Catholic “Saint” Junipero Serra Changed the DNA of California Mission Native Americans, but not for the better.


Artwork by Sharon Irla

The Catholic Church views Junipero Serra as a hero who helped colonize California in the 18th century by converting Native Americans from California to Catholicism.

But, last week, the Washington Post reported that a statue of the Spaniard Catholic priest was toppled over at a mission in Carmel-by-the-sea, a city along the coast of California where he is buried.  Along with the toppled statue, a message painted on nearby stones read: “Saint of Genocide”.



The media reported that graves of other Spaniards were also vandalized and Native American graves were mostly spared…but that’s because most of the indigenous graves reside under the parking lot of the mission. This act of defiance came in as a direct response to Pope Francis’ decision to canonize Serra into sainthood on September 23.

So why was the Pope’s decision so violently received in Carmel?  And why do some Californians disapprove of the sainthood of this Spanish-born priest?

Well, for starters, and to put it in contemporary context, Serra bares no difference from the current ISIS religious-zealot ideology of “convert or die”.  Serra would have been charged with crimes against humanity if he were alive today.

For any doubters and down-players — and there are many — Serra used personal journals to document all of his “experiments” in brutality in the style of a clinical study (maybe the Nazi’s took a cue from him, too?).

Serra wrote about Native American babies and mothers being sexually and physically tortured then thrown over cliffs, “rebellious” men were tied inside of rotting animal skins and left to suffocate, people’s hands and fingers cut off, they were tortured and beaten or whipped until they bled to death, brutally punished if they didn’t pray and shackled in chains for 30 days for any misstep, all under Serra’s direct orders.  Once “baptized” converts were never allowed to leave the mission (slave plantation) again, ever.

Just like the slavery dynamic in the southern states of the U.S., runaway Native Americans, would be hunted down and brought back to the missions, violently punished and put to work again.  Yet, a church official praised the Carmel mission as “a sacred space to both Christian people and Native Americans.”

An interesting turn

The following paragraph was added three years after the publication of this story when I found out my official ancestry through my cousin Yolanda’s genealogy research. Although I was aware of some of this information from oral history, I didn’t have proof until now.

I am a direct descendent of the Cota family who established most of Alta California. The Cotas were once a prominent family of crypto-Jews from Toledo, Spain, who escaped anti-Semitism in the 1500s by leaving to the Americas as Conquistadors, who, while escaping persecution, would then participate in the enslavement and genocide of Native Americans. The three sons of Andres and Angela Cota—Roque, Pablo-Antonio and Antonio—were born in El Fuerte, Sinaloa, Mexico, and were soldiers of New Spain. The brothers not only established the cities of Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and Monterey, but my 8th great-uncle, Pablo Antonio, personally escorted Serra in 1769 as part of the Portola Expedition to the Bay of Monterey where they established the city, port and a exact mission I write about in this article. Some of the Cota family members were known to be cruel to the Native Americans, who were forced to “work” at the missions that they oversaw.  

I am directly descended from Pablo’s younger brother, Antonio Cota, born in 1732. Antonio married a Native American woman—my 8th great-grandmother, Chigila (no last name), who was born in 1762.  She assumed her Christian name, Maria Bernarda, when she married Antonio at the San Juan Capistrano Mission on August 30, 1778.  Chigili, as she was known, was from the Southern California Acjachemen (pronounced Ah-ha-me-shen) Nation. She was born on Ranchera Puitiude (also Acaptivit), a Southern California area that would later become Orange County. Her parents, Zóget and Zódu, were “mission indians”.

In 1781, Antonio and Maria Bernarda entered history by becoming part of the group known as The Pobladores, the original founders of the city of Los Angeles, known in 1781 as El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles (town of our lady the Queen of Angels of the River Porciúncula)

This commemorative plaque at El Pueblo/Olvera Street, Los Angeles, lists the names of the Mexican soldiers who founded Los Angeles. My 8th grandfather, Antonio Cota, is listed, along with his brother Roque Cota.

Although the Cota family became one of the most wealthy families in California, increasing their wealth and political clout by intermarrying with other prominent land-owing families such as the Sepulvedas, Picos, Verdugos, Dominguez, Nietos, Yorbas, Carsons, and Temples, etc., the Mexican-American war carved up many of the old California families, who once owned and ran every corner and inch of region.

Generations later, my great-great grandmother and great-great grandfather ended up on the Pala reservation in the San Diego County area, although I’m not sure why they didn’t go live with their California extended families. Having been told of their traumatizing experience at Pala, I have a deep, tangible understanding of the California Native American experience from oral family history. And, although, I have many ethnic backgrounds in my DNA, my Native American ancestry is what I feel most connected to because I grew up with a strong sense of this identity, so I take personal offense to the Pope disrespecting an entire population in favor of a man who would be considered a sociopath today. I cannot stand idly by as the leader of The Great California Genocide is made into a “saint, because although I am connected to the Mexican-Spanish side of this history, the blood of Mother Chigili runs through my veins and that forever connects me to the California Native Americans.



In her genetics study, Dr. Rachel Yehuda, a professor of psychiatry and neuroscience, and the director of the Traumatic Stress Studies Division at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, found that trauma exposure changes the way genes express themselves. She says that Holocaust survivors’ trauma has been genetically transmitted to their children and grandchildren, and that Holocaust survivors have different stress hormone profiles than their peers, predisposing them to an array of anxiety and stress disorders, which endure in individuals across generations.

From a psychological perspective, psychiatrist Donna Schindler told CNN she has worked with American Indians most of her 31-year practice. She described the record of atrocity and abuse, retold by Indian families today, as “historical trauma” or “intergenerational trauma.”

“It is the most painful things imaginable to hear these stories,” said Schindler, who also works with Lopez’ tribe. “The descendants have been suffering the soul wound for 200 years.”



The Catholic Church spun Serra into a “Latino” to subvert the protest against his sainthood.

What’s worse, when it comes to the Pope, our most respected media outlets forget basic Journalism 101, a requirement to cite for accuracy, especially when it comes to citing the names of ethnic groups.

For the Serra sainthood, respected journalists and editors have blindly cut-and-paste the Church’s PR memo and fed it to the public as “truth”.  The New York Times reported that Serra holds a particular appeal in California because he’s “America’s first Latino saint.”

NY TIMES SERRAAsk any Spaniard on the street if they are Latino.  They will tell you no.  If Spaniards know Serra is not Latino, why doesn’t the New York Times know this?



The day Serra was canonized, I was bewildered to hear Catholic Native Americans, Mexican-Americans and Mexicans celebrate this man, trying in vain to convince themselves that his sainthood was justified despite his violent treatment of their own Amerindian ancestors by answering TV reporters’ questions with the same robotic, Stepford-wife-like response, “Well, everybody makes mistakes.” 

A large portion of the people in my ethnic group — those with genetic ties to the original peoples of the Americas — all suffer from a psychological trait created by Stockholm Syndrome, as well as the need for social acceptance due to lack of indigenous identity and internalized racism that stems from centuries of overt Discrimination Distress, so these people cannot be fully blamed for their misplaced support of Serra. Their hearts and genes carry centuries of hurt.


As any kid from a discriminated minority ethnic group — because I’m Mexican-American, too — the reality of racism is part of your life experience and it colors your worldview whether you want it to or not.  As I grew up, though, I seemed to suffer from weird stresses that weren’t rooted in anything bad that happened to me since my childhood was pretty idyllic, filled with love and support from a close-knit, big, extended family.

What I do know from an oral history in my family is that my great-great grandparents on my father’s side grew up on the California Pala Indian reservation.  We know that, in the late 1800s, my great-great grandmother was boarded away from her family for years at the Sherman Indian High School in Riverside, California, where its goal was to expel Indian culture among students…and they were severely punished if they were found practicing Indian ways. Even though they weren’t going to be flogged, thrown over a cliff or wrapped in an animal carcass, just like the former slave plantation administered by “Saint” Serra, they were barred from leaving the school grounds under any circumstance.

Now, it may seem odd to read but my great-great grandfather was 5’10” with pool blue eyes and a ruddy complexion, and my great-great grandmother was petite with brown hair and brown eyes.  They and their offspring looked more European than Native American, and we that phenotype came from the Cotas. They were not full-blooded Native Americans, yet they ended up on a reservation because they were made orphans when their parents died. After a traumatizing childhoods in the Indian Indoctrination Schools and orphanages, the couple moved off the reservation to the SoCal city of Montebello with their children. My great aunt, Del, told me she and her sisters had it a little easier at school with their white teachers because they looked white, but she said they still suffered from overall discrimination because they identified as Native American. I could tell she had psychological trauma stemming from this racial discrimination. Today, people with Amerindian roots would rather deny it and identify with the captor than deal with the trauma their ancestors endured.

Although I never met my great-great grandmother, I was constantly told stories and anecdotes about her, so she had a heavy influence on my family dynamic because I was raised with her conservative values and sensibilities that were passed down to her daughters, who were a big part of my childhood.

What was also very apparent, though, was that her personality “quirks” (i.e. anxieties and stresses) were passed on to generations after her, as well.


Growing up, these quirks seemed to reside only in the matriarchs of the family, and I thought they had little effect on me.  What did have an affect on my childhood, though, was my inability to understand Christian teachings.

Little did the church know, but their illogical teachings are what caused me to doubt their legitimacy as purveyors of life’s meaning.  At 12, I began asking questions and demanding answers. I remember my religion teachers trying to pacify me with “that’s just the way it is” and “It doesn’t have make sense to you; it’s God’s will.” Eventually, my private religious school called my home to say I would not be welcomed back after summer session, not because of grades, not because I was misbehaving, but because I “no longer fit in”.

I Think, Therefore, I Am

Thank the stars above that Serra wasn’t around when I was growing up; I’d hate to think of my fate in his hands.


The next summer after being kicked out of religious private school, I came across a tattered paperback book, the autobiography of Tina Turner. The first page opened with a Buddhist proverb, “The lotus is a flower that blooms in the mud, the thicker and deeper the mud, the more beautiful the lotus becomes.”

The metaphor spoke to my ever-questioning kid-self.  No mud, no lotus.  I liked that.  And it made sense.  The more shit you have to go through in life, the more beautiful you emerge.  I took the poem to mean, the more experiences you have — good or bad — the more you evolve, the more dynamic you become, the more prisms will shoot out from your essence.  I thought I was going through a lot of shit in my life. Getting pulled out of religious class by my collar and asked not to come back was pretty shitty for a kid. They didn’t even let me finish the day with my classmates. They sat me in the administration office until I was picked up at the end of the school day.  I got into big trouble when I got home that day and had to enroll in public school. I felt like a loser as my grandmother looked at me in disappointment upon hearing the news.

From then on, I began to read more about Buddhism and I loved its simple, logical philosophy.  Buddhism is not a religion; it’s a philosophy.  It is not about worship or blind faith in a supernatural being or having to be “saved’ by anyone. In Buddhism, you must save yourself by evolving.

And perhaps Buddhism was naturally attractive because Native Americans/Mexicans are descended from a group of East Asians who crossed the Bering Sea land bridge 16,500 years ago.


Buddhism requires personal responsibility.  It’s not about “God’s will” or “God’s plan for you”.  It says there is no one who is going to do it for you; there is no place you can hide from life.  You have to face life squarely in the eye with discipline, effort, and good intentions, and we must to do it alone to truly evolve.


I believe that “God”and “Goddess” is found in every living thing from the universe and the stars that fill it, to the mountains and trees on them, to the animals and the fish, to you and me.  I believe when people pass away, their spirit and consciousness lives on. 

I believe we are all connected — every human being on this planet.  I believe we have spirit guides and guardian angels to help us on our journey, if we want them to.  How do I know this for sure?  I don’t.  And, unlike dogmatic organized religion, I don’t expect others to believe the things that I believe, either.

My short time in organized religion taught me a lot because it made me realize that I don’t need to have anyone instruct me on how to be a good person or how to live a good life.  I am a good person and I am living a good life.  I wasn’t born a sinner!  I was born good, and I am still good.  I make choices based on what gives me joy and what fulfills me and how can I help others with my presence in their lives.  The church tries to create a rigid mono-identity for its followers and it loves to pit people against each other. 

I create my own identity and it is multi-faceted and unique.


Fox Studios

Luke Skywalker battles Darth Vader on the 20th Century Fox Studio Lot

I had formed a strong self-identity at a young age, yet, still, something was amiss.  When I got older, though, I came to the conclusion that my own misplaced anxieties and stresses were inherited genetically because I saw them on the side of my family who had Native American ancestry.  But I had no proof of my theory other than observation.

After I graduated from UC Berkeley, I worked in the dog-eat-dog world of politics before realizing I’m not a politician.  I’m a political activist, and I learned that politicians and activists are not cut from the same cloth; they are polar opposites. 

So I found a new job working in much more honest field: the entertainment industry. (Yes, more honest! That’s how bad politics is!). Working at a movie studio, I formed close, natural familial-like friendships with many Jewish people who had mothers, grandmothers and other family members who survived the Holocaust, possibly because I am descended from Sephardic Jews,  from centuries past. One friend’s grandmother was the only survivor, having lost all of her immediate family members in concentration camps.

I was surprised to find out how similar our childhood family-life dynamics had been because of the personality make-up of our respective mothers, grandmothers, aunts and other maternal figures.  At a eulogy for my friend’s mom, a Holocaust survivor, family members were describing her “funny” and “weird” anxieties as nuances and idiosyncrasies to her personality, and I thought to myself, “Are they talking about my great-grandmother?”

But, I also noticed that my Jewish friends and me, the descendents of survivors of mass trauma—the Native American Genocide and the Holocaust—had similar personalities and vibrations.

It became overwhelmingly obvious to me at the time that not only did every group who had gone through a mass atrocity have higher stress and anxiety levels, but their offspring inherited the vulnerability for these sensitivities, as well.  Then the recent Rachel Yehuda study confirmed my personal theory.


I may have inherited traumatic DNA mutations, but through the practice of meditation coupled with my own internal logical make-up, I have given my brain an upgrade, so to speak.  With regular meditation, in addition to yoga, acupuncture and hyperbaric oxygen chamber therapy, I rewired my brain to create new and stronger neural pathways and to clear out the junk.  Numerous neurological studies have proven how meditation physically changes our DNA, decreasing stress and re-wiring our mental circuitry by turning certain genes on (good ones) and off (bad ones).

With acupuncture, I address my body’s meridian system (our body’s energy bloodstream) to bring balance and vitality, and to remove energy imbalances, blockages and stagnation.

Chakras so alignedFrom the time I can remember I suffered from unwarranted headaches that would come on at the slightest sense of stress.  Tylenol was my constant companion. By the time I was 20, the headaches developed in debilitating migraines that sometimes lasted for days. Prescription medication could not always relieve them and many nights, at my wits end in pain, I found myself in the ER getting an intravenous respite.

Today, thanks to acupuncture and meditation, it’s a rare day that I get a migraine.


In fact, I’m getting mystical confirmation that meditation is the right track for me.  It was one of those mornings when I needed a jolt of espresso, but as I passed a Starbucks, I decided to keep going because I hated that particular Starbucks…but suddenly, I made an abrupt U-turn and went to this hated location anyway.


As I was waiting for my latte, I realized I was called into that Starbucks by a wise and powerful soul, who verified I was on the right path. A beautiful bright, green female praying mantis greeted me at the counter, perched on the wood bar. 

IMG_0773I’m by no means a fan of insects, usually screaming bloody murder at the sight of them, but there was something mystical about this creature.  She turned her heart-shaped head to the side, then upward, and looked straight into my eyes for a long time. There was actual concentration on her part, and I felt the power of her penetrating stare, as she appeared to be reading me.  Her stare was so long and intense it made me feel a little uncomfortable, not because I thought she was going to bite me, but because I could see she was examining me.

Praying Mantis 1 cropWhen I looked up the spiritual symbolism of a praying mantis, low and behold, when a praying mantis appears to you, it symbolizes meditation, calming the mind and balance in life. The mantis spends more time in stillness than it does in movement when hunting for food. It is said the mantis visualizes and telepathically attracts its prey. The lesson of the praying mantis for humans is to use our minds to visualize and attract what we want and need in life through contemplative stillness and meditation. 


And maybe that’s it: In life there’s always transformation. Transformation has taken place and I feel the difference between my great-great grandmother (and all my family members in between) and myself.  We share the same DNA, but I have learned how to change my cellular structure and my reality. I am a critical thinker, a feminist, a humanist, an intellectual, a writer, a journalist, a voracious reader, an eternal optimist, a tone deaf singer, a curious adventurer, an activist, a rooter of the underdog, a political junkie, a spiritually holistic citizen of the world, but a Mexican-American, a Native Californian and an original American.



The purpose of evangelism is to indoctrinate not just one person or one family, but to capture generations of unquestioning followers to fuel their power structure of control.  Serra was a virus of the Catholic Church that hacked into the DNA of Mexican and California Native Americans, and everything was running smoothly for them…until now. There’s a change in the code. I am the anomaly in their matrix. And all it takes is one anomaly to throw the whole thing off.

Today, I am the new, untainted-DNA, freethinking Native Californian. So, really, sainthoods and statues don’t matter; the fact that I’m writing this dissent today is a proof that Serra’s negative and barbaric legacy is fading into the ethers and turning on itself by transforming into something positive and powerful. Junipero Serra, you failed in your “mission”.  I am living proof of your failure.

photo credit: @rumbleskout3

photo credit: @rumbleskout3





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