An historic mission bell in Santa Cruz
The last historic mission bell in Santa Cruz on Dec. 8, 2020. The Santa Cruz City Council voted Tuesday to remove the bell at Mission Plaza.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )
Civic Life

Santa Cruz to remove last mission bell, incorporate Native perspectives into bell sites

In the midst of nationwide unrest this summer over systemic racism and police brutality, Santa Cruz’s two remaining mission bells entered the spotlight — and the fray.

During protests, both were vandalized. One, in Mission Park Plaza near Holy Cross Church, was stolen.

That moment “catalyzed a conversation” about what the city should do with the lone remaining bell, Parks and Recreation Director Tony Elliot told the Santa Cruz City Council on Tuesday afternoon.

“It really did prompt an opportunity for us in the summer to have very serious conversations around, ‘Should we replace the bell or should we remove the bell?’” outgoing Mayor Justin Cummings said.

On Tuesday, the council voted unanimously to do the latter. The last remaining bell, located on Soquel Avenue at Dakota Street, near the San Lorenzo River will be removed — and officials plan to revamp the bell sites with educational exhibits designed to put their place in history into context next year.

Mission bells scattered along California’s coast at the former sites of Franciscan missions have come under scrutiny statewide. Critics say the bells symbolize the devastation of indigenous people, who were taken to the mission as laborers against their will.

Some 99% of Native Americans in Santa Cruz died after being taken to the local mission, “the most brutal” of all California sites, according to Val Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band.

Amah Mutsun first approached Santa Cruz in August 2018 about removing the bells. The way Lopez and other tribal leaders see it, the missions are used to justify violent Spanish colonialism and the destruction of indigenous cultures.

The missions are used to “glorify that period and to attract tourism to the cities and to the missions to make money,” Lopez said. “It’s time to stop that. And Santa Cruz is showing tremendous leadership in leading the way in doing that. It’s time for that history to change. We’re thankful that Santa Cruz recognizes that. And we hope that all of California recognizes that and removes those bells.”

In 2019, the UC Santa Cruz gained national attention when it removed a mission bell on its campus.

In October, the Santa Cruz City Council unanimously approved updating the language of placards at the mission site to reflect the experience of Native peoples. Tuesday night’s vote to remove the last bell also orders city staff to work with community stakeholders like Lopez and local historians, to include more historical perspectives at bell sites.

“That’s not to replace one aspect of our history with another. Rather, it’s to work with our community to acknowledge and include the indigenous voice,” said Elliot, the aforementioned parks director.

Where the last bell will be kept after removal, and what memorial will exist at the mission site is still to be decided.

“Our goal will be to convey the full, accurate history, but we also recognize that a sign or plaque can only accomplish so much. We hope to develop ways to inspire greater curiosity on this topic so that residents and visitors find ways via the Museum of Art and History, State Parks, Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, or others to learn more,” Elliot told Lookout.

The California State Parks are also working on a “virtual mission bells exhibit” that will aim to explain what mission bells meant to different groups throughout history, historian Martin Rizzo said. The parks system hopes to unveil and release that exhibit in early 2021.