The George Washington bust at Watsonville Plaza, recently splattered with red paint | Courtesy of Martín García
By Martín García
“You can’t erase history!” public commentators shout out at awkwardly administered Zoom meetings and back-and-forth local news blogs. If you’re reading this article, then, come on, you already know the type, regardless of the exact issue. That status quo warrior hellbent against “cancel culture” and anything “woke,” somehow always defending the besieged boomer male worldview and every mythologized idol enshrined in high school textbooks. “He was a man of his times!”
The planned removal of the George Washington bust in Watsonville City Plaza and potential name change of Cabrillo College have recently rocked Watsonville and Santa Cruz County politics. Both the Watsonville bust and Cabrillo’s name have come under fire as the community and nation reckon with our colonial past in the wake of the 2020 protests, claiming many a critic in its wrath.
The Washington bust in Watsonville Plaza, a private donation made by the now deceased Lloyd Alaga, has divided the onlooking community between those who believe that Washington espoused policies of slavery and genocide of African and indigenous people and those advocating to keep the bust due to his crucial role in the American Revolution and founding of the United States.
Just beyond the bust, of course, is the Cabrillo College Watsonville Center. Named after Juan Ródriguez Cabrillo, the “discoverer” of California, the college faces a similar fate. The Cabrillo Board of Trustees has been called upon to account for the symbolism of the college’s name given his participation in conquest, slavery, and sex trafficking (particularly in Southern Mexico and Central America). Those opposed to a name change of the college, like those defending the bust, will at best acknowledge the unfortunate elements of the past but generally state that, regardless of any such unpleasant facts, History (with a capital H) should not be erased.
But is it really being erased? And what has indeed been erased?
Throughout Watsonville, there are murals of turn-of-the-century apple growers and the like, along what would be considered industrial or blighted spaces (the backside of the Fox Theatre, Walker Street, and elsewhere) — colorful and seemingly harmless reminders of “our” past. Salinas Valley folks will know this brand of art and memory well. Just drive past those huge, jolly cut-out figures of “farmer family businesses” outside of city jurisdictions. Such art serves to uphold and glorify a sanitized local history that provides legitimacy, if not power, for the agricultural/real estate status quo of the Valley and those whose pride is attached to that regime.
In the case of the Pájaro Valley, as in all of the Americas, the first inhabitants were indigenous people. It’s unpleasant to say aloud, but under Spanish California rule these folks were hunted down by the local missions where they and their children were enslaved until disease and/or “assimilation” took hold. For Natives, the missions were concentration camps. And what was left behind was vacant and up-for-grabs land, which was of course deemed terra nullius.
The Spanish government would eventually become the Mexican government, who then started giving out land grants to military men and criollos of high-esteem, including the Castros, Amestis and Ródriguez. Things got worse once the beloved “49ers” arrived. Under U.S. law, Native scalps carried monetary value. American officials didn’t recognize Mexican settler rights, only Anglo settler rights, which is how Watsonville’s Southern-sympathizer city founder, Judge Henry Watson (Watson, not Watsón), obtained land. Soon came a host of familiar names: the Crosettis, Driscolls, Martinellis, Reiters, Resetars, and so many others. Some amongst them nice people, I’m sure. All colonial settlers. Irish, Italians, Anglos, Croatians, African-Americans, Portuguese, Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, Northern Mexicans, Southern Mexicans and Central Americans have come since.
Whereas some of the above (most notably African-Americans) have experienced colonialism and genocide of their own, what unites us in the Pájaro Valley is that we are all settlers, colonos, on this indigenous land. Our crops grow out of yesterday’s genocide of the Amah Mutsun people. And our economy grows out of today’s farmworker bodies, predominantly Southern Mexican (and, surprise, indigenous) refugees.
Those who settled first were able to settle best, colonizing this land sterilized of Natives. The legendary bigwigs in town (and now those whose trust funds suck wealth from town) were able to colonize the land through the magical printing of real estate deeds and business contracts. First came cows and “Monterey Jack” cheese, then sugar beets, then eventually apples and strawberries. These turn-of-the-century settlers/colonos are the ones who have made the biggest fortunes from capitalization of the “terra nullius” land, as well as, of course, exploitation of the ever-incoming stream of cheap and immigrant (indigenous) labor.
"Unity, for many of these critics, means head-down docility and unwavering praise of men who practiced and supported genocide."
Many affluent folks, especially those whose daddies and granddaddies have “deep roots” here, dismiss notions of colonial exploitation in our own backyard and instead cite fieldwork as some odd rite of passage. For these folks, it seems like becoming part of the Watsonville, Soledad, Hollister or whatever other ag community requires a fraternity-style pledging — “pick yer berries like the rest of us did!” — as if it was as easy as comparing apples to oranges. However, to reiterate, all those with actual large land holdings and/or large business operations are able to thrive as they do because people of color were and continue to be exploited and, fundamentally, because the local Ohlone were genocided (though, of course, many blessed brothers and sisters are still around and still resisting!).
Landowners and businesses have acquired such large private capital holdings because they have been able to exploit yesteryear’s field workers, generation after generation, all exploited all the way back to that original moment of primitive accumulation in which land was expropriated from the Ohlone, they who had lived in harmony with the land for a full 15,000 years. They whose afterlife was up in the Milky Way-lit sky. But that doesn’t count as (H)istory. For some folks, Native history is more akin to natural history (with a lower-case h) — a footnote in the local museums or fourth-grade textbooks.
All that said, those who feel victimized by “cancel culture” slanders against Washington (whose dentures were slaves’ stolen teeth) or Cabrillo (who made a glue for his boats with the human fat of indigenous people) will still decry and lament the “Erasure of History.” But where were these folks when Ohlone gravesites have been “discovered” and defiled at local development projects? Or what about when pesticide after pesticide has been put into the earth and waterways? So Cabrillo? Washington? Who is it then that we should honor, if honor we must?
I think that those who should be commemorated are those being found under our feet and those picking the fruit from the dirt. Those striving to be the first to get “an education” and those “coming to terms” with their education.
As someone on the opposite aisle of the Washington and Cabrillo fans, I can appreciate that these matters don’t immediately impact our everyday lives and can and should come second to, in the case of Cabrillo College, student services, scholarships, building upkeep, COVID stipends, and other possibilities. Critics aren’t just fighting for history in the abstract,though. To be clear, they are fighting for white colonial settler history. And yes, this is true even if they are brown-skinned.
They will denounce the “division” that activists advocate, calling instead for “unity.” However, this brand of unity is often marked by obvious inequalities. Unity often means brown berry pickers knowing their place, even if they work the fields under the apocalyptic backdrop of smoky orange skies and wear masks during the middle of the Covid Plague. Unity, for many of these critics, means head-down docility and unwavering praise of men who practiced and supported genocide.
"Yes, Cabrillo died 500 years ago and, sure, Washington is the 'capital "F" Father of the country.' But please listen when I and others say they and their actions contributed to a world system fueled by genocide and exploitation."
“So where do you draw the line?” impassioned defenders of the status quo ask. I was personally surprised that the Washington bust was voted to be removed and hope that Cabrillo College’s name is the next to go. Our “line” must be ever-vigilant and aggressively combative towards colonization, which unfortunately is all over the place. Our “line” needs to be discussed in community dialogues. Yes, Cabrillo died 500 years ago and, sure, Washington is the “capital ‘F’ Father of the country.” But please listen when I and others say they and their actions contributed to a world system fueled by genocide and exploitation. When I read the news, both local and international, I see that the libido of that world system is alive and well and still throbs with a perverse lust for gold, be it from 1521 or 1849 or 2020. That predatorial brand of greed has and will forever hurt us all.
There is nothing “post” about this collective post-traumatic stress disorder that the Pájaro Valley and greater Monterey Bay suffer from. Our pain is not just in the fields or in burial sites. It is the Gilroy Garlic Festival, the Boogaloo Bois killing of a Santa Cruz deputy, Norteño versus Sureño shootings, and mass homelessness — here! not in San Francisco or some shantytown, but here with me in Watsonville and you wherever you are.
Some folks will mock the “culture war” battles that these debates around Cabrillo College or whatever else represent for them. But for me, they are connected to larger dialogues on culture, capital “C” or otherwise. We all share a larger common ecosystem, and we have already been diagnosed with terrible strands of hate, racism and violence as well as scourges of inequality and injustice. We need to talk about our collective well-being and the delivery of our healing, even if that is very discomfiting to do.
Settler art, history and institutions are not being erased. But our indigenous forebears and immigrant campesinos can’t be erased either, and ultimately, that’s what this dialogue is all about. This dialogue is how we will heal.
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