From Fallon to Quetzalcoatl: San Jose statues, monuments tell a complicated story
The statue of Thomas Fallon, which sits at the intersection of West St James and Julian streets, been controversial since its commission in 1988 due to the former San Jose mayor's treatment of native populations. Photo by Katie Lauer.

As the controversial likeness of Thomas Fallon sits atop his horse northwest of Downtown San Jose, some are hoping he joins the list of toppled statues across the country.

More than a dozen protesters marched Tuesday from Fallon’s historic house to the statue, at the intersection of West St. James and Julian streets.

Against the backdrop of a nationwide reckoning with the history of race and statues honoring oppressors, speakers called the monument a symbol of exploitation of people of color, weeks after the artwork was painted red, representing accusations that blood is on Fallon’s hands from his claim of Mexican land.

“As long as Thomas Fallon and other symbols of imperialism and colonialism continue to be positioned in glorification, we will forever be oppressed on our land,” said Peter Ortiz, a Santa Clara County Board of Education trustee. “(Mayor Sam Liccardo) says he stands against white supremacy, but actions mean more than words. Having the statue here is a slap in the face to our people.”

Community organizer Rebeca Armendariz said the goal is to recognize the history of how her ancestors were impacted by Fallon and other colonizers through ethnic studies in schools, a movement that’s already taking shape in San Jose.

She said removing Fallon would be “icing on the cake,” and by Wednesday afternoon, more than 2,200 people had signed a Change.org petition for its removal.

The statue of one of San Jose’s first mayors was commissioned in 1988 to memorialize the raising of the U.S. flag in the city in 1846, and now stands at the intersection of West St. James and Julian streets – after being stored in an Oakland warehouse for more than a decade because of criticism.

But Fallon is a divisive figure because of his hostile treatment of native people and embodiment of American imperialism, after he claimed the city shortly after the United States declared war on Mexico in 1846.

It’s not the first time San Jose has grappled with controversial statues. In 2018, a coalition of community activists, led by Ortiz, convinced city lawmakers to boot a Christopher Columbus statue from San Jose City Hall. That statue, which now lives at the Italian American Heritage Foundation, was also vandalized multiple times before it was dismantled.

The statue of Quetzalcoatl, the winged serpent god of wind and wisdom, made headlines when former San Jose Councilmember Pierluigi Oliverio, who defended the Columbus statue, compared the coiled serpent to a pile of poop, causing uproar in the Latino community.

A statue of Quetzalcoatl, the winged serpent god of wind and wisdom, sits on the south end of the Plaza de Cesar Chavez in San Jose. Photo by Katie Lauer.

Since the Memorial Day police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis, dozens of statues and memorials dedicated to Confederate soldiers and generals across the country have been torn down or vandalized. In England, the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was replaced by Black Lives Matter protester Jen Reid.

Michael Ogilvie, San Jose’s director of public art, said criticism over the Fallon statue sparked a larger conversation about which historical figures the Bay Area’s largest city honors, leading to installations such as the Ohlone Way of Life, the life of Dr. Ernesto Galarza, the Founding of the Pueblo and the Agricultural History of the Valley – which all represent different historical perspectives.

“There’s a lot of history that these monuments take into account, and Fallon is one of them,” Ogilvie told San José Spotlight. “I think what needs to be brought to the forefront is how do we make sure who we’re honoring deserves it.”

But chronicling history through art is a constantly evolving conversation. “Culture is a living thing, and it changes, adapts and evolves; communities change, histories change,” Ogilvie said.

Making sure every voice is heard amid a rapidly changing landscape, however, can be a challenge.

And securing funding for public art raises questions of equity and community involvement. Only 2% of public art is paid through capital improvement projects, such as new building construction, so independent funding is needed to create statues and monuments.

“I think people, so they don’t repeat history, need to know where (the statue’s) from and maybe update those monuments with the actual deeds that these characters have done,” Ogilvie said, “so that people are aware that this guy at this point in time was honored, but not anymore.

Locally, San Francisco Mayor London Breed called for a review of the city’s public art nearly a month ago, after statues of Francis Scott Key and Ulysses Grant were toppled because of their history of slave ownership, while Fr. Junipero Serra was brought down due to allegations of committing atrocities against Native Americans.

A statue of Fr. Junipero Serra, who founded the California Missions, sits on the Santa Clara University campus. Photo by Katie Lauer.

While Stanford University removed Serra’s name from multiple campus features in 2018, a figure of Serra remains tucked away on Santa Clara University’s campus, which sits on the third Mission Santa Clara de Asis site.

Paul Soto, a longtime community leader and descendent of Native Californians who were part of the mission system in the 1800s, doesn’t support removing Serra’s likeness. He said removing such sculptures is only erasing history, not addressing the psychology and intentions behind history.

“Symbols are enduring and they have a lot of visceral power, because people project onto them the principles for which they stand,” Soto said. “That’s why it’s so important for people to psychologically tear that down.”

Instead, Soto said he supports maintaining controversial statues – like Fallon and Columbus – to educate others on the harm they caused. Later this summer, Soto will educate students at Santa Clara University about how Serra decimated his ancestors’ culture through the Missions.

“For me to speak at that school built on that land, now a documented direct descendant is speaking out against it – that’s powerful,” Soto said. “For me, it’s not about the statues. I want to dismantle the edifice that put them in the first place.”

Contact Katie Lauer at [email protected] or follow @_katielauer on Twitter.

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