The George Washington statue in downtown Watsonville.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Vote to consider removing Washington bust from Watsonville City Plaza set for today

The George Washington bust in City Plaza was unveiled almost 20 years ago, on Feb. 19, 2001. Now, ahead of a Tuesday vote, Mayor Jimmy Dutra is putting out a call on Facebook to gather residents’ opinions about it.

A bust of founding father George Washington, a slave owner, might soon be removed from Watsonville’s City Plaza, but Mayor Jimmy Dutra is seeking the public’s input on the matter in advance of Tuesday’s City Council vote on the issue.

Dutra posted on Facebook over the weekend that the Washington bust “is a topic that is striking up intense emotion on both sides” before asking people to give their opinions by commenting on his post.

The council, he wrote, is considering three options:

“1. Move the bust to the [Watsonville] library and add a plaque explaining the history of George Washington;

2. Keep the George Washington bust in the plaza with a plaque explaining the history of George Washington;

3. Put the issue on the next ballot in 2022 and let the community decide the fate of the bust.”

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The council’s potential action follows a petition drive to remove the bust that had drawn more than 1,400 signatures as of mid-December, Lookout’s Wallace Baine has reported. It also comes amid a wave of local and national decisions to remove monuments and change names of institutions based on more widespread scrutiny of historical figures, especially ones who owned slaves.

The Watsonville bust was unveiled almost exactly 20 years ago, on Feb. 19, 2001. Lloyd F. Alaga, a Watsonville resident, had left donations to the city in his will, and one was specifically left to be used for a bust of George Washington. Alaga thought the city suffered from “a dearth of public statuary” before his death in 1997.

In May 1999, the city council unanimously voted to accept the $100,000 Alaga left in his will for the Washington statue, and hired Santa Cruz artist Michelle Armitage to create the bust. The statue was inscribed, per Alaga’s request, with “George Washington, 1732-1799, Father of His Country” and the saying, “First In War, First In Peace, First In The Hearts Of His Countrymen.”

Dutra, himself an elementary school teacher, offered a history lesson in his social media post, acknowledging Washington’s role as commander of the Continental Army that defeated the British and as our nation’s first president. (The full text of his post is at the end of this story.)

Dutra also noted that Washington “owned slaves, wouldn’t release them until after he died for personal reasons and he would use their teeth as his own (he had a mouth disease). . . . Additionally, he wouldn’t initially allow for slaves to participate in the Revolutionary War because he didn’t want to interfere with colonists’ property. . . . Eventually, he allowed for them to fight because their numbers of soldiers were dropping significantly.”

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In summer 2020, as civil rights protests swept the country and cities were forced to confront symbols of white supremacy, Watsonville residents turned their eyes to the Washington bust. Competing petitions rounded up signatures, and the city launched a survey in September to gauge how residents were feeling about the issue.

Nearly 500 Watsonville residents responded — there were 1,231 total respondents, but the city narrowed answers down to those who provided verified addresses within the city limits. Of residents who took the survey, 59% (294 people) said they preferred to keep the bust, while 36% (180) said they wanted it to be removed, and 5% were indifferent.

Both sides — pro-removal and anti-removal — cited various reasons for their position:

  • 87% of those for removing the statue said it was because Washington supported the genocide of Indigenous people and 86% said the bust doesn’t reflect Watsonville’s values. Most respondents on this side of the issue also said the statue was a symbol of white supremacy and racism (80%), and that the statue should be removed because Washington owned slaves (83%).
  • Those against the statue’s removal said they wanted to keep it because it honors Washington’s actions “that created and improved this country, not his flaws” (67%), and because he is considered “the Father of our Country, for whom we owe our freedom today” (69%). Respondents also said the statue serves as a reminder of the country’s history “that should not be erased” (73%) and that the bust, “recognizes that we are a nation of diverse people who fought against tyranny and oppression” (57%).

The city also asked survey-takers what it should do with the statue. Nearly three-fourths of residents who want the statue removed say it should not be displayed anywhere. Another 39% wish to move the bust to another place, such as a gallery or a library, 15% said they wanted the city to add a plaque telling a “broader history” of Washington.

Other responses included: replace the statue, return the bust to the Alaga Family, relocate it and add a plaque with a broader history, and add other statues to the city plaza.

The vast majority — 90% — of those who want to keep the statue want it to stay in the plaza, the survey results show, but 40% also believe the city should add a plaque with a more nuanced history. Some respondents (12%) wanted the city to keep the bust but move it to another location.

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  • See the discussion about the Washington bust
    The Watsonville City Council meets at 4 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the George Washington bust and other matters. The meting will be broadcast live.

Most residents who identified as “indifferent” about the fate of the statue said it should be moved elsewhere, to a gallery or library or similar space. Slightly more than half said the city should add an explanatory plaque, 2`1% said the bust should stay where it is, and 10% said the statue should be removed and not displayed anywhere.

Watsonville’s discussions on what to do with the bust also follow the San Francisco school system’s recent decision to rename 42 schools, including one named after Washington.

Closer to home, Cabrillo College has been considering a name change on the assertion that its namesake, 16th-century Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, was a slave trader and murderer of indigenous people.

And the city of Santa Cruz in December voted unanimously to remove the city’s last remaining mission bell memorial on Soquel Avenue at Dakota on the basis that the bell is a symbol of the subjugation and annihilation of indigenous people during the Spanish colonization of the 18th century.

Here’s the full text of Dutra’s post:

Tuesday’s City Council Agenda Item

George Washington Bust in Watsonville Plaza

On the agenda this Tuesday is the possible removal of the George Washington Bust. I want to lay out the item for you and then I would like your opinion. This is a topic that is striking up intense emotion on both sides of the argument. So, please be cordial when making your post.

There is a George Washington Bust in the Watsonville Plaza. Many residents may not even know it exists or are just learning about it through this debate. Lloyd Alaga donated $200,000 to the City, which included the bust. As an immigrant, he felt this country offered him a good life and George Washington to him was a symbol of that opportunity.

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The history of George Washington is mixed. He was a General who fought to free the colonists from British rule and their taxes. Many look at him as the father of our country. He was known for motivational speeches he gave to his soldiers to keep their spirit and moral up when they found themselves starving, in need of clothes and supplies to defend themselves. He also presided over the convention that created the Constitution of the United States and eventually became our country’s first president.

However, he also owned slaves, wouldn’t release them until after he died for personal reasons and he would use their teeth as his own (he had a mouth disease). He was known for extracting the teeth without numbing their mouths. Additionally, he wouldn’t initially allow for slaves to participate in the Revolutionary War because he didn’t want to interfere with colonist’s property. Slaves were considered property. Eventually, he allowed for them to fight because their numbers of soldiers were dropping significantly.

Certain people want the bust to stay. They believe even though he was a flawed man, he is a part of history. He represents the reason we exist and are allotted our many opportunities. If it weren’t for George Washington, the British would have won and we probably wouldn’t be the country we are today.

For others, George Washington’s actions of conquering indigenous people and his inability to initially see all people as created equal is a huge flaw that must not be celebrated. Many feel that in the current climate of racial division and tension, George Washington is a reminder of pain and a symbol of oppression.

Here are the options that are under consideration.

1. Move the bust to the library and add a plaque explaining the history of George Washington;

2. Keep the George Washington bust in the plaza with a plaque explaining the history of George Washington;

3. Put the issue on the next ballot in 2022 and let the community decide the fate of the bust.

I would like to know your opinion as I move to vote on this issue. If you feel more comfortable privately messaging me, please do so.

Thank you for your civic participation.