As someone originally from the East Coast, the history of the American West had always fascinated me. When I got to high school and had to select a language to study, I chose Spanish because for me, it was an entree to that history.
It didn’t hurt that my father had gone to college in New Mexico and filled my imagination with his remembrances of the land, the people and the history. It simply whetted my appetite to learn more and eventually to go there myself – which I did.
My high school Spanish book was “El Camino Real” and it was filled with pictures of that “royal road” and its history. The road was named in honor of the Spanish monarchy that funded the California expedition in the new world.
It also featured the commemorative Mission Bells that had been erected along the length of California, marking each mile of the route that connected the development of the 21 Spanish Missions that were built from the 1760s to the 1830s, from San Diego to Sonoma. Anyone who has traveled the length of Highway 101 has on that trip seen those green Mission Bells, hanging from a metal staff.
It’s estimated that at one point there were over 500 of them but there are far fewer now, many lost due to theft, others removed because of political conflicts. There have been efforts to replace many of them, and, as is typical in California, the effort has raised a ruckus with the expected cries of discrimination.
UC Santa Cruz removed their bell in 2019 followed by the City of Santa Cruz. An effort to erect a bell in the city of Hayward was defeated amid cries that the bells are an offensive symbol of domination and genocide. The plan to install it in the Heritage Plaza was defeated, and the bell was given to the Historical Society.
That kind of dispute has become typical, highlighted most recently in Gilroy, California. On one side is the city of Gilroy and on the other side are several tribes of indigenous people. Gilroy calls the bells historic markers; the indigenous people say they are offensive.
It’s being said the El Camino Real Mission Bells have become the West Coast version of Confederate statues.
Valentin Lopez, chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, told the Bay Area News Group that the decision to erect a bell in Gilroy is “insensitive and totally disregards the indigenous people’s point of view.”
His tribe lived on the land in that area for thousands of years before the Spanish arrived in the 1700s, and the soldiers and the missionaries had the natives build the missions.
They and other tribe members are so angry about the bell proposal, they intend to mobilize to remove ALL the bells from the entire route.
What most people don’t know is that while the Missions were built by and for the Catholic Church, the bells had no religious connection. In fact, they were installed in the early 1900s by ladies guilds and auto associations to commemorate what is described as “a romanticized version” of early state history and promote California tourism!
Santa Clara University history professor Robert Senkewicz noted, “The history of California, like the history of most places, is complex.”
He should know. He wrote a book about mission founder Junipero Serra, whose sainthood six years ago was protested by native tribes.
Statues of Serra are still being vandalized and removed across the state at this time.
Professor Senkewicz continued: “To emphasize one part without acknowledging and emphasizing the other is not right. It’s not a question of what to take down. It’s what to put up that expresses California’s wonderful diversity.”
Gilroy’s plan to install the bell in a planned paseo will acknowledge the history of the city and recognize the people who are part of the history of the area. The plan has progressed despite the protests and despite the controversy and disagreements on the city council. Gilroy finally installed the bell at the end of January, as the final effort to recognize the El Camino Real. It’s the final step in the city’s 150th birthday celebration.
It’s interesting to note that after retired teacher Rob McClelland read about the controversy in the Mercury News, he rode his bike over to see the mounted bell. In his view, he “has little problem with it … the bell symbolizes both the good and bad of California’s complicated history.”
He added, “It’s not necessarily advancing pro-colonialism, it’s just history.”
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