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Difficult Conversations Around Race, Identity and History Remain

The George Washington bust is being moved, but new questions have risen

After contentious debate, the Watsonville City Council voted to move this statue of George Washington from the City Plaza to the public library and add a bilingual plaque to the podium. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

[This is part two of a two-part series. — Editor]

Much of the discussion about George Washington’s place in history halted after the July 31 rally.

The public forum during the Parks and Recreation Commission meeting lasted more than three and a half hours, and it turned into a Infowars-esque word soup. Supporters of the statue called those in favor of removing it anarchists, antifa supporters, Marxists and socialists. Those looking to remove it rebutted by calling those on the other side racists, white supremacists and slavery apologists. Then-commission chair Abel Sanchez concluded that meeting by saying people on both sides needed to come together and hash out their differences.

“We need to have dialogue,” he said. “We need to have those conversations. We really need to sit together and hear each other, because I don’t want to live in a world where we’re on opposite sides and it’s us versus them.”

That meeting of the minds did not happen in months leading up to the Feb. 9 decision, and because of that, Mayor Jimmy Dutra tells GT, both sides have dug themselves deeper in their causes. In his eyes, the divide between the two sides has landed squarely between a young, progressive and predominantly Latinx group and a group he refers to as the “old guard” of Watsonville, or the Croatian, Italian, Portuguese and Latinx families that have been in the city for generations. Dutra says those conversations need to happen sooner rather than later, as tensions have continued to rise between the two groups, and he is concerned that the next issue might make the situation worse. But just how those conversations are supposed to happen, he says, is the million dollar question.

“The issue is what do we do to bring people together? How do we bring people back? We have more common ground than we don’t, and we need to find a way to work together, because, right now, we’re seeing people just sticking their feet into the ground unwilling to compromise,” he says.

Frances Salgado-Chavez tells GT that the Revolunas—the liberal collective of mostly Latinx women based in Watsonville who led the charge against the statue—did not try to have a conversation with people from the other side after the July 31 rally. Instead, they held online forums that were only open to people of color and people of the LGBTQ+ community to provide a safe space for them to express their feelings about the subject. Salgado-Chavez says they were open to discussing the positives and negatives of Washington’s legacy, but that the other side was not.

“They weren’t listening to us,” she says.

Manny Solano did not return a call asking for comment, but did reply to GT in an email that also included the City Council, City Manager Matt Huffaker and Parks and Community Services Director Nick Calubaquib. In the email, he said the City Council’s decision to move the bust to the Watsonville Public Library went against the results of a city sponsored survey in which about 60% of 1,200 respondents said they wanted the bust to stay in the Plaza.

“It’s ironic that this whole process was supposedly based on fairness and equality, yet the parks commission and city council ignored the voice of the people for their preference,” he wrote. “It was a flawed and undemocratic process and exposed the character and future of our city leadership. The community will be watching to make sure the donated statue is placed prominently in front of the city library and not hidden in some back room or closet. Doing so would result in further protest and division in the community.”

Watsonville City Councilman Francisco “Paco” Estrada tells GT that in the days after the decision he received several similar emails about the move from people on both sides. He says that the decision should have been a win-win compromise for the community. One side wanted it gone. The other wanted it to stay. A move to another public space where some of its political edge would be dulled and the educational aspect would be heightened seemed like a victory.

“Ultimately, it sort of felt like it was a lose-lose,” he says.

Like Dutra, Estrada says the statue was merely a symptom of the much larger issue. That bust might be settled, but by no means is the conversation about race over, he says. Although it was productive to get the issue on the table, Estrada argues that the setting did not allow for much progress. The conversations at the virtual meetings and the public comments submitted to the City Council continuously turned “ugly,” mirroring the nationwide division around the issue of race.

Because of its inherently difficult-to-come-to-grips-with nature, the topic of race will undoubtedly lead to tough conversations, Estrada says, but the line between conversation and confrontation has blurred since the two groups began debating the bust. The people in the middle, says Estrada, often emailed him and said they wanted no part of the discussion because they were afraid of being deemed racist or ignorant and told that they didn’t understand the complexity of the issue. City parks staff, he says, were caught in the crossfire, too, and often were accused of racism or radicalism while presenting the issue in public meetings.

“At the end of the day more people might be more turned off from local politics after all of this, and that’s definitely not what we were hoping for,” he says. “Some things were finally said out in public and out loud, which I do appreciate, but residents are asking me, ‘What do we do now? What’s next?’ I think those are valid questions. I just don’t want the next thing to come up to get uglier. I would like us to build a better way to discuss all this and find some respect for each other. I just didn’t see it in this whole process of the bust.”

What’s next?

Just down the road from Watsonville, the Cabrillo College Governing Board has taken the first steps in possibly renaming the school by forming the Name Exploration Subcommittee. That process began around the same time the debate about the bust started last year and is expected to run until at least this fall, when the committee will have a recommendation for the board.

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was a Spanish conquistador whose rise to power came at the expense of conquering, enslaving and trafficking the Indigenous people of Central America and Mexico, according to the Cabrillo College website. In the mid-20th century, Portuguese civic clubs in California promoted Cabrillo as a historic figure who had “discovered” the state.

Watsonville resident Steve Trujillo tabbed the renaming as one of his top issues during his run for the Area VII seat on the governing board last fall, and defeated longtime board member Ed Banks. He says the renaming of Cabrillo, the removal of the Washington statue and various other similar actions across the country are part of a “great renaissance of understanding.”

As a retired teacher who helped co-write the Mexican-American history curriculum taught at Alisal High School in Salinas, Trujillo, 68, says it is unsurprising that many people that were for removing the bust were younger than those that were for keeping it. Today’s generation, he says, is not limited by grade school text books that “whitewash” U.S. history thanks to the internet.

“We’ve glossed over all of our presidents’ histories, and we did it because it’s comforting,” he says. “We did it because we want to believe that we’re special. It’s hard to believe the history about Washington, but the truth is he did some very good things and he did some extremely awful things as well.”

Salgado-Chavez says the Revolunas have not yet decided what they will focus on next. They have, however, been sporadically vocal in public meetings around Watsonville. At a recent Pajaro Valley Unified School District Board of Trustees meeting, a few members spoke during a discussion about the proposed World History Ethinic Studies course. The course is advertised as a non-traditional look at modern world history (1700-present) by focusing on systems of power, how they were created, and how they impact the world, students’ local communities and individual identities. A team of 14 PVUSD teachers, along with UCSC and Santa Cruz County Office of Education representatives created the course, which will be available to students at Watsonville, Pajaro Valley and Aptos high schools in the fall.

“It gives [students] the opportunity to look at different case studies throughout the world and look at the different structures of power: what actually happened and what narrative came out,” PVUSD Assistant Superintendent Lisa Aguerria Lewis said during a board of trustees meeting on Feb. 10.

Aguerria Lewis at that meeting said the course is a direct result of the late Abel Mejia, a beloved longtime Watsonville High history teacher who died suddenly last year. Estrada in his remarks at the Feb. 9 City Council meeting said he was also working with Mejia on a history project that would focus on Watsonville’s rich past “that would give the opportunity to our local residents to not only understand their local history but by extension the history of this nation.”

“Even though Mr. Mejia is not with us, I’m still hoping to create this cross-generational and cross-cultural bridge in this community,” he said. “I’m very fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to serve as mayor, because one of the great gifts I’ve received is … I’ve gotten a better understanding that the Croatian experience, the Chinese experience, the Japanese experience, the Filipino experience, the Chicano experience, Latinx, African-American, Muslim-American, they’re not all that different …. It’s only our perceptions of each other and our misunderstandings of history that really divide us.”

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. steven trujillo

    March 3, 2021 at 2:04 pm

    thank you Tony, for quoting me accurately.
    Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was a fortune hunter who handed off Ohlone women and girls to his “men” for their pleasure.
    The men and boys were conscrripted into his army to collect any bounty they could find to load up the ship San Salvador (holy savior) for the betterment of the King of Spain. in the process, he and his soldiers spread STD’s, measles , chicken pox and small pox , among other communicable diseases which led to the deaths of perhaps thousands of Ohlone people. In southern CA, he was injured in battle. his soldiers and the indigenous people there left him to die of gangrene.
    English professor Martin Garcia of Cabrillo said in an interview with the San Luis Obispo tribune last July that he would rather the college be renamed GANGRENE college rather than keep the name Cabrillo.
    I could not agree more.
    Our staff and board have developed an inclusive process where the entire community will be able to participate to rename our school. I support it.

    I want to thank councilmember Paco Estrada who was the first one to support my compromise proposal for the GW statue. it will reside in the public library with a bilingual plaque that documents the bad and good side of GW. Long overdue.
    Cabrillo and Washington did much to CANCEL CULTURES of the indigneous peoples of America. We must rectify these terrible wrongs. i pledge that to my constituents. Education is the food of Renaissance for both mind and soul; we must take this opportunity to feed both.

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