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How Junipero Serra Helped Shape California

While Pope Francis is in Washington this week, he is scheduled to canonize Junipero Serra — an 18th century Spanish missionary and the founder of California's storied network of missions.

The canonization of Serra prompts a robust debate: Was the Franciscan friar, as the pontiff proclaims, a saint? Or was he, as many Native Americans argue, a villainous tool of Spanish conquest and genocide?

What's not being talked about is how Serra's missions became the blueprint for modern California.


San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, San Francisco and many points in between were founded first as missions.

Serra and his followers selected their mission sites based on their proximity to existing Native American communities, says Robert Senkewicz, co-author of Junipero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary. "So missions are placed in areas where there are already extensive Native American travel networks and where there are rivers and waters."

In 1821 Mexico gained independence from Spain. But the mission system — always a controversial enterprise even under Spanish rule — was secularized by the distant Mexican government.

Fast forward through California's dizzying political development: Mexico loses the territory to the United States in 1848; the gold rush occurs around the same time; California is admitted to the Union in 1850. By the end of the Civil War, the missions were all but abandoned relics of a past that few gold-hungry Americans had time for.

But the decrepit and decaying missions would prove to play another pivotal role in California's explosive growth.

Spanish Revival

By the 1880s, American real estate developers and railroad barons were looking for ways to attract tourists and new residents to the Golden State, especially Southern California. Spurred on by a cultural movement known as the Spanish Revival, they attached themselves to, and promoted the romantic idea of, an idyllic and comfortable California where people could enjoy the Spanish, or Mediterranean, life style. Rail lines were advertised with promises of taking travelers along "the Path of the Padres."

One of the main boosters of this mythology, built on nostalgia for an imagined Spanish past, was Los Angeles Times city editor Charles Fletcher Lummis. As president of the Landmarks Club of Southern California, Lummis pushed for the preservation of the crumbling missions, which he argued were "worth more than our money...than our oil, our oranges, or even our climate."

And so, Senkewicz says, "these people create a fantasy past of the missions. You get the heroic evangelizing missionaries, and happy contented Indians, and everybody was living together in this bucolic Arcadia."

The Mission Myth

Ironically, the promotion of the Mission Myth coincided with the declining Hispanic economic and political power in California, writes historian David Weber in The Spanish Frontier in North America."Properly laundered and packaged, California's picturesque Spanish heritage attracted tourists and gave its infant cities a patina of permanence and tradition."

The advent of the automobile in the early 1900s gave new life to the Mission Myth. New car clubs created caravans along the supposed "El Camino Real," or King's Highway, that linked the missions.

But there was never only one road that linked the missions, according to historian James Sandos, author of Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions."It's the desire to be associated with the missions that's so important," he says. "Myth is ever more comfortable than reality."

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Richard Gonzales is NPR's National Desk Correspondent based in San Francisco. Along with covering the daily news of region, Gonzales' reporting has included medical marijuana, gay marriage, drive-by shootings, Jerry Brown, Willie Brown, the U.S. Ninth Circuit, the California State Supreme Court and any other legal, political, or social development occurring in Northern California relevant to the rest of the country.