The history of people, places and events survives by being passed down through generations, whether written in books, told through oral accounts or painted on walls.
Cesar Chavez is one such figure, living in East San Jose during his beginnings as a community organizer and labor champion and working to bolster the rights of the city’s Mexican American population. But despite his brief residence here – later moving to areas like Delano and Salinas where he led his famous farmworker boycotts – Chavez’s legacy has stood the test of time through parks, monuments and murals.
But for historians like April Halberstadt, who sits on the Santa Clara County Historical Heritage Commission, the distinction between calling San Jose home and making a name for himself elsewhere through his work presents a challenge.
“History tends to be dates, places, hard information. Historiography is about how the story manages to get told,” Halberstadt said. “Somebody once said that there would be no Jesus without St. Paul, because Jesus wrote nothing.”
Halberstadt stirred controversy in a recent San José Spotlight article when she said art can exaggerate false histories – akin to how Chavez’s name is all over town, yet his legacy in San Jose is only a brief period of residency. Her remarks have led to an online petition and letter-writing campaign to remove her from the commission.
“You have to be careful with your art not to give people a false sense of history; we do that all the time,” Halberstadt said in the May 6 story.
While accurately reported, Halberstadt’s quote was removed in an editorial decision after community outcry. Halberstadt claims she’s since penned an apology for upsetting those who took offense, but said the comments were made from an historical lens.
“I should not have framed what I said to you like you would understand history,” Halberstadt said. “So, that’s my fault. I don’t feel bad, I’m an old lady. They’re not going to make me angry because they’re angry.”
Halberstadt said if she frames Chavez’s legacy through the impact of his community organizing alone, that could be comparable to “creating a myth” because oral histories are often unreliable and misremembered.
But Halberstadt’s apology and explanation aren’t enough, said East San Jose Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco. She said the commissioner is attempting to erase history and write a new narrative.
“What does (his length of time here) have anything to do with his contributions? You can live in San Jose a lifetime and contribute nothing,” Carrasco told San José Spotlight. “It’s not about the number of years that he was here or not. It is about who he was during his lifetime, what he was able to accomplish and what he has come to represent in history. We claim him with great pride.”
Carrasco said Halberstadt’s comments cut even deeper because she’s in a position of authority and a gatekeeper to the city’s history as a member of the Historical Heritage Commission. Carrasco added that the commissioner’s focus on linear timelines is a “monolithic, blindsided perspective.”
“She gets to be in a very privileged position, speaking from a very privileged perspective, writing a narrative that can write us out, and that’s dangerous,” Carrasco said. “This speaks to a bigger problem, and I think that’s the dialogue that you’re seeing (online).”
Carrasco and East Side activists said disparaging Chavez’s legacy in San Jose isn’t a knock solely against the city, but all of California and beyond.
“What they’re doing is they are completely whitewashing and rewriting, and just paving over the bodies of my ancestors,” said Paul Soto, a longtime community leader and fourth generation San Josean. “There’s no way that mindset doesn’t infect the decisions that impact the very people that that man defended, because their ancestors are still here.”
An important conversation
As the hundreds of reactions poured in about Halberstadt’s remarks about Chavez, local artist Lila Gemellos’ art served as the backdrop to the issue. The original comment was made in a story about Gemellos’ art.
Gemellos, who serves on the commission with Halberstadt, agreed that her perspective of Chavez was “inappropriate.”
“We are not the most diverse group on the Historical Heritage Commission,” Gemellos said, now two months into her role. “We need to start engaging some of these groups and finding out more about the heritage than just what is written down. This discussion needs first-person accounts. We need to have a place where this story is preserved and told.”
Gemellos’ first step is recognizing her own shortcomings, which includes featuring former Mayor Thomas Fallon’s statue – installed after a decade of protest from Latinx activists claiming it honored oppression – in one of her recent murals. While Gemellos has scheduled meetings to talk with community leaders about his history, she said there’s a lack of information about Fallon, other than his short tenure in government and bloodless conquer of the city during the Mexican-American War. If those gaps of aren’t addressed, she said other artists could make the same decisions.
She sees this controversy as a reminder to be more aware of her artistic decisions, even in privately commissioned work.
“I was chosen because I do beautiful architectural drawings in vivid color, and that is all this was ever meant to be,” she said, noting that it was a design process involving several stakeholder reviews. “We felt like the statue was part of the architecture and the character of the street.”
Gemellos hopes the attention and passion this conversation has drawn will fill those gaps of knowledge, representation and inclusiveness in the history of San Jose.
“There’s clearly a conversation that needs to be had. This is an excuse to have it, and we need to move forward together. I’m so glad the community is even interested in doing that with me,” Gemellos said. “If we can make that more accessible, then this has been really worth it.”