The George Washington statue in downtown Watsonville is under the microscope.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
The Here & Now

Santa Cruz’s mission bell removal raises an inevitable question: What’s next?

THE HERE & NOW: Where does the line get drawn for what needs to change? Mission bells could lead to Mission Street. And from there you start getting into deeper dark places within California’s history.

On the table before us is a can of worms.

In the hands of the Santa Cruz City Council is a can opener.

Earlier this month, the council 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.

This is not to argue that the removal of the mission bell is a bad idea. On the contrary, it certainly seems like a long-overdue historical corrective. Creating a wider historical context, which the city has vowed to do at the site, is almost always a good thing.

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But it is a reminder of something that the pandemic momentarily has allowed us to forget: that California has its own confederate-statue problem.

Locally, a petition to remove a bust of slaveholding founding father George Washington in Watsonville’s City Plaza attracted more than 1,400 signatures. 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.

More than two centuries after his death, Junipero Serra, for generations of Californians the personification of the state’s Spanish colonial period, is having a bad moment. Schools named for Serra up and down the state are actively looking for alternatives. A few of the many Serra statues in Northern and Southern California have already been removed. And the most famous one, the crude monstrosity on I-280 south of San Francisco that has Serra pointing to the west like some overzealous football ref signaling first down, could be dismantled on the basis of aesthetics as much as history.

Again, in isolation and in the context of their communities, all these moves to demystify historical figures might be the right ones. But taken together, if we keep pulling at that string, they indicate a volatile period of cultural disorientation ahead.

Slippery-slope arguments are often bogus, but still it’s worth asking: What’s to stop a conscientious citizen with a compelling historical argument from proposing that, say, Mission Street, one of the city’s most prominent commercial thoroughfares, should be called something else? And what’s the argument, other than inconvenience, not to make such a change?

Then, once you’ve invested in all those new street signs and business cards, the elephant in the room emerges.

What about “Santa Cruz”?

Santa Cruz — Spanish for “Holy Cross” — is, after all, the powerful symbolic justification for everything that that mission bell represents, in the eyes of both its critics and defenders. And, if what goes for the mission bell also applies to the name Santa Cruz, what do you say to the millions around the country and presumably thousands locally to whom the Mother Church that that name represents still has profound spiritual resonance?

Keep pushing and you’re likely to come face to face with some vexing and thorny issues on which no easy moral or philosophical stance is possible.

An historic mission bell in Santa Cruz
An historic mission bell in Santa Cruz on Dec. 8, 2020. Santa Cruz City Council voted Tuesday to remove the bell at Mission Plaza and add more Native perspectives and historical context to the site.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

For example, for many of us who have built a meaningful and fulfilling life in California — most especially for English-speaking whites — it’s worth pondering the debt we owe to James K. Polk, the sanctimonious, slaveowning, profoundly imperialist 11th President of the United States who provoked a war for the sake of a genocidal land grab that eventually allowed white Americans to settle in California.

What’s a contemporary person intent on living a decent and conscientious life supposed to do with that insight? Is acknowledging it and being aware of it enough? If not, what is? And who says so?

The notion of changing the name of Santa Cruz may now seem performatively PC, annoyingly provocative, even absurd. If I’m betting on it, I’m pushing my chips into the “It’ll Never Happen” square. The T-shirt lobby alone would squash the idea like a bug.

But one of 2020’s many lessons is that these kinds of social/cultural changes can generate momentum at whiplash speed. Just this week, Cleveland baseball team owners announced they’re changing the name of the club for the sake of decency and respect to history. It isn’t set to happen until after next season, but it is indeed happening.

Even if it’s a long shot, the likelihood that someone raises the question of Santa Cruz’s name change and maybe even puts it before the city is stronger now that it was a year ago. And if that happens, if “Santa Cruz” is to survive, a city council that once voted to remove the mission bell is going to have choose a reason other than moral consistency to save it.

For the record, if we’re asking for a show of hands, I’d militate strongly against it. Hasn’t Santa Cruz — the city, the county, the concept — by now become something larger and meaningful enough that it renders the origins and connotations of its name irrelevant? Duh!

Mission Street, though, is another matter. I’ve always thought something in Santa Cruz should be named after the Internet’s favorite human.

So, how does “Keanu Avenue” sound?