Guest Columnist California governor's signing AB 338 into law does more harm than good

A statue of St. Junipero Serra outside the California capitol in Sacramento, which was destroyed by a mob July 4, 2020. A statue of St. Junipero Serra outside the California capitol in Sacramento, which was destroyed by a mob July 4, 2020./ Nathan Hughes Hamilton via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

On September 24, 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 338. It easily passed both houses of the state legislature, composed of 90 Democrats, 28 Republicans, and 1 independent (Ayes 94; Noes 4; Abstentions 20). Those with the bully pulpit reigned supreme.

One would think that a man who attended Santa Clara University, a Catholic school of higher education in the Jesuit tradition and also the location of the eighth Catholic mission in California (founded January 12, 1777, by the Franciscan order), would be wise enough to say no to signing the bill due to its divisiveness and as a lawyer, lack of sufficient evidence and an opposing viewpoint.

Section 1(f) of AB 338 reads, “Enslavement of both adults and children, mutilation, genocide, and assault on women were all part of the mission period initiated and overseen by Father Serra.” The author of the bill, Assemblymember James C. Ramos (D-Highland), states only one source on the subject to support this claim, Elias Castillo’s A Cross of Thorns: The Enslavement of California’s Indians by the Spanish Missions. Just from the title, one knows what one is going to get. Having written four books myself about Catholic history in early California, the few experts on California mission history that have equated life for California mission Indians to life for slaves in the Antebellum South do so with flimsy evidence and arguments that do no justice to Africans and their descendants who were actually enslaved. Serra’s own words sure do not make him out to be the monster some want others to think he was. On February 26, 1777, Fr. Junípero Serra wrote to Fr. Francisco Pangua, his guardian in Mexico City, describing the native peoples: “They are in places one cannot visit without walking a long distance and sometimes going on hands and feet, but I put my trust in the Lord, who created them.” He loved them, sacrificed immensely for them, and clearly recognized their human dignity.

We seem to have come full circle. Governor Hiram W. Johnson on November 24, 1913, the bicentennial of the birth of Junípero Serra, proclaimed a legal holiday saying: “To the memory of Junípero Serra California owes an everlasting tribute. He brought civilization to our land, and in deed and character he deserves a foremost place in the history of our State.” Pope Francis called Serra the “Evangelizer of the West”, Governor Jerry Brown (D-CA) “ . . . one of the innovators and pioneers . . .” in California history, and Bishop Robert McElroy of the Diocese of San Diego a “foundational figure”. Governor Newsom thinks he knows best, though. It seems he forgot who is really to blame for atrocities against California Indians. In 2019, he apologized for the wrongs committed by the state of California, perpetrators of genocide against California Indians.

Scrapping the statue of Fr. Junipero Serra on Capitol grounds, violently removed by a mob last year, and replacing it with a statue of a California Indian from the Sacramento area does not "advance a California for All built on [the government of California's] values of inclusion and equity,” as Governor Newsom believes it will. It just comes off as spiteful. There is room for both statues! All Governor Newsom did through his action was possibly isolate the 30% of Californians who identify as Catholic and 38% as Hispanics and Latinos. He surely makes those researchers who devote their lives to California mission history feel non-essential. Worse yet, he has given license to those who want to continue tearing down statues of Serra and vandalize Catholic churches, knowing that prosecution will not happen with him and his friends holding political power in the state of California.

Saint Junípero Serra, the first Hispanic saint of the United States, and Pablo Tac, California Mission Indian, seminarian, and scholar, pray for us! God knows we need all the help we can get.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.