GILROY – Over objections from local Native Americans, the city of Gilroy on Friday finished the installation of a commemorative El Camino Real mission bell downtown as part of its 150th birthday celebration.
Members of the Amah Mutsun tribal band had protested the project at a January City Council meeting, contending that the bell was a symbol of oppression at the hands of the Spanish padres who founded California’s string of Catholic missions from the 1760s to 1830s. Tens of thousands of indigenous people forced to build the adobe churches succumbed to European diseases.
“It shows the destruction and domination of native people never ended. It just evolved,” tribal chairman Val Lopez said Friday. “And it evolved to the city not caring about our history of suffering and trauma. They just want to glorify history the way they want it to be told.”
Hundreds of mounted mission bells still line Highway 101, a route that roughly follows the early trail that connected the 21 missions. They were installed not by the Catholic church but by ladies’ guilds and automobile associations in the early 1900s to commemorate state history and encourage tourism.
Monterey Street, the precursor to Highway 101, runs through downtown Gilroy. The new bell is mounted along the edge of a “paseo” lined with interpretive signs that mention how the Amah Mutsun were “relocated” to the missions beginning in the 1790s.
The bell brouhaha is the second time the city’s 150th anniversary committee appeared to be tone deaf, said City Council Zach Hilton who was in the minority when he and two other council members opposed the bell. The first erupted when the committee offered, but then took back, a time capsule decorated with “basically a cowboy on a horse and two older white guys that had formed the Garlic Festival. There were no people of color on it, not even a woman on it,” Hilton said. “We can’t take gifts like this. This is not inclusive of the last 150 years for the future to open.”
City council members who favored the project have declined repeated interview requests. Council member Dion Bracco donated the bell to the city.
Gilroy installed its mission bell after the city of Santa Cruz and UC Santa Cruz removed theirs over the past few years and the city of Hayward scuttled plans to erect one in a city park.
On Friday, after reading about the controversy in the Mercury News, retired teacher Rob McClelland rode his bike to Monterey Street to see the bronze bell, now mounted on a tall pole and hook. Although he believes there are other ways to recognize indigenous people who suffered through the mission era, he has little problem with the mission bell.
“It’s not necessarily advancing pro-Colonialism, it’s just history,” McClelland said. “Why don’t we have a statue of an Ohlone Indian, too?”