On Faith and On Fury | Crooked Media
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July 23, 2020
Unholier Than Thou
On Faith and On Fury

In This Episode

A history of pain and controversy lies beneath the ashes of San Gabriel Mission, which caught fire last weekend. Phil talks to Alan Salazar, a Native storyteller, activist, and Chumash and Tataviam elder about the history of the Indigenous people whose hands built the church — and who were abused by its founding father. Phil also hears from Remy Tran who started a GoFundMe for the restoration of the church. Remy’s experience is one of belonging, as the church served as a second home when he immigrated from Vietnam. Phil works to reconcile how a place of worship for some is a site of pain for others, and what we can learn by addressing the harsh realities of the past.





Phillip Picardi: From Crooked Media, this is Unholier Than Thou. I’m your host, Phillip Picardi. On Saturday, July 11th, firefighters in Los Angeles received a call at 4:24 in the morning. The San Gabriel Mission Church, a 215-year old building and one of the oldest Catholic houses of worship in the city, was burning. It was the de facto symbol of the mission’s nearly 250 years of work in bringing Catholicism to California. The fire is believed to have started in the choir. As the firefighters worked to extinguish the flames from inside, pieces of the centuries-old building started to fall on them. They retreated outside, but by the time they’d finally beat it, hours later, the roof was destroyed. The pews burned entirely. The very next day, Catholics from all over the city came to pray outside of the mission, bringing holy books and rosary beads. Many of them recalled the major life events they’d held inside that church, the baptism of their children, their own weddings, holiday celebrations. Remy Tran found the San Gabriel mission when he first moved to L.A. from his native Vietnam in 1993. Here’s what he had to say about the church in the community he found there:


[clip of Remy Tran] I heard the news today and it just, it just broke my heart to, it’s so much memories that I had in that church, with my choir and families and friends. It just so like your like home, you know. And like I said, that’s the only church that my family and I attended every Sunday.


Phillip Picardi: However, the San Gabriel mission was not exactly a safe haven for everyone. Its founder, Father Junipero Serra, has long been considered one of the founding fathers of California. He was also officially declared a saint by the Catholic Church in 2015. The story of his rise to power and the literal rise of the San Gabriel Church is also a story of the Spanish conquest of California. Of course, the Spanish were, despite what history may tell us, not the ones who physically erected this church. Indigenous people, many of them, Tongva, were victims of forced conversion to Catholicism. The church was effectively built by a labor camp of indigenous people who were subjected to corporal punishment and brutality in the name of Catholicism. Thousands are said to have died due to the conquests. Many of them are in unmarked graves, buried far below the small Catholic cemetery that currently presides on church grounds. To better understand this history and the activists who have been urging Californians to reckon with its colonial past, we have Alan Salazar, a Native storyteller, activist and Chumash, and Tatavium elder.


Phillip Picardi: Alan, thank you so much for being here with us today. I really appreciate it.


Alan Salazar: My pleasure.


Phillip Picardi: To start, I’m wondering if you can tell me a little bit about the indigenous groups that lived in the area surrounding the San Gabriel mission.


Alan Salazar: Southern California has always been the most populous area in California. So for thousands of years, there are several tribes that lived in the Los Angeles area, the Los Angeles basin and Los Angeles County. But the two tribes that my family are from, or three tribes, are the Chumash to the west, Tatavium north of Los Angeles and the Tongva Gabrieleno. My family was brought to the San Fernando Mission starting in 1799. And All three of those tribes were brought to the San Fernando Mission and San Fernando Mission interacted a lot with San Gabriel and tribal people from San Gabriel also came to San Fernando Mission. So there’s always been a connection of interaction together, trading together and working together.


Phillip Picardi: And that wasn’t the only interaction, right? Obviously, we’ve been talking a lot lately about a figure known as Father Serra, who was recently canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church. Can you tell me a little bit about who he was and what his impact was on the indigenous peoples during his time?


Alan Salazar: Well, within the tribal community, the Southern California tribal community, he’s, he’s a very controversial figure and there’s debate on what he did and what effect he had on the tribes here. But there are several things that cannot be denied, even by supporters of Father Serra, that when he came to California, he thought of the tribal people as inferior. So he looked down on us. We were inferior. We were savages, that justified him enslaving us. But there’s no dispute that he did not allow any of the tribal people that were brought to the missions that he established and all the other missions that were established after he died, to speak their language, to practice their traditional cultural ways, and he took our land, and that had an extremely negative impact on all tribal people in California.


Phillip Picardi: My understanding is that after a lot of the indigenous peoples who father Serra—I’m going to say forced to convert to Catholicism and they, you know, supposedly became citizens of Spain, there was an agreement that they were supposed to get their land back. Right? That once they accepted Christ, they were supposed to be allowed to have their land and the ownership of their land. Is it my understanding that correctly?


Alan Salazar: That’s correct. That Father Serra promised that if we became Catholics and became citizens of Spain, which we did both—I was at, I was at a Catholic mass just last week. My aunt, who was 94 years old, passed away and was a good Catholic her whole life, and she had a Catholic mass. And the padre talked about Father Serra and how great he is and how great he was.


Phillip Picardi: I can only imagine. But how did you feel when the Catholic Church officially canonized Father Serra in 2015?


Alan Salazar: I was angry. I was disappointed. But bottom line, for the last 500 plus years, tribal people all across America have been abused, raped, murdered, our land stolen, our culture stolen—so we weren’t surprised.


Phillip Picardi: I’m told that you were asked to give a blessing the day that activists tore down the statue of Father Serra, which was located in downtown L.A.. I’m wondering if you can tell me more about that day and its significance.


Alan Salazar: I’m an elder on our Elders Council, and I take my responsibilities very seriously, and I knew this was an important event that tribal people needed to heal. I mean, it’s difficult for me to speak about this right now. It’s extremely emotional. So I went there when I was asked to come and do a blessing because I knew the people there would need prayers. And that’s what I did. I prayed for the people that were there, that their hearts and minds would be able to heal after this statue was toppled. I sang a traditional bear song, and bear has healing power.


Phillip Picardi: I really appreciate that. You know, it sounds like we have a lot of thinking to do about who is worthy of monuments all over our country, and not just about the tearing down of many of them, and we should be tearing down many of them, frankly. But also, how else are we honoring the people who were overlooked by the the building of that statue or the creation of that statue or monument in the first place? And I think that’s a more, a more complicated space for dialog, but that dialog can’t be done without the consultation and frankly, the creation of the people who were raised in the first place. Right?


Alan Salazar: Correct I’ve been going to schools for over 25 years and I just talk to students all the ways from elementary school to middle school, high schools to universities. And I talk about my family history, what happened to my family. I talk about my tribal history, what happened to the Tatavium, what happened to Chumash, what happened to the Tongva Gabrieleno—and it doesn’t matter if I’m in a third grade class or a class of college students that are working towards getting their masters of Ph.D., all of them learned things that they did not know. That’s a sad commentary on our education system then, in America,


Phillip Picardi: You don’t need a college degree to know the truth. Right?


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Phillip Picardi: So I understand that, you know, the San Gabriel mission and the San Fernando Mission are particularly personal to you because you have family connections here. I also understand you were raised Catholic. Can you explain a little bit about that part of your journey and your spiritual path?


Alan Salazar: My grandmother was a good Catholic her whole life, went to mass. If we went to visit my grandmother, we always went to mass Sunday. But my father was a Marine. He fought in World War II in Saipan and Okinawa. And when the padre at the Hanford Mission pulled my father aside and said, Abel, my parishioners usually wear a suit to mass or at least a nice dress shirt with a tie, dress pants and dress shoes—and my father nodded his head and said, Thank you padre for sharing that. My father was a plaster. He worked in construction. We lived in the country when we left San Fernando and we had horses so my my dad I don’t think owned a suit or dress shirt and tie until he was about 60 years old. When we went to mass, me and my brother, we wore our good Levi’s, our good cowboy boots and a nice Western shirt. And that’s what my pop dressed. About that same time, I was six years old, me and my older brother asked my father if we could get Mohawk haircuts for the summer. He said, sure. My father also got a Mohawk haircut. He had very strong Native American features, so when he got that Mohawk, he was a mean looking Native man. He was a Marine. And when we went to mass that Sunday, my father had to wait until the mass was just about to start, and then he said, Alan, lead us and go find us a spot at the very front of the church. We always sat at the back of the church because my mother and father were one of the few interracial couples in Hanford, California in 1957. But that day he instructed me to go to the front of the, of the church. I led my mother, my father, my older brother, my sister, and walked down the center pew, with my father in the back with his Mohawk, my brother in the middle with his Mohawk, and me six years old with a Mohawk haircut, Western shirts, good Levi’s, good cowboy boots. We walked to the front pew, the Padre turned around and saw us with our Mohawk haircuts dressed the way we were—that was the best clothes we had—my sister said you could see smoke coming out of the Padre’s ears through the whole mass, because he had to look at us the whole mass because we sat in the front pew. So we were good Catholics, but we were raised to be proud of our Native ancestry. The moral or lesson of that story is, I’ve been an activist for Native causes since I was about six years old. My father was a Marine. That’s how he raised me. I don’t go looking for a fight. I’m not going to run away from any fight.


Phillip Picardi: Your father sounds like a great man.


Alan Salazar: He was. Had a great sense of humor. We laughed a lot.


Phillip Picardi: That’s wonderful. I know that you eventually left Catholicism. What was that part of your spiritual journey like? And how did you find faith after leaving the church?


Alan Salazar: So in 1969, I was 18 years old, so I was a young man in the ’70s and during that time many young people in America were looking for something different. So when I turned 18, three days after I graduated, I had a full-time job and I moved out the next week and moved into my own apartment. I stopped going to mass and just, I had gotten married the next year and it was about three or four years later, we started our family. And when I had my daughter, my son, I thought, well, they need some, some religious teachings and I actually we went back to the Catholic Church and went to mass for a few months, tried a few Christian churches, non-denominational churches. And there was one common thing, I have never felt comfortable in a church. Those people are not my people. They, every church I went to, I was treated and welcomed with open arms, I was treated well, but they’re not the people I grew up with. I grew up with my tribal family. It wasn’t the belief of the church, it was the organization. To me the Catholic Church is all about power and money, and they always have been. So when I was in my probably late thirties, that’s when I started just realizing, you know, I’m a person of the earth, I feel comfortable doing ceremony on the top of a mountain in a big green meadow. That’s where I feel comfortable. That’s where my people have done ceremony for thousands of years. So it’s genetically engrained in me. About 22, 23 years ago I started paddling in Chumash plank canoes. They’re called tomol. And I’d never done that before. I wasn’t much of an ocean person, probably been on a kayak two or three times. And, there was a group of us. We started building traditional canoes. We started paddling in traditional canoes. We started learning how to navigate in traditional canoes. And in 2001, September 8th, we left at 3:45 in the morning to paddle from Channel Islands Harbor, Oxnard, California, out to Santa Cruz Island. And the first crew left at 3:45 when it was dark and I was in that first crew. I should have been scared. I’m not, I’m not a brave person. I have a deathly fear of heights. But when I was in that canoe, at four o’clock in the morning, pitch black dark in the middle of the ocean—I said I should have been afraid, I should have had at least a little trepidation. I had none. It felt perfectly natural because my human ancestors have paddled on those waters off the coast of Ventura, Santa Barbara, Malibu, Morel Bay, for thousands, for 13,000 years. It’s ingrained in my DNA, in my tribal DNA. I’m supposed to be praying outside, making offerings to the plants, the animals, to the sky people to the stars.


Phillip Picardi: That’s really beautiful. Thank you for sharing that with me. I, I can imagine, even though you left Catholicism, that your own history with the mission and with the area in general must have made for some complicated feelings when you heard that the San Gabriel mission caught on fire. Could you tell me a little bit about what your reaction was?


Alan Salazar: To be completely honest, probably my first reaction was, karma’s a bitch. There was a little bit of joy. But I come from a construction background. I appreciate well-built structures of any kind. Well-built, beautiful canoes, all tribal people, the Tatavium, the Tongva, the Chumash—they all took pride in when they built  their houses, their aps, their kizhes—which are willow-framed, dome-shaped houses. So, so tribal people, we take pride in whatever it is that we build or make. Tribal people built the San Gabriel mission. So after that initial ‘yeah, they deserve to have that destroyed by fire’ but then I also had emotions of: tribal people built that, it’s a beautiful structure, the Spanish architecture of the late 1700s, early 1800s is a beautiful design, you know, they’re beautiful structures. So, and then the one thing that bothered me the most is the issue that after father Serra’s statues are moved—and I don’t want them removed, I just want them moved. Ventura’s father Serra statue is one of the first things all visitors see when they come to Ventura. It’s right on the main street, right in front of City Hall. I don’t want it removed. I want it moved. Move it to a museum, move it to the mission and then do a thorough explanation of what Father Serra really was, what he did. But after the Serra statues are moved, there’s a bigger issue, at San Gabriel Mission, I know it’s in the thousands, I heard or read that there are 6,000 tribal people in a mass burial at the San Gabriel mission. There, it’s an unmarked mass grave. San Fernando mission, over 4,000 of my, and many of those 4,000 are my family members, are in a mass unmarked burial. Well, there’s a little one foot by by one foot plaque that says there’s 4,200 neophytes buried in this garden area. The church, the Catholic Church has the names of all of those people. Maybe not all, but most. They have more than enough money to have a monument like the Vietnam Memorial and list every one of those people’s name. And every one of those tribal people at San Gabriel that died at that mission, that will work to death, beaten, raped—they should at least have their name acknowledged that that they’re buried at the San Gabriel mission. That’s the least the Catholic Church can do.


Phillip Picardi: I mean, it’s a good point because, you know, there are all sorts of GoFundMe’s circulating to raise money, to rebuild and really recreate the San Gabriel mission, and restore the damage that was done. And I’m just wondering, A) do you think they should, and B) what should the Catholic Church do either instead or on top of that restoration work?


Alan Salazar: Well, they’ve had 200 years. They’ve known about this for 200 years. I should have paid more attention when I went to mass, I should have read the Bible when I went to mass. But I’m pretty sure that if you know you’re doing something wrong, that’s a sin. So in their own religion, the Catholic Church has sinned for 200 by not giving those people a proper burial. Every padre has a proper burial, with the headstone and his name, when he was born, when he died. Every nun has a proper burial with her name, when she was born, and when she died. For over 200 years, the Catholic Church has known that they buried tribal people in mass burials. They committed a sin. They have never confessed. And we don’t want them to confess to the padre, we want them to confess to us. We want them to apologize to us. The Catholic Church needs to publicly ask for forgiveness of their sins. And it’s a pretty long list. Then I’ll be happy. Then I’ll be at peace


Phillip Picardi: Before we close today, Alan, I would love to ask, absent of us compelling the Pope to issue that apology, which is long overdue, how can we help to support the work that that you do or help the tribal nations more broadly?


Alan Salazar: There’s a lot of ways. The two big ways, the Fernandinho Tatavium band of mission Indians. We are currently under review by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, we are under review to to be federally recognized. So a letter of support which will help our tribal members, it won’t help me. I’m 69 years old, will help my kids and my grandson. And then secondly, we just recently started about a year ago, our own Tatavium Land Conservancy. We are trying to either buy back or get donated large chunks of land so we can keep those lands as nature preserves, as open space, so our tribal people will be able to go to those lands and hike and walk back on their traditional land, be able to go there and do ceremony and pray. So you can help our tribe with a letter of support. Put the word out that Tatavium Land Conservancy, any donation. $5, $100. If you know any wealthy people, maybe they can send a donation with a few more zeros.


Phillip Picardi: Excellent. Well, congratulations on all of the work that you’ve already done. And thank you for the work that you’ve done. And thank you for holding space with us here today.


Alan Salazar: You’re welcome. And thank you for giving me this platform, this opportunity to express the difficulties of being a indigenous Tribal person in America today. So thank you for this platform and your support.


Phillip Picardi: Alan, It was my honor.


Phillip Picardi: Investigators are still looking into the cause of the fire at the San Gabriel mission and hope to have more answers as soon as next week. As part of the investigation, the Los Angeles Times reports that the fire department is inspecting video from a security camera that was pointed in an area where a statue of Father Junipero Serra was standing. Just one week before the fire, the mission moved his statue out of public view shortly after others of him were toppled over during protests. Many Americans are increasingly seeing their monuments, heroes and national landmarks in a harsh new light. So many of the sites of patriotism and worship in this country and all over the world are also monuments to oppression and genocide. The parishioners at the San Gabriel mission are, in the wake of the fire, trying to reconcile the two. How can a place of their joy, their spirituality, their community, also be a tribute to pain, enslavement and murder? I can imagine how complicated this must be to navigate for each of them. Somewhere along the way, though, Christianity became an institution that replicated the same systems of violence its very founder once condemned. In turn, the Catholic Church is rarely an exemplar of the very text it claims to uphold. But if this moment teaches us anything, it is not to seek validation or answers from institutions. All along maybe we should have been finding the answers in our own communities. Maybe apologies and the road to reconciliation are not as complicated as institutional systems and patriarchal regimes would have us believe. Maybe it’s not too late to start now, even if we will never be able to heal the damage done. But perhaps the Christian thing to do is to start somewhere as a small community. Here’s to hoping that a new beginning can blossom from the ashes of the San Gabriel mission.


Unholier Than Thou as a Crooked Media production. Our producers are Adriana Cargill and Elisa Gutierrez, with production support from Alison Falzetta and Lyra Smith. The theme song is by Taka Yasuzawa and our executive producer is Sara Geismer. Thanks for listening.