipero Serra founded this mission and thus founded this city,” said Elewaut. “The sacramental life of the church will continue to thrive whether there is a statue there or not. And, with the dispensation of God’s grace, will continue.”
Historical, intergenerational trauma
Tribal members of BVBMI are focused on this symbol of the mission era and what it means to them.
“The missionization of Native People was detrimental to our traditional lifeways and led to the near extermination of our people. That is what that statue represents. To this day Native people are still recovering from the intergenerational and historic trauma that missionization has caused,” said Dayna Barrios in a June 14 letter from the BVBMI to LaVere. “By removing this statue it shows that the City of Ventura stands by the local Chumash Native People who are still the stewards of this land. It creates allyship, and it is a step forward in the healing process for us Chumash People and other Indigenous Peoples.”
“I’m lucky enough to have gotten a college education,” said Barrios on Sunday, June 21. “I’m lucky enough to have learned about myself and my culture and my ancestors. When I learned about historical trauma and intergenerational trauma, it explained a lot of what I see in my family and in my tribe. Our ancestor’s trauma is literally embedded in our genetics, in our DNA, and we carry that with us.”
She referenced studies done with Holocaust survivors around intergenerational trauma and how that information was then applied to native people in the United States, “who survived genocide. A lot of what we feel today is that trauma.”
In the June 14 BVBMI letter, several tribal members expressed their views, most calling for the statue’s removal. But one member expressed a different view.
“I say leave it. It’s a reminder of our past that shouldn’t be forgotten,” said Pat Tumamait. “If one chooses to erase a prominent role of our history, it will be forgotten. It reflects the time of suffering, despair and grief.”
Many members of the tribe were raised by parents with strong support of the Catholic faith, and would at sometimes be at odds with the information and history being revealed.
“I was raised in the mission system for nine or 10 years,” said Annette Ayala, a tribal member. “What I know about the church is entirely influenced by the Spanish, and what I knew about my ancestors was not very much.” Stories relating the mission era seemed to depict “that we all held hands and built the missions and the father was so good to them. But the school itself [at the Ventura Mission] is on a burial site. That couldn’t be more blatantly disrespectful. Those are our ancestors.”
“My story is different,” said Eleanor Fishburn (nee Arellanes). In 1999 she was hired by the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History and the Park Service to go through mission records as part of a genealogy project. “I was able to see my ancestors stripped of their names and given a Spanish name. When a wife and husband came in, they were given the names Maria and Mario or Jesus and Juana. I was able to follow these families from marriage to birth to death. I was angry. I couldn’t understand this God that had stripped my family, my ancestors’ way of life . . . culture, language, stories . . . How in the hell could this have happened? Do I want Father Serra up there? No, I don’t.”
She shared how she was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools. “My grandmother, Isabel Arellanes, was a Catholic. She submitted to the oppression and accepted that as her way of life . . . She was very proud that she worked at the mission.” Fishburn describes a disconnect she felt growing up and into adulthood, “I was so conflicted. And I wondered why. My ancestors had lived here for more than 10,000 years.”
The history “was suppressed in us because of our upbringing. We have different stories and different levels,” said Brenda Guzman, tribal member. “We are not able to express it because our parents and grandparents were still submissive to the Catholic Church…they didn’t have that knowledge of our history.”
“The mission folks [on Saturday] told me I needed Jesus. Jesus is in me. I’m Christian,” said KC Rodriguez, tribal member, describing some interactions with the Catholics praying near the statue. “They need to listen . . . Jesus would be among my people, shining the light of truth.” She hopes the statue is removed peacefully but said, “you can’t have peace without the truth.”
- Patrick M. Laurence , “St. Junipero Serra and the Founding of the West” June 24, 2019, Crisis Magazine, A Voice for the faithful Catholic laity, www.crisismagazine.com/2019/st-junipero-serra-and-the-founding-of-the-west
- Madley, Benjamin (2016). “An American Genocide, The United States and the California Catastrophe, 1846–1873.” Yale University Press. pp. 11, 351. ISBN 978-0-300-18136-4.