WATSONVILLE—More than 100 members of the community voiced their opinions on the possible removal of the George Washington bust from the Watsonville City Plaza at Monday’s Parks and Recreation Commission meeting.
The public forum lasted more than three and a half hours and was littered with accusations from both sides. 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.
At one point, one caller muttered “Then why are you here?” when someone was being critical of the country.
Commission Chair Abel Sanchez said one thing was clear: “We need to have dialogue. 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 vs. them.”
When and where those conversations will happen, however, is still unclear. The commissioners did not make a recommendation to the City Council, as the item was simply a “study session” and did not require them to take any action.
Parks and Community Services Director Nick Calubaquib said the statue could return to the commission at its September or October meeting after city staff creates a process to present possible solutions. That process could include bringing leaders from both sides together to hash out a compromise, Calubaquib said.
Xitlali Cabadas of Revolunas, the group leading the campaign to remove the bust, said she worried the issue would be “brushed off” and forgotten if the commission or City Council did not revisit it in September—or even sooner.
Commissioner Paul De Worken agreed with Cabadas.
“The pot is hot right now—it’s an issue that is hot right now,” he said. “People need to be heard. People need to vent…Let’s give the people what they want. They want something solid.”
Part of a $100,000 gift from the Alaga Family Estate as a dying wish of Lloyd F. Alaga, the bust has called the City Plaza home since 2001. The City Council unanimously approved the gift from Alaga in 1999, using $70,000 to create the bust and the rest to help restore the fountain in the historic park. The accompanying plaque on the pedestal reads “George Washington, 1732-1799, Father of His Country” and “First in War, First in Peace, First in the Hearts of His Countrymen.”
For two decades it has sat mostly unnoticed at the park nestled into the center of the city along with a handful of other historic elements such as two cannons, including one that was on the deck of the S.S. Oregon Mail where it was used to fire the first shot celebrating the state of California joining the U.S. in 1850.
But the debate around the bust began as several monuments to presidents, historic figures and the Confederacy across the country have been removed—both voluntarily and not.
Revolunas circulated a petition and staged a sit-in protest around the bust on July 17 to call for its removal. That group was met by a counter-protest consisting of several local veterans led by former Watsonville Police Chief Manny Solano and his father Alex Solano, a well-known local veteran and community leader.
Soon after that protest, Manny Solano circulated his own petition and organized a rally on July 31 back at the City Plaza.
That second meeting between the groups was contentious. Members of Revolunas said one member of Solano’s group shouted “white power” and another told a member of Revolunas to go back to Mexico.
In addition, a photo of a person flashing an “OK” hand gesture, which the Anti-Defamation League has said can sometimes be associated with white supremacy, surfaced from the July 31 rally, causing concern among several community members.
Maura Carrasco Leonor, a longtime community organizer, said her parents taught her to preserve history and to respect her elders. But the stories she heard and photos she saw from the July 31 rally have made her second guess her initial stance.
“I think that the [Washington] monument didn’t have to go in the beginning but after this happened it made me change my mind,” Leonor said. “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.”
Many in Solano’s group pushed back against those claims and vehemently said they were not white supremacists or supporters of racism. They, instead, said they and other supporters of the bust were afraid that the community is trying to erase its history, and that it is only following a national trend that was recently sparked by the killing of George Floyd in May.
“No one puts up a statute of Washington, in my experience, to promote slavery,” Mark Trabing said. “Washington led the revolution, kept our country together, resisted the calls to become a king and freed his slaves upon his wife’s death.
“Would you want to remove statues of anyone with a problematic history? Would you take down a statue of Martin Luther King because he was unfaithful to his wife? Where do you draw the line?”
But those in favor of removing the bust said that in its current state it does not accurately depict who Washington was and that it allows myths—his thoughts about slavery, his campaign against the Native Americans, his role in the creation of democracy—about the country’s first president to continue without question. They also said the statue is not representative of the immigrants that make up Watsonville’s community.
Commissioners Brando Sencion, Ana Hurtado-Aldana and Jessica Carrasco said they were in favor of removal and relocation of the bust, and said the conversation around race and the country’s history needed to continue.
“I know it’s uncomfortable to talk about this and it’s scary,” Carrasco said. “But it’s vital that we understand why having this statue of him offends a big part of our community.”
Added Hurtado-Aldana: “I think we have a very unique opportunity to make a decision that will set the tone for how we move forward as a community. I hope that we can arrive at that decision, whatever it may be, in a respectful and inclusive manner.”