California Dreams or Colonial Nightmares? St. Serra, the Missions, and the Borderlands of Memory

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Jacqueline M. Hidalgo


What if we approach the canonization of Junípero Serra through a prism of “borderlands memory”? What if we situate “memory” as a terrain of conflict and transformation that calls all of us to bear witness to the complexities of how the gospel has entered into and been received in the U.S. Southwest, the borderlands that has been ruled by three modern nations: Spain, Mexico, and the U.S.A.? Following the cue of Pope Francis in challenging colonial violence and legacies of exploitation, I propose that we approach Serra’s veneration through the lens of Chicana feminist thought, and we cast Serra as a frontera/borderlands saint whose veneration bears witness to struggles over how to remember California’s missions. I am not arguing that Serra is or was a hero of the borderlands struggle; I argue rather that the struggles over mission memory that culminated in Serra’s canonization are borderlands struggles. Struggles over California mission memory expose the entwining of religion, race, gender, and colonialism that have critically formed Catholicism in this hemisphere. We only do justice to that memory if we do not remember Serra alone, but in remembering him, we remember the complex histories of the California missions, the Native peoples who lived there, and the struggles over mission memory that have ensued in the last two centuries. Besides drawing on secondary scholarship in Chicanx/Latinx theologies and cultural studies, this work also draws on archival research about the missions and their reception in California from the late eighteenth to the early twentieth centuries. This essay contributes to history of the California missions, to their reception history, as well as to a methodological praxis that weighs both primary historical sources and contemporary interpretive contexts.

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