Sunday, May 03, 2015

The Vatican's tin ear

It looks to me as if the Catholic Church has decided to make a Sarah Palin play. What do I mean by that? A "Sarah Palin play" is a symbolic act to advance a cause based on so little comprehension of the target audience that it backfires on the mover. In 2008 John McCain had a vague sense that he wasn't getting the level of white women's support that the GOP needed to win the presidency. So he pulled the sassy, brainless half-term governor of Alaska out of obscurity and loosed her on the nation, thinking he'd fixed his gender gap. We've seen how that went.

The upcoming sanctification of Franciscan Padre Junipero Serra seems a Sarah Palin play. Apparently the people who advise the Vatican on such things think they can pass off the European Spaniard who founded the California missions as the forerunner of contemporary Latinos and Spanish-speaking immigrants who may (or may not) feel oppressed within Anglo U.S. culture. This seems analogous to the notion in the dumber precincts of the GOP that all they have to do to overcome the distrust they've sown among Latinos through years of xenophobic calls to deport tia and abuela is put up a Cuban face for a candidate.

Father Serra was a man of his time, building the infrastructure to convert a heathen land and make the natives into good, obedient servants of the Spanish monarchy and its armies. The substantial native population of Californian, the most dense in North America before European contact, consisted of ignorant children in Serra's understanding of the world. Once they accepted his God, they were to be locked away from their own culture and from their families and put to work. If they resisted (and they did), they could be whipped, beaten or killed.

Serra may not have been intentionally cruel, but the Spanish invaders and the diseases they brought with them killed of 5 out of 6 of the indigenous people of California within 100 years. More than 5,700 Indian bodies from that period are buried under church buildings at Mission Dolores in San Francisco; the overall death toll of Spanish conquest was likely over 200,000. The coming of the Spanish to California achieved what we now call genocide. Not surprisingly, the descendants of the survivors aren't applauding the Franciscan's canonization.
But the Vatican tin ear demonstrated by the Serra canonization goes far beyond the understandable protestations of native survivors of the European colonial genocide. Professor Guzman Carriquiry, Secretary in charge of the Vice-Presidency of the Pontifical Commission for Latin America, a Uruguayan, insists that Padre Serra is an inspiring model for U.S. Latino Catholics today.

... the canonization of Serra should help more people recognize the contributions Hispanics have made and continue to make. ...

"And it will allow many millions of Hispanics who live in the United States to free themselves of a mentality that says they are barely tolerated and frequently discriminated against foreigners on the margins of society," he said. Instead they should see themselves "in continuation with a line of Hispanics who for centuries have inhabited large areas of what is now the southwestern, central and eastern United States. They can rightly affirm, 'We are Americans,' without having to abandon their best cultural and religious traditions."

This is pretty tangled. While some migrants from south of the border may identify with the Euro-Spanish part of their ancestry, others very often think of themselves as victims of the Spanish empire that the founders of their countries threw off in the early 19th century. For a significant number of newcomers from southern Mexico and Central America even today, Spanish is a second language to some indigenous tongue.

Most U.S. Latinos are nominally Catholic -- but are they likely to identify with a Spanish cleric who forcibly converted Indians and built a colonial economy? Or is Serra just another European imposition erasing their history?

All photos from a polite gathering of protest outside Mission Dolores on Saturday, May 2.


Hattie said...

My grandmother's forebears were soldiers who came to California with Father Serra. They were mestizos but always identified themselves as "pure" Spanish. My sister has a lot of information, but I have not studied much about the history of the missions. A pair of my ancestors were the first "white people" to be married in the Mission Dolores. As to the canonization of Father Serra: my mother left the church and I was not raised in it. She abhorred everything Catholicism stood for. I don't care what the Catholics do.

janinsanfran said...

Hattie -- I sure do hope you write that autobiography/history you sometimes talk about.

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