Junipero Serra statue toppled in downtown L.A.

Alex Wigglesworth, Andrew J. Campa
Activists topple and deface with red paint the statue of Father Junipero Serra (1713 - 1784) at Father Serra Park in El Pueblo de Los Ángeles in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday.  (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Activists toppled a statue of Junipero Serra from its post at Placita Olvera in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday. It was the latest carved or sculpted figure of the 18th century Roman Catholic priest to be knocked down or moved across California in recent days.

Video footage tweeted by L.A. Taco showed a group of people tugging on a rope tied to the statue, bringing it to the ground. The tweet identified the group as acting in solidarity with a Black Lives Matter protest that was taking place. Other photos showed the head and hands of the fallen statue splattered with red paint.

The tear-down came a day after San Francisco protesters reportedly overturned statues of Serra, along with Francis Scott Key and President Ulysses S. Grant, in Golden Gate Park. Earlier this week, Ventura officials announced they were removing a statue of Serra from in front of Ventura City Hall and would have it “moved to a more appropriate non-public location.”

Serra, born on the Spanish island of Mallorca in 1713, is a controversial figure in California, particularly among indigenous tribes.

The Franciscan priest founded nine of 21 missions throughout the state and is perhaps the person most responsible for spreading Roman Catholicism into the Western United States, which then was Spanish territory.

Serra’s mission system was responsible for the destruction of several tribes, often through the introduction of foreign diseases. Tribes that did survive, such as the Chumash, still suffered greatly and were often forced into building the missions.

The mission system not only pressured indigenous peoples into becoming Catholic, but pressured them to assimilate and lose their cultural ways.

Activists begin to topple the statue of Father Junipero Serra at Father Serra Park in El Pueblo de Los Ángeles in downtown Los Angeles.  (Gary Coronado/Los Angeles Times)

Despite this history, Los Angeles Archbishop José Gómez referred to Serra as one of his “spiritual heroes.” Pope Francis canonized him a saint in 2015.

Still, the legacies of the priest and other historical figures are being freshly reevaluated in the midst of a cultural reckoning that has led many to criticize such monuments as tributes to colonialism and white supremacy.

In the last few days, a likeness of explorer Christopher Columbus was also taken down in San Francisco, while a statue of California Gold Rush colonizer John Sutter was defaced and then removed in Sacramento.