A California story becomes an American story: the prolix, passionate resurrection of the largely forgotten Spanish Franciscan priest who founded the early missions along the California coast.
With the Spanish church’s incursions into the Baja peninsula and what is now California in the mid-18th century, the game was over for the Native Americans who inhabited the region. The Spanish, while ostensibly bringing the civilizing word as they moved in, and more lenient masters than the English, French or Americans, nonetheless wrought the fatal three-pronged scourge of “guns, germs and steel.” Arab-American writer Orfalea (Creative Nonfiction/Pitzer Coll.; The Man Who Guarded the Bomb: Stories, 2010, etc.) believes the work of native Mallorcan priest Junípero Serra (1713–1784) deserves a reappraisal. During the half century of Spanish rule in California, when Serra set out to start a series of missions from San Diego to San Buenaventura, the Indians were more “incorporated rather than eliminated.” According to this sympathetic portrait of the well-meaning though flawed priest, Serra had certainly learned from the past mistakes of Old World missionaries like the Jesuits. Spain was worried about Russian imperial infiltration into the New World, as well as the threat of uprisings among Indians, and Serra and his missionary forces were ordered to move northward. He seemed genuinely to have believed the naked savages he encountered in Baja in 1769 were “before sin,” a people of equal status with the Spanish. Orfalea sifts carefully through the record of pre-contact versus post-contact—e.g., after early initial success in founding several missions, Serra had to contend with violence by the accompanying Spanish soldiers, and he encouraged intermarriage between the Spaniards and Indians as a way to mitigate tension.
A doggedly researched and fulsomely argued biography.