by Maria Loveday
An immigrant from Finland named John Palo Kangas, who was a Civilian Conservation Corps employee during the Franklin Delano Roosevelt administration’s New Deal era (1933-1943), sculpted the original Serra statue (made of concrete) that was first installed in front of Ventura City Hall in 1936. It was commissioned by the city of Ventura and funded by the Works Progress Administration, which was one of the New Deal programs. Kangas learned of Serra from several Franciscan friars in Ventura and Santa Barbara. These interactions informed Kangas’s view of who Serra was and influenced his sculptural design.
Over the years, the statue deteriorated due to graffiti removal with a sandblaster, sea air elements, water that seeped into the Franciscan cowl and the substandard quality of the concrete mixture. By the early 1980s, city officials assessed the damage and decided to replace it with a bronze version. First, a wood replica was made by local wood carvers followed by a bronze cast that was done by the College of the Desert in Palm Springs. The bronze statue was installed in 1989 while the concrete original was removed to a Ventura Avenue storage facility owned by OST Trucks and Cranes, where it remains today.
On Saturday, June 20, 2020, there was a protest at the bronze Serra statue calling for its removal. This is because it is a violent reminder of the floggings, enslavement and genocide Indigenous peoples have endured as a result of the mission system Serra established beginning in San Diego in 1769. While the Chumash, Ventura mission friars and the mayor support its removal to the mission property, the final decision rests with a vote by Ventura City Council. I think the City of Ventura should offer restitution to the local Chumash people by either removing this statue or by providing funds for Chumash artists to propose a counter monument and interpretive plaques that would reflect narratives regarding Indigenous perspectives on Serra’s role in the colonization of California.
It is also worth mentioning the wood Serra statue that was a model for the bronze cast. It is currently inside Ventura City Hall and was the center of controversy in 1988 when the city council voted to “temporarily” locate it in the atrium next to Chumash replicas of petroglyphs until a better location was found. The city’s art committee and a local Indigenous group were offended at having it placed there because that location was specifically constructed to house the Chumash art, not Serra. The fact that the wood Serra statue remains in the atrium 32 years later is inexcusable. Another opportunity for the city to offer the Chumash restitution would be to relocate this statue by the end of 2020. The city needs to be held accountable for its 1988 vote. The Junipero Serra Parish in Camarillo offered to take the statue two times, once in 1988 and again in 1992, but was refused.
Since Serra’s canonization in 2015, there has been an increase in protests and defacements at Serra statues in California. Within the current context of the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic, it is no surprise that two Serra statues were recently toppled and the bronze Ventura statue is being considered for removal. If a consensus were reached between Indigenous groups, Franciscan friars, Catholics, historians, scholars and educators concerning Serra’s role in the colonization of California, decisions could be more easily made about what to do with the statues.
The time is long overdue for Californians to reevaluate Serra statues and the Eurocentric histories they embody. If Indigenous narratives regarding Serra’s role in the colonization of California continue to be disregarded, possibilities remain limited and protests and vandalisms will continue. Inflicting senseless pain and suffering on present day Indigenous peoples through the refusal of either removing or recontextualizing these statues is an indicator of a lack of empathy, compassion, and understanding of our collective histories. Truly democratic citizens would honor and support the requests of Native peoples for the peaceful removal or recontextualization of these statues. If we are to move forward we need to offer restitution by addressing our offensive antiquated public art.
Maria Loveday is a Ventura resident who graduated from CSUCI in May 2020 with a degree in Art History/Art Studio Emphasis. Her capstone project was a research paper on Junipero Serra and his commemorative statues.