GILROY – Concrete base poured and installed. Kelly’s green pillar points to the sky. But something is missing from the high ground along the Monterey Highway in this city in southern Santa Clara County: a planned “mission bell” marking a historic route that once connected California’s missions.
As Americans engage in passionate debate about our nation’s monuments and history, the El Camino Real mission bells have become the West Coast version of the Confederate statues.
UC Santa Cruz officials removed theirs in 2019, the city of Santa Cruz did the same, and the city of Hayward were dissuaded from installing it—all of whom were persuaded by local Indian tribes who claim the familiar mile markers are an offensive symbol of dominance and genocide.
But the city of Gilroy decided to do the opposite: install a new one downtown to celebrate its 150th anniversary. He can rise as early as Friday.
“It’s like a slap in the face,” said Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Ama Mutsun tribal group, whose ancestors lived in the region for thousands of years before Spanish soldiers forced them to build missions and convert to Christianity in the 1700s. “I couldn’t believe how they could be so insensitive and completely ignore an indigenous point of view.”
The topic has become so controversial that state officials who voted to install the bell, including Mayor Marie Blancley, now refuse to talk about it.
Carolyn Lopez, a diner outside the Garlic City Cafe next to the monument’s stump, summed up the prevailing reluctance: “I’m going to be canceled!” she said.
But she relented and began to discuss the topic. “I know the missions are already out. They have done harm. But that was a different time,” said the retired school teacher. “I’m not saying they were right. But they are a symbol of California.”
Gilroy City Councilman Zach Hilton, one of three councilors opposed to the bell, says the plan is troublesome.
“In my opinion, this is something that you simply won’t do in 2022,” Hilton said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if people think, ‘Seriously, is this a joke?’
At a January City Council meeting at which Lopez and other members of the tribe spoke, a proposal to reopen the mission bell debate was defeated by 4 votes to 3.
According to Santa Clara University professor emeritus of history Robert Sienkiewicz, the green-patinated missionary bells mounted on staff-like poles and hooks were not part of any effort being made by the Catholic Church or the missions. They were built in the early 1900s by women’s guilds and automobile associations to commemorate a romanticized version of the state’s early history and promote California tourism. Markers along El Camino Real, the “Royal Highway” named after the Spanish monarchy that funded the California Expedition, were to mark every mile of the old route connecting the 21 missions from San Diego to Sonoma.
“The history of California, like the history of most places, is complex,” said Sienkiewicz, co-author of a book about mission founder Junipero Serra, whose holiness six years ago sparked outcry from local tribes. “To emphasize one part without recognizing and not emphasizing the others is wrong. The question is not what to shoot. It’s something that expresses the beautiful diversity of California.”
At one point, more than 500 markers, including those installed in the missions themselves, dotted the corridor that now roughly follows Highway 101 and includes the Alameda in San Jose, which leads to the Santa Clara mission. Many markers have been lost through theft over the decades. At least two are easy to spot on Highway 101 between South San Jose and Gilroy.
For López, the mission bells are symbols not only of the embellished history of missionary life, but also of the false history of El Camino Real itself, a series of trails first laid centuries earlier by indigenous people as a trade route.
In Gilroy, the planned mission bell pole is erected at the edge of a wide alley known as a “paseo” that connects a parking lot to a downtown commercial area along the Monterey Highway between Fifth and Sixth Streets. To spruce it up, about five years ago, explanatory signs about Gilroy’s history and its place as the garlic capital of the world were installed along the edges of the brick walls. The “Early Settlers” section mentions the Amah Mutsun diet of acorns and berries, along with a note that in the 1790s, “local natives were resettled in the mission area either at San Juan Batista or Santa Cruz.”
“It says nothing about how 100,000 to 150,000 indigenous people died during the Mission,” Lopez said. “How can the state of California, much less the local community, want to celebrate that time period?”
According to him, he and his supporters are starting a movement to remove all remaining roadside missionary bells.
In Hayward, members of the Muwekma Olone tribe thwarted a plan to install a missionary bell in the town’s Heritage Square a few years ago—the bell was donated to the Hayward Historical Society instead—and the tribe commissioned their artist to create a new installation.
What’s next for Gilroy? The bell, which councilman Dion Bracco bought a few months ago to donate to the city, was due to be installed earlier this year. Its location isn’t entirely clear, but Hilton has heard that the city could start building it on Friday.
One thing is clear to Lopez: “Once that bell rings, we’re going to campaign to take it down.”