Apologize for This

Mission founder Junipero Serra brought death and destruction to Californias natives. Now hes one step away from sainthood

Lucas Maria Supi was a fugitive. In 1781, at the age of 28, he was baptized. A year later, he married Valerie Tajam. They had a son, who was given the name Fidel and whose birth is recorded for the year 1785. By that time, Fidel's father had become a fugitive, as recorded in the ponderous volume. It is not recorded whether father ever saw son again.

Of that group of Natives the Spanish called Juaneño and who inhabited much of what is now southern Orange County, about 4,000 descendants remain; 500 of those live in San Juan Capistrano. The Juaneño are currently seeking federal recognition, which would qualify them to receive grants that could be used for health services and cultural programs. The chief and chairman is David Belardes, a man of heavy, composed features. We talked in the tribal office, which is in his home on a tree-lined street in San Juan Capistrano. As he spoke, his hands traced slow patterns in the air before him.

"For his time," Belardes said, "Father Serra thought he was doing his best according to his beliefs. He thought he was doing his best for us. But it was not good. There were killings. Villages were burned. Families were split apart. It was like a plantation system, and the Native Americans were like serfs."

He leaned forward, nodding, as if to make sure I understood. "This was not paradise when the Spanish came. The average life span was 45. But the people weren't starving either. Then the Spanish came, and along came their sheep and their cattle. And then everything changed. It was a drastic, incredible change, and it destroyed our culture." Again he nodded. "But I suppose there were no other people at that time who would have treated us any different.

"You know what?" he said after a moment. "People forget the coyote. But our ancestors sat and watched the coyote. Coyote still survives. And coyote survives on nothing, but he survives."

How do you measure a man? How do you assess his worth and character? How do you judge his legacy?

I do not know because this is not a pursuit for which I am trained. Nor do I know if these are even questions that should be asked in the first place.

I am a journalist. All I do is collect information. I go to libraries and search out old volumes and read through their pages, making notes. I dig through archives. I make phone calls. I conduct interviews. I collect facts, data. But this is not the substance of a man who once existed; it is only a ghost . . . information.

How do you judge a legacy?

I would not know where to start.

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