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Indigenous Rights Advocates Protest a Legacy of Genocide Outside Mission San Juan Capistrano

Indigenous rights organizations and advocates gathered outside Mission San Juan Capistrano last Friday to denounce the genocidal acts perpetrated on the indigenous communities since the arrival of the Italian "explorer" Columbus.

Members of Colectivo Tonantzin, an indigenous and migrant workers rights organization, organized the first action 2001, coinciding with an ongoing struggle for an indigenous burial ground down the street. The sacred land was ultimately dug up and disturbed in order to build a private school, Junipero Serra High School, named after Junipero Serra, the friar who oversaw the founding of the missions in Alta California.

"Columbus is guilty of crimes against humanity by modern standards," explained Scott, a longtime member of Colectivo Tonantzin. “Slavery should not be celebrated, we really need to question this. Today indigenous people are, if not enslaved in the way they were in the 18th century, definitely exploited. They have never received reparations for the land that was taken away from them. They’re still struggling to have their own self-determination that includes a land-based contiguous territoriality, to speak their own languages, to practice their culture - to have control over their lives…"

The mission’s main entrance was blocked off Friday morning due to construction work. Here, a plaque describing a brief history of the mission could be found by its visitors. The plaque explains the founding of the mission in 1776 and it being the “seventh in the chain of twenty-one missions established in Alta California to Christianize and Civilize the Indians.”

Individuals from neighboring cities and as far as the state of Washington came out to take part in the protest.

Alicia Lopez from Mexica Movement, an indigenous rights organization, drove out from Arizona and encourages others to do the same: “This is really an important day to come and protest - I took a day off a year in advance so there should be no excuse. I encourage everybody to make it out here to get educated and share their knowledge with each other.”

“I just don’t agree with the fact that anyone should celebrate Columbus Day because it’s the celebration of genocide,” stated Patty Cruz from nearby Santa Ana, who has attended the protest since 2002. “Just like we wouldn’t celebrate Adolf Hitler, we shouldn’t celebrate Columbus. It’s about coming to the table with truth and igniting young minds.”

At around 11 that morning, a manager from a neighboring Starbucks called the police after asking the protesters not to “surround” the coffee shop. She claimed that people would assume Starbucks was endorsing the protest. Immediately, three Orange County Sheriffs arrived on scene. Deputy Sheriff Sanchez pulled some protestors aside ordering the group to move away from Starbucks, but the protestors made it clear they were exercising their rights to remain on the public sidewalk just as long as they didn’t “impede the movement of any pedestrians” or “block the entrances to any of the businesses.”

After attempting to intimidate the group through a short discourse, one of the organizing members informed the Deputy Sheriff that they have been organizing this protest in this area for 12 years and have never had any problems. The official responded by stating that he had not been in the area 12 years and made some “recommendations” to keep the protest peaceful. The Sheriffs then left the scene.

Coyotl from Colectivo Tonantizn stated that this wasn’t the first time they have been taunted by the police:

“This has happened a couple of times, especially when they were still building the high school down the street. As you can see, we are all armed - but with banners…It’s all a daily reminder, I can almost draw an imaginary line from here (the mission) directly to the other side at Starbucks. Things haven’t changed much, time has changed, but the people that were in power are still in power.”

As the day continued, cars driving by honked to express their thoughts on the protestors’ message. Many of them voiced their approval while others shouted remarks of discontent. One man yelled, “You guys need to go and get a job!”

Some tourists visiting the mission even took the time to stop and take pictures with wooden, “Indian” figures at the Capistrano Trading Post across the street.

One woman who read the signs as she walked by asked, “But didn’t he (Columbus) discover the Indians - the Native Americans?”

One protestor responded, ”Columbus didn’t discover us.” Another woman replied saying, “That is saying that our people were insignificant until Columbus came here.”

Ollin Tezcatlipoca form Mexica Movement explained how they aren't bothered by any of the racial slurs or negative comments made by passers-by:

“These are ignorant people, sadly, most of the ones that are highly bothered are racist people….We’ve gotten the ‘sieg heil!’ from the white supremacists, you know, but that doesn’t really bother me. The only thing that really bothers me is when our own people go through and say something stupid – that really hurts…The stupidity, the ignorance of our own people, that’s the most bothersome of all.”

Nahui Huitzilopochtli, also member of Colectivo Tonantzin, expressed that they will continue to protest Columbus and his legacy of genocide:

"We are trying to get the word out that Columbus is not a hero. We will continue to be here every October 12th, from 10 A.M. to 1 P.M. We want this to be a day to remember our ancestors and we encourage everyone to take the day off to come protest Columbus Day and remember our ancestors."