Critics have lambasted Serra as a symbol of European colonialism and said the missions engaged in the forced labor of Native Americans, sometimes claiming Serra himself was abusive.
But Serra’s defenders say the priest actually was an advocate for native people and a champion of human rights.
While Ortega was praying at the stump July 5, a reporter from the Sacramento Bee approached Ortega and asked to interview her about why she was there. The reporter later posted the video, which shows Ortega passionately speaking in defense of Serra, online.
“Pope Francis canonized him in 2015. He’s not going to canonize a rapist. There were rapists, yes, but it was not St. Serra,” Ortega said in the Sacramento Bee video.
Serra specifically advocated for the rights of Native peoples, at one point drafting a 33 point "bill of rights" for the Native Americans living in the mission settlements and walking all the way from California to Mexico City to present it to the viceroy.
Serra often found himself at odds with Spanish authorities over treatment of native people, and point to the outpouring of grief from native communities at his death.
Ortega lamented the fact that the statue was removed with due process, or a rational discussion. She said the groundskeepers have told her that the statue has been recovered, but she does not know if there are plans to put it back up again.
"The city has to decide: are we going to pretend like this isn't happening? Or are we going to do better than this?" she said, suggesting that the city could hold a community forum to talk about the issue.
"At least people are now learning [Serra's] story, even if it's a little late for this statue," she laughed.
On July 6, Ortega said she decided to go and scrub graffiti from the plinth, which she and her children did for two hours straight. She said many passers-by, including some state employees, thanked them for what they were doing.
Today, she said, the plinth looks nearly back to normal thanks to the cleaning efforts. But she worries that, because of the apparent inaction of the city government, it may be vandalized again.
A statue of Serra was torn down by demonstrators in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park on June 19, and one was torn down in Los Angeles on the same day. Other California cities have moved Serra statues to avoid their toppling, or plan to do so.
Ortega said she plans to pray at the statue site for a few minutes each day for as long as she can.
(Story continues below)
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"Anybody can walk around the capitol grounds and pray the rosary and pray for peace. And anybody can go and pray at the Serra statue, or pray the stations of the cross like I did...you can do that without a permit and without drawing...counter protestors."
In a July 5 statement, Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento said that while “the group’s actions may have been meant to draw attention to the sorrowful, angry memories over California’s past,” their “act of vandalism does little to build the future.”
“All monuments are imperfect as are our efforts to live up to America’s founding ideals. The primary task is to build up our community, not tear it down,” the bishop added.