Claiming Junipero Serra violently oppressed indigenous communities across the state, South San Francisco education officials favor removing his name from the district’s elementary school.
Two members of the South San Francisco Unified School District Board of Trustees are proposing changing the name of Junipero Serra Elementary School in Daly City.
Board Vice President Eddie Flores and Trustee John Baker separately planned during a meeting Thursday, June 25, to suggest finding a new school namesake, claiming the Catholic missionary does not deserve to be memorialized.
“Junipero Serra is not the hero people thought when landmark statues were erected and schools were named,” said Flores, who called Serra’s legacy toxic and claimed he was responsible for the violent marginalization of Native American tribes while shaping California.
Baker shared a similar perspective, with beliefs that Serra’s legacy is at odds with the school system’s values and mission.
“Serra is not the kind of man that a public school should honor,” said Baker.
The comments come in the wake of protesters toppling statues of Serra in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. Critics say the Spanish missionary was responsible for the indoctrination, enslavement and subjugation of Native American tribes.
“Hundreds of thousands of dead indigenous people is a sobering result of Serra’s policies,” said Baker. “The legacy of a white, religious figure coming in and telling a population how they should live and changing their lives and introducing all sorts of diseases has really harmed the native population.”
There are divergent positions on the effort to scrub Serra’s legacy locally, as Barry Thornton, president of Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo, said the private institution will preserve its name.
“We are not considering a name change for Junipero Serra High School,” he said in an email. “Our sole focus at this time is preparing for the opening of school in the fall given the health crisis.”
In South San Francisco, Flores said he has drafted a resolution which will be presented to the school board at the upcoming meeting. Because it is not on the agenda, he expects formal discussions on the issue to begin next month.
The school board earlier this year agreed to change the South San Francisco High School mascot to remove Native American imagery, at the request of students who claimed it was stereotypical.
Flores and Baker said they have not heard the same degree of interest from the Junipero Serra Elementary School community, but acknowledged they have received some email requests to address the issue.
“It’s not been the wave that we saw with the South City mascot image, but they’ve all been in the past few weeks,” said Baker, regarding the emails he’s received. “And I just think there has got to be a better person, place or ideal we can honor as a school district than a colonialist slave master.”
Board President Pat Murray too acknowledged she’s heard the calls to have the discussion over renaming the school, and is willing to consider the proposal.
“I’m absolutely open to looking at researching it and looking at the reasons and pros and cons and voting accordingly,” she said.
For his part, Flores said he also favors having a discussion with the community and does not want to mandate the name change.
“It’s important to hear everyone and every side of the story and every perspective,” he said.
“I don’t want this to be a top-down change. I want this to be something that the community embraces,” he said.
And while Flores said he looks forward to examining the issue, he balanced that against an obligation for officials to show leadership on equity issues.
“We have to be open to change and in this time and age right now it is an opportunity for us to listen but also for us to take action,” he said. “We cannot be dormant anymore.”
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