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The Divisive Debate Over the Bust of President George Washington

Discussion on fate of the Washington statute reached a tipping point last summer

A bust of George Washington stands in the Watsonville City Plaza. PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

[This is part one of a two-part series. Part two runs next week. — Editor]

When about a half-dozen women last July began the movement to remove a donated bust of President George Washington from a historic park in the heart of Watsonville, they thought it would be a mostly easy and painless process. 

After all, says Frances Salgado-Chavez, California is known for its liberal policies and progressive moves, and the small agricultural city on the Central Coast is predominantly home to people of Latinx descent—about 80% said their ethnicity was Hispanic in the most recent census data. The statue, Salgado-Chavez says, was largely overlooked by visitors since being erected in 2001. It was often defaced with eggs, banana peels and stickers.

“It was not respected,” says Salgado-Chavez. 

Or so she thought. In the seventh months since the Revolunas—the liberal collective of mostly Latinx women based in Watsonville that led the charge against the statue—held their first sit-in protest, defenders and detractors of the nation’s first president have battled over his place in history, weighed the statue’s relevance to the city and tried to reckon with his actions from some 230 years ago. Washington was a slave owner, but he also helped establish the United States. He played a large role in the genocide of Indigenous people, but he also relinquished power and turned down the opportunity to become a king. Those discussions dominated the handful of public meetings and social media battles of barbs surrounding the statue.

Ultimately, the Watsonville City Council at its Feb. 9 meeting voted 5-2 to move the statue from the City Plaza across Main Street to the public library and add a bilingual plaque to the podium “that describes a broad historical perspective about George Washington.” There, Watsonville Mayor Jimmy Dutra said in his remarks during the meeting, it would be safe from vandalism and hopefully promote people’s curiosity about Washington’s history.

“No matter how you look at it, it is an educational piece,” said Dutra, an eighth-grade history teacher at Pajaro Middle School. “There is something to learn [from it]. I am not in favor of throwing it in a landfill or getting rid of it. It was a gift to the city, and we need to learn from it.”

Exactly what people learned over the past seventh months, however, depends on who you talk to. Some came away angry that the will of a few superseded the voice of the silent majority who in a survey said they wanted the statue to stay. Others say that Watsonville still has a long way to go to fight and eliminate racism. Dutra bluntly said the statue was merely a microcosm of the “racial divide” currently seeping into Watsonville’s political landscape.

“We need to get back to a point of healing,” he said. “This community needs to heal.”

Recent history

Part of a $100,000 gift from the Alaga Family Estate as a dying wish of Lloyd F. Alaga, the bust has called the Watsonville City Plaza home since 2001. The council unanimously approved the gift from Alaga in 1999, using $70,000 to create the bust and the rest to help restore a historic fountain in the park. Alaga, a Watsonville native and immigrant from Croatia, also donated $200,000 to the Watsonville Public Library. The bust sat mostly unnoticed for 19 years until the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020 sparked national social unrest.

In the days and weeks after Floyd’s death, millions of Americans took to the streets in a call for racial justice and the defunding of police departments. There were also demands that monuments to historic figures that were linked to the Confederacy, slavery and the oppresion of Black people, Indigenous people and people of color be removed.

Those calls arrived in Watsonville in early July 2020 in the form of an online petition circulated by the Revolunas through their Instagram account. The petition said that Washington owned hundreds of slaves, aided in the genocide of Indigenous people and that he does not “reflect the values of our community.”

“He is the epitome of White Supremacy!” the petition reads.

It garnered more than 1,100 signatures—it now sits just above 1,500 signees—and it caught the eye of dozens of other Watsonville residents, who said they saw Washington’s statue as a representation of the country they once fought for and a piece of history that should not be forgotten. That group of people mostly in their 40s and above included former police chief Manny Solano and his father Alex, a well-known veteran and volunteer. They started their own petition, and faced off with the Revolunas in organized protests around the bust. 

Their first meeting on July 17, 2020, was somewhat respectable. One side asked the other why they wanted it gone, and the other side asked why they wanted it to stay. One side carried signs that read “No symbols of racism in Watson” and “Black Lives Matter.” The other side simply sat across from them and peppered them with questions. But two weeks later everything changed.

On July 31, they once again gathered around the statue. About a half-dozen people with the Revolunas showed up with their same homemade signs. But the other side came draped in red, white and blue, waving U.S. flags and toting matching, prepared signs that read “Keep the Washington statue in the Plaza.” The pro-bust crowd outnumbered the Revolunas about 3-1, and the back-and-forth sparks from two weeks prior grew into a fire.

During that protest, a person in a truck drove by the crowd and shouted “white power.” Another person from the pro-bust group told a member of the Revolunas to go back to Mexico, Salgado-Chavez says. A photo of a person flashing an “OK” hand gesture while wearing a Hawaiian-print shirt surfaced from the rally. The hand gesture, according to the Anti-Defamation League, has been associated with white supremacy, and the floral shirt pattern has been linked to the Boogaloo Bois, a loosely knit group of heavily-armed, violent extremists who say they are opposed to government tyranny and police oppression. That photo, moreover, came just one month after a reported Boogaloo, Alex Carrillo, allegedly shot and killed Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Sgt. Damon Gutzwiller in a violent rampage in Ben Lomond.

The person in the photo was later identified as a minor, and his mother, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her son, in an interview with GT shortly after the rally said the situation was a big misunderstanding—the shirt was a birthday gift and he is an Eagle Scout with a local Boy Scouts troop, she says. But the damage was done. In the first public forum concerning the bust’s removal, several people said its meaning had changed after the July 31 rally.

“I think that the [Washington] monument didn’t have to go in the beginning but after this happened it made me change my mind,” Maura Carrasco Leonor, a longtime community organizer, said at a Parks and Recreation Commission meeting on Aug. 4. “If that’s what George Washington is going to bring, and people like this are going to bring that kind of hate, it’s just got to go.”

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. James Griffin

    February 24, 2021 at 1:16 pm

    So. Where does this all end? We have an admitted vocal minority that desires to erase anything they don’t agree with and one side who respects History for what it is, and that it is and to learn from it, good and bad. Do we now rename the city because Mr. Watson was a bit of an undesirable? What about names of Streets, Parks and Communities named after Spanish Banditos or others who may not have been Angelic? Cancel Culture is a very slippery slope and only causes division. Be an adult and if you don’t like something, pass it by, but to not deny others from their Rights to enjoy. Removing the Bust should require a refund of ALL money left to the City by Mr. Alaga in my opinion, Library funds also.

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