The Catholic Church’s first Latino pope is on the verge of canonizing Junipero Serra, the 18th century Spanish missionary who brought Christianity to California and built the first of the state’s famed missions.
Figuratively, however, the state Senate’s Latino leadership, including President Pro Tem Kevin de León, is thumbing its collective nose at Pope Francis and Serra by voting to remove the missionary priest’s statue from the U.S. Capitol.
The squabble over ethnicity, sexual orientation, revisionist history and political symbolism is making global headlines and is another emotion-tinged conflict for a Legislature already in turmoil over right-to-die and mandatory vaccination bills.
Each state can have statues of two historic figures in the U.S. Capitol, and California’s are Serra, since 1931, and former President Ronald Reagan, who in 2009 replaced 19th century anti-slavery minister Thomas Starr King.
A resolution to replace Serra with astronaut Sally Ride, who died of cancer in 2013, passed the Senate on April 13 on a 22-10 vote, with Democrats, including de León, voting for it, Republicans opposed and seven senators refusing to vote.
The debate was animated, with the resolution’s author, Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, and other supporters praising Ride as an inspiration to women and to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Californians.
“For the first time ever, LGBT youth will see themselves in Statuary Hall,” said Lara, who is gay.
While Democrats said little about Serra, Republicans said much. “Removing his statue would be an affront to the people of California,” Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Temecula, said, “and it would be an insult to the tens of millions of Catholics who call California home.”
Underlying the debate was mounting criticism of Serra by Indian groups that he personifies the subjugation of native peoples by Spanish explorers and missionaries.
The Indians have opposed canonization for Serra, which is now scheduled for Pope Francis’ visit to Washington in September. But the Vatican is mounting a campaign to defend Serra’s actions as a missionary and celebrate his saintly accomplishments.
The Vatican and the archdiocese of Los Angeles are sponsoring a May 2 event at the North American College in Rome to honor Serra, with Pope Francis celebrating Mass in his honor.
Guzman Carriquiry, a friend of Pope Francis and the No. 2 on the papal commission for South America, has publicly denounced the resolution aimed at removing Serra’s statute from the U.S. Capitol.
“They want to remove him from the Capitol precisely when the first Hispanic pope is planning to canonize him,” Carriquiry told the Associated Press. “Let’s say that it would not be an extraordinary welcome from a country that claims to be an example of multicultural welcomes.”