Op-Ed: Why California’s “Mission Bell” road markers have to come down


Few symbols of California are as ubiquitous as the mission bell-shaped road markings that flank state highways and the streets of coastal cities from San Diego to Sonoma so-called El Camino Real. They celebrate the Spanish missionary system that conquered indigenous lands and sought the elimination of tribal cultures, spiritual practices and ways of life.

The bells must ring – and there they are about 585 of them.

My tribe, the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, is descended from indigenous peoples who were brought to the San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz Missions along California’s Central Coast. Along with many other Indigenous Peoples in the state, we are calling for the complete removal of bell markings.

Mission bells are a powerful symbol of the domination and enslavement of our ancestors, who toiled long hours without pay on mission grounds and were subjected to many forms of abuse. the ringing of the bells regulated the obligatory schedule of the day, and failure to heed the call of the bell could result in severe penalties.

The decorative street bells we see today were invented in the early 1900s to encourage tourism and settlement in California. Civic sponsors, automobile associations, real estate developers, and women’s clubs appropriated the mission bell to mark the route of a new state highway connecting California’s 21 missions. They dubbed the 600-mile path the El Camino Real, or the “Royal Road.”

The looming presence of these markings on state roads is taking a psychological toll on Indigenous people. The bells serve as a constant reminder of the suffering of our ancestors in the mission system and how many Californians sadly remain in uniform in the face of this tragic history.

The installation of the bell markers coincided with the repurposing of the crumbling historic Spanish missions to tourist destinations. Imaginative, whitewashed historical narratives of the missions as places of convivial, peaceful cooperation between Padres and willing Native American converts began to be widely circulated, and eventually entered the elementary school curriculum.

Not only are these offensive historical narratives false, they serve to obliterate the voices and actual experiences of the indigenous peoples who were held captive in the missions and who perished in staggering numbers. According to the California Native American Heritage Commission, ca 100,000 indigenous people died as a direct result of the missions, almost a third of California’s estimated Native American population at the time.

The bells give a tourism-friendly spin to the history of the missions, one that attempts to rewrite California history and obscures the fact that many tribal communities survived the missionary system and continue our cultural practices to this day. The bells also help to obscure widespread reality Resistance to the missions by indigenous peoples who often tried to flee and staged revolts.

The missions left most of our tribal communities landless within our own territories. Everything was taken from us. Families descended from mission survivors continue to experience this Consequences of a historical traumawhich is related to the high rates of depression, addiction, suicide, poverty and incarceration in our communities.

It is truly shameful that these places where our ancestors were enslaved, raped, tortured and subjected to deadly diseases have been turned into tourist attractions and in many cases wedding venues. Instead, the missions should be places where the public can learn what really happened to the indigenous people in the mission era and witness the atrocities that took place.

The bells have started ringing. At the request of the tribe members of Amah Mutsun, UC Santa Cruz removes his El Camino Real bell in 2019. A year later, the city Santa Cruz became the first California city to decide to remove his mission bell markings; two locations remained. And the city of Hayward has rolled back plans to install an El Camino Real bell in a public plaza in 2020, after discussions with local tribal officials.

Not all of our tribe’s efforts to reach decision makers have been well received. The town of Gilroy installed a new El Camino Real bell downtown in January, despite fervent pleas to reconsider. This disrespectful action shows that there is still a lot to be done and that many are reluctant to let go of the sugar-sweet state history they learned to identify with in their youth.

We recently started a petition Urged by Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Legislature to remove bell markings from Highway 101 and other state property. Where appropriate, government agencies—in collaboration with local tribal leaders—could replace them with new historical markers or educational markers that honor the region’s indigenous peoples.

Steps must be taken to address the damage caused by more than a hundred years of perpetuating harmful myths about the Missions. The city, state, and state agencies and organizations that erected the bells of El Camino Real should fund and facilitate initiatives aimed at telling the truth about how our ancestors were treated during the missionary days.

Defenders of the El Camino Real bells often say that their removal “erases our history,” reflecting a common refrain from proponents of retaining Confederate statues. Indeed, our movement to remove the bells is a call for California to acknowledge and face its true history, no matter how difficult, so that all of us—Native American and non-Native American—can begin to heal.

Another generation of young tribesmen should not have to grow up in the shadow of the mission bell. Send those bell tokens to the scrap heap – and stop promoting the missionary myths they herald.

Valentin Lopez is the chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. Op-Ed: Why California’s “Mission Bell” road markers have to come down

Caroline Bleakley

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