November 23, 1994
By Yolanda Reynolds
Photos by Mary J. Andrade
Last Friday, a statue of the ancient feathered serpent deity, Quetzacoatl, by the Los Angeles sculpture Robert Graham was unveiled in San Jose amid protest.
Graham refused to answer any questions regarding the sculpture. It was originally to have been done in bronze a medium in which he usually works. The sculpture appears to be made of some sort of composition cement.
This piece of public art is one of six other pieces to be installed around, town. The process for their installation has been slow and exactly how the art themes will be carried out has been controversial.
It was over four years ago that a sculpture of an early day mayor intended to hold a prominent place in downtown San Jose, caused a furor among many San Joseans. Some because‚ “he was a creep.” But others, in the Mexican/Latino community voiced strong objections to the celebration of the defeat of Mexico for the control of San Jose and the rest of California by the North America ad still others objected to the process for selection and the cost over $500,000.
The City, after months of meetings of a special “Historic Arts Advisory Committee,” announced that the controversial Fallon statue would be placed in Pellier Park, a less prominent location but before that sculpture would arrive in San Jose, three other sculptures had to be completed. One would honor the Ohlone people, the original residents of what is now known as San Jose. Another the “pobladores,” the settlers of modern day San Jose who came from what is now known as Northern Mexico, people and families of European, indigenous, and African heritage.
There is to be another sculpture honoring and recognizing this city’s agricultural past and a third sculpture honoring Dr. Ernesto Galarza, a scholar/teacher, who gained national and international recognition for his pioneering research and writings about agricultural workers in California and the Valley.
Friday city officials announced that there would also be a sculpture memorializing the Japanese American internment during World War II and another of six ice skaters.”
The Fallon statue currently remains in storage at an undisclosed location in Oakland.
At the time of the Fallon controversy it was agreed that the Plaza Park area was the heart of the city and as such should be jealously protected from “controversial art.”
Quetzacoatl, for many, is not controversial. However, some say that he is a god and therefore that such a statue paid for with public money and placed in a public park, is a violation of the separation of Church and State. A suit was filed but after viewing the statue, the judge did not agree with this claim. These protestors held a three-day twenty-four-hour vigil at the side of the statue.
Quetzalcoatl, has for centuries, been an important part of the consciousness of peoples throughout Mexico, Central America and even in parts of South America.
According to the Mexican anthropologist, Roman Piña Chan, to date, the first known manifestations of Quetzalcoatl appear during the Olmec period. This serpent-jaguar represented the life-giving source of water for their agricultural pursuits by which plants and foods could be produced.
Piña Chan says that the confusion over Quetzalcoatl’s identity comes from a variety of origins. First as a fertility symbol jaguar-serpent to a heavenly image that became the bird-serpent that brought the clouds and rain. In time, Piña Chan explains, Quetzalcoatl became characterized as a combination of man, bird, and serpent. This Quetzalcoatl led those Mesoamerican groups from an early agricultural society to what is known as the world of Fifth Sun (“Quinto Sol”), by which important advances were made in astronomy, including the development of the annual calendar, the arts, the sciences as well as the emergence of a monotheistic religion that culminated in Mexico of the emergence of a “new era.” Many of the discoveries of these peoples rivaled those made in Europe and other parts of the world and, in some instances, were more advanced.
According to the research of Piña Chan the priest/rulers interpreted Quetzalcoatl to the mases and the story becomes confused in the myth and history of the American experience. These priest/rulers dominated several great centers in Mesoamerica, among them Tula and Teotihuacan, whose people are known as Toltecs.
The Aztecs came into power in the 14th century and legend tells us that with countenance the over throw of Quetzalcoatl by another deity, Hiuitzilopoctli, the sun god, who demanded “a regular diet of hearts of sacrificed warriors.”
This fact drew criticism of the statue from Julian Garcia, a San Jose resident, who, watching the Aztec dancers at the unveiling, said that this (event) reinforces “the myth.” “The Aztecs are the reason my ancestors were conquered,” Garcia explained. “The Aztecs would have had allies among their neighboring tribes not enemies, had they not been so war like.” Adding, “our people have suffered for over-500 years – history is too often distorted.”
To this writer, Graham’s version of Quetzalcoatl appears to be in the image of an early, traditional version of the feathered serpent followed by the early day agricultural societies who understood their world in terms of the cycles for planting and die paramount importance of the life-giving water they needed in order to have a bountiful harvest of food for their families.
Few people who understand the story of Quetzalcoatl would dispute his influence in the evolution of those marvelous civilizations, contributions in agriculture and science which the entire world benefits from today.
There are those who disagree with the statute because of the cost. Pat Martinez Roach says, “it makes me sick that Quetzalcoatl is remembered in such a way. His spirit would better be remembered if the $500 thousand had been set aside to generate an endowment that would have sponsored art programs for young people.” Martinez Roach, a teacher, adds,”It saddens me that so honorable a figure should become. in San Jose, a figure of controversy.”
Community advocates, Kathy Chavez Napoli, Felix Alvarez, and Henry Dominguez, who led the movement to stop the placement of the Fallon statue in Plaza Park (now named Plaza de Cesar E. Chavez) handed out a statement in which they state “it is not an even trade to think that by allowing the Mexican community to have a statue of Quetzalcoatl, that the
city politicians can erect the Fallon statue.” They point out that the “Fallon statue represents disunity, Quetzalcoatl represents unity.” They say that “today our community is being attacked by unjust laws and vendidos(sellouts). It is important to stay united in our struggle for justice against all who try to use us, through our culture our ceremonies and who pretend to honor and respect our ways.”
A number of persons were concerned that the Biblioteca Latinoamericana must find a new home (even though there is not money for a move) “while many thousands of dollars are spent on this sculpture.” The Biblioteca is a library dedicated to publications in Spanish, of Mexican, Latin American and Latin history and cultural traditions. This, they add, demonstrates the lack of respect and concern for the interests and real needs of the Latino community.
Interestingly, when Quetzacoatl, the “Serpiente Emplumada,” came that week and everyone sighed with relief for the rainfall. The fear of drought is as real today as it was for the early day people in Mesoamerica over 2,000 years ago. © La Oferta Newspaper.