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Spanish Icons Take Hit in US War on Statues

FILE - An interview is conducted next to a statue of Junipero Serra at the Carmel Mission in Carmel-By-The-Sea, Calif., Sept. 23, 2015.

A campaign to topple statues of slave owners and Confederate heroes across the United States has extended in California to monuments honoring icons of the region’s Spanish colonial history, much to the distress of the Spanish Embassy in Washington.

“We deeply regret the destruction of the statue of Saint Junipero Serra in San Francisco today, and would like to offer a reminder of his great efforts in support of indigenous communities,” the embassy tweeted, following reports that the statue had been pulled from its pedestal in Golden Gate Park late last week.

A graffiti reading "racist" is seen on a statue of Fray Junipero Serra in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, June 22, 2020.
A graffiti reading "racist" is seen on a statue of Fray Junipero Serra in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, June 22, 2020.

The statue of Serra, a founder of 18th-century California missions, was one of several monuments vandalized during an overnight rampage in the park June 20.

Similar attacks have occurred across the United States amid a wave of public revulsion over the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African American, while in custody of white police officers in Minneapolis. But the San Francisco protesters appear to have been indiscriminate in their targets.

Cervantes, Grant

Figures defaced or knocked from their pedestals included those of the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes as well as American heroes Francis Scott Key, author of the U.S. national anthem, and General Ulysses S. Grant, who contributed to the end of slavery in the United States by defeating the South in the 1861-65 Civil War.

It was all too much for the Spanish Embassy, which declared that “defending the Spanish legacy in the U.S. is a priority” and called for “the memory of our rich shared history [to] be protected.”

The embassy’s tweets generated more than 15,000 reactions — remarkable given that the response to its Twitter postings is often logged in double digits — with most of the comments either defending or criticizing Serra.

The Franciscan friar, who was canonized as a saint by Pope Francis in 2015, made it his life's mission to Christianize Indigenous populations in the Americas during the 1700s. Statues of the priest can be found along the Pacific Coast in California and Mexico.

“As an American who was raised in California during an era when schools taught the complexities of history, let me apologize for the wanton destruction of these statues,” said one message posted to the embassy’s Twitter feed.

But another respondent wrote, “Junipero Serra was responsible for a system of enslavement that decimated California native communities, his recent canonization was a shameful cover up of genocide, and the day we take down every public statue of him can't come soon enough.”

A self-identified historian pointed out that the friar’s legacy has been controversial for some time, noting that Indigenous groups in California waged a campaign in 2018 that led Stanford University to rename its postal address to delete the priest’s name.

While the anger over Serra has historical roots, the damage to the bust of Cervantes — Spain’s most famous literary figure and author of the novel Don Quixote — was more puzzling.

“Don Quixote and Sancho Panza — and for what?” one resident asked a reporter from a local television station. In the book, Sancho Panza is Don Quixote’s sidekick.

Spain's response

In response, the Spanish Embassy is vowing to intensify “educational efforts in order for the reality of our shared history to be better known and understood,” while “always ensuring that we do not interfere with the domestic debates that are currently taking place" in the United States.

The embassy has already posted a slide show on its official Twitter page featuring some of Washington's most prominent tributes to Spanish history in the Americas.

The virtual tour is led by Ambassador Santiago Cabanas, who appears in one slide next to a statue of Bernardo de Galvez, a Spanish commander who aided the American Revolution and later was granted honorary citizenship in the United States.

Also featured is another statue of Serra, this one ensconced in the Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol, the building where Congress meets.