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Travels in Mexico
New Franciscan missionaries arriving in Mexico trained for several months at the College of San Fernando in Mexico City. In the summer of 1750, Serra and Palou were assigned to the Sierra Gorda missions among the Pame Indians some 175 miles northwest of the capital. Between 1750 and 1758 Serra learned the Otomi language of the natives and joined fellow Franciscans in building four mission churches. The Spanish padres introduced domestic animals, agriculture, and a system of commerce.
Serra returned to the College of San Fernando in 1758 and served in various roles ranging from choir director to college counselor. He traveled and preached extensively in numerous areas surrounding Mexico City including Mezquital, Zimapan, Valladolid (today's Morelia), Puebla, Oaxaca, and the Huasteca. Although generally robust, Serra suffered at times from asthma and from the swelling and painful itching of his feet and legs perhaps caused by mosquito bites. Scratching caused varicose ulcers that worsened over the years.
In mid-1767, Father Serra was appointed president of the fourteen missions in Baja California that had been founded by the Jesuits. The first, Nuestra Senora de Loreto, had been built on the Gulf coast in 1697. The mission chain extended about 600 miles from San Jose del Cabo in the south to Santa Maria de Los Angeles in the north (still some 500 miles south of San Diego). The Jesuits had been abruptly expelled from Spanish possessions by King Carlos III in the late 1760s for complex political reasons. The Franciscans moved as quickly as possible to take over the missions left without priests in Baja California. Serra assembled thirteen Franciscans to commence the difficult journey. Among them were his former students Palou and Juan Crespi, who had joined Serra in Sierra Gorda. They all set sail from San Blas on March 14, 1768, reaching Loreto on April 1. They took possession of the former Jesuit headquarters and assessed the problems at hand.