The flames set to the statue of Capt. Thomas Fallon during a downtown San Jose protest last month have sparked a debate about whether to remove the sculpture.
Mayor Sam Liccardo posted on his government Facebook page Oct. 12 he wants to start a conversation about the statue and have residents come up with a plan.
“I’m inviting the public to a discussion with historians who can provide factual information that may or may not support the suppositions of anyone on either side of this debate,” Liccardo wrote. “It’s called using our Democratic institutions — that’s what they’re there for.”
Liccardo said while assumptions are being made, he wants facts and suggested people learn more about the city’s history. He said he hasn’t seen proof Fallon was involved in harming or killing others but is speaking with historians to learn more.
Since its commission in 1988 by former Mayor Tom McEnery, a close friend of Liccardo’s, the statue of Fallon on horseback— raising the American flag in San Jose after Congress declared war on Mexico in 1846 — has been steeped in controversy.
In the 1990s, Latino activists said the statue was a symbol of oppression and a racial insult to people of Mexican descent as it commemorated the abuse of indigenous and Mexican people following the Mexican American War.
They objected to its placement in the center of the city at Cesar Chavez Park, so it was relocated to the cross streets of St. James and Julian streets in downtown.
On July 14, protesters marched from Fallon’s historic home to the statue. Later, the bronze sculpture was painted red, representing the blood on Fallon’s hands.
On Sept. 23, when residents took to the streets following a Kentucky grand jury’s ruling regarding officers involved in the death of Breonna Taylor, flames were set to an American flag and a Trump banner atop the statue.
Handwritten signs taped to the statue in July said: “Honor Native Peoples. Take it down” and “Genocide is nothing to celebrate. Take it down.”
Resident Laura Loveland Lemasa said on Facebook that while Fallon was important to the founding of San Jose, he murdered the original residents of this area.
“Spray paint that on his statue,” Lemasa said.
Maritza Maldonado, executive director of Amigos de Guadalupe, an East San Jose nonprofit, said that in light of racial equality, the statue should be removed.
“Pueblo de San Jose was part of indigenous land and part of Mexico at the time,” Maldonado said. “For people like us, the statue is a recolonization of peoples who have continued to have to bear the burden of systemic racism.”
Mexican American activist Peter Ortiz participated in local rallies and was instrumental in the removal of the statue of Christopher Columbus from San Jose City Hall. Ortiz said having a statue depicting Fallon, known to demonize people of indigenous and Mexican heritage, is not representative of the values or people of San Jose.
“Fallon had major involvement in colonization in Santa Clara County,” Ortiz said, “and while historians and local politicians may find value in what he’s done, he characterized the native population as being less than human and encouraged the genocide and enslavement of local indigenous populations, as well as the stealing of their land.”
Liccardo said he wants to hear more from the community and historians before deciding what to do with the statue. He is planning a discussion that will be moderated by Al Camarillo, the founding director of Stanford University’s Center for Chicano Research.
“The alternative of having three guys in a truck with a rope trying to tear down the statue doesn’t seem terribly Democratic,” Liccardo told San Jose Spotlight, “and I’d much rather have the community … hear from each other … and hopefully arrive at a decision that better reflects community values. That may mean the removal of the statue, or it may mean additional description for the statue, but … the important thing is for us to hear each other.”
Liccardo said he hasn’t seen evidence Fallon committed homicide or was one of the oppressors, like Capt. John Fremont who lead the Sacramento River Massacre.
“Fremont’s army went to the Sacramento River Valley and slaughtered two dozen indigenous women and children in a horrific crime,” Liccardo said. “At that point, to my understanding, Fallon was no longer there. He was down in Santa Cruz. If Fallon was a participant in that, it’s important for us to learn.”
When asked if his friendship with McEnery might bias his decision regarding the statue, Liccardo said he’s also friends with people who want to get rid of it. McEnery could not immediately be reached for comment.
“The most important thing for me as mayor of a city that is deeply burdened by a severe recession …. with families having their primary wage earner out of work and a pandemic inflicting a lot of suffering … is how to tackle our biggest challenges together,” he said.
“Seizing on issues which are divisive will undermine our ability to be able to overcome these very serious and severe challenges. I would rather us have a dialogue in which we’re able to hear one another, and hopefully learn collectively, than to have ongoing battles categorized by burning statues down or tearing things up,” Liccardo said.
Maldonado sees this as a rare opportunity and one the community “must seize.”
“The fact that the mayor is even contemplating having a conversation like that,” Maldonado said, “is a huge win for our community.”
Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected]