Los Angeles Times
Mission bell tells tale of two pasts
For better or worse, residents heed tolling of the mission bell
Ubiquitous symbol evokes the state’s Spanish history but also the suffering of indigenous people.
The dangling silhouette of the mission bell has become a defining element of California iconography.
You’ve seen them in history books, countless souvenirs and on highway markers commemorating the “Historic El Camino Real” across the state.
To some, those mission bells conjure the romance of California’s Spanish past — a paternal Mission pastoral punctuated by elegant archways, vine-covered ruins and ornate pageantry.
To others, like tribal leader Valentin Lopez, those bells represent unimaginable suffering and destruction.
“‘We conquered you, we controlled you, we destroyed you’ — that’s what those symbols mean to us,” explained Lopez, who serves as chairman of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. The Amah Mutsun are descendants of the indigenous people who were taken to Missions San Juan Bautista and Santa Cruz near California’s Central Coast.
In late June, a cast-iron mission bell that had long hung near the Hahn Student Services Building at UC Santa Cruz was removed during a ceremony attended by more than 150 people.
Lopez had been campaigning for the removal of mission bells for years, and spent the past year in discussion with campus leaders over the removal of this particular bell. Now that the campus bell has come down, Lopez has broadened his efforts to target the removal of the two known mission bell markers on Santa Cruz city property — one at Mission and Sylvar streets, just outside Mission Santa Cruz, and another near the intersection of Soquel and Dakota avenues, near the Santa Cruz Riverwalk.
“We’ve been trying to get the mission bells to come down for a while. The bell coming down at UC Santa Cruz is the first bell that we are aware of to come down,” said Lopez, who added that he had been inspired, in part, by the ongoing removal of Confederate monuments in the South.
The Santa Cruz bell removal comes during a period of larger reckoning around California’s bloodsoaked treatment of its native people. Just days before the bell came down on the UC Santa Cruz Campus, Gov. Gavin Newsom took the rare step of issuing an executive order apologizing on behalf of the citizens of California for a history of “violence, maltreatment and neglect” against Native Americans.
“It’s called a genocide. That’s what it was. A genocide,” Newsom said at the June 18 ceremony with more than 100 tribal leaders. There’s “no other way to describe it, and that’s the way it needs to be described in the history books.”
The problem, of course, is that the history books didn’t look anything like that for the generations of Californians who came of age making popsicle-stickand-sugar-cube mission models in the fourth grade. And the rose-colored repackaging of our brutal mission history didn’t emerge on accident.
Boosters, real-estate developers and automobile associations alike used a romanticized Spanish past to sell modern Southern California into being. But much of what they were shilling was fiction.
For instance, the entire idea of California having a singular El Camino Real that ran like a central artery through the state — connecting the 21 missions and acting as a path for the Franciscan friars — is a 20th century reinvention. Yes, there were missions and ways to get from one to the next, but the nostalgic notion of a single camino is “a fiction created in the 20th century to promote automobile tourism up and down the coast of California,” as UC Riverside history professor Steven Hackel explained to KCET a few years ago.
The roadside mission bell markers you’ve seen on the highway emerged through the work of a local activist, backed by the Auto Club. The first commemorative mission bell was erected along the route in 1906. By 1915, there were 400 mission bell guideposts between San Diego and Ventura and they “began to have a cultural impact early in their life span,” according to historian Phoebe Kropp’s “California Vieja.”
California’s car culture and the reinvented history of the El Camino Real rose in tandem, as the state drew early automobile tourists and fed them a delectable revisionist history, conveniently divided into easy day trips.
Caltrans embarked on a project to restore the original highway marker bells in 1997 and received two federal grants totaling nearly $2 million to complete the project. There are about 585 mission bell markers, placed about one to two miles apart along the roadside on State Routes 101, 82, 37, 121 and 12, according to Caltrans’ website.
“To see those mission bells every mile on the freeway from San Diego up north to San Francisco — that’s just a constant, inyour-face reminder of our destruction and the domination of our culture,” Lopez said. “That’s what those bells represent.”
Others, of course, feel differently. “They got the wrong target,” said historian Gregory Orfalea, who wrote a major biography of Father Junipero Serra, the founder of California’s Spanish missions.
“It’s not the Franciscans who should be blamed for the genocide of the Indians in Californian,” Orfalea continued. “If you study the records, it’s pretty obvious who wiped out the Indians in California. It’s the same force who sadly and tragically destroyed Indian life across the continent — the American cavalry.”
Lopez is planning to meet with Santa Cruz City Council members soon to discuss the possible removal of the two bells on city property. Palm Springs if you take Highway 62, but the surreal landscape of the park has arguably more in common with the moon than the low-slung midcentury homes to the west.
It’s a stark desert tableau, framed by giant boulders and looming rock formations so fantastical that one is tempted to believe in either God or aliens, if only to explain their origins. The park has otherworldly vistas, vast expanses and, of course, the eponymous, impossibly limbed Joshua trees, which National Geographic has characterized as “an international symbol of the American desert.”
Joshua trees are native to the American Southwest and grow wild only here in the Mojave Desert and other parts of the Southwest. They are not actually trees at all but a member of the agave family, which rarely appears in such treelike formations.
Their species dates to the Pleistocene era, when glaciers still covered giant swaths of the globe. The humble Yucca brevifolia has outlived too many human civilizations to count, but time may finally be running out for the Joshua trees of Joshua Tree National Park, unless drastic climate action is taken.
A new study conducted by the UC Riverside Center for Conservation Biology looked at how the park’s “trees” would fare under various climate scenarios, and the results are bleak.
In a “business-as-usual scenario” where little is done to stem the tides of climate change, the scientists’ modeling “indicated an almost complete elimination of Joshua trees from the park” by the end of the century.
“We have a range of scenarios,” said Lynn Sweet, a UC Riverside plant ecologist and the lead author on the study. “If there’s global action on climate change, we might preserve [the] habitat. And if not, we might see it disappear.” The scientists tied their models to emissions scenarios put out by the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and future forecasts based on those emissions scenarios created by expert climatologists. Their models looked at the future of Joshua trees in the park for the years 2070 to 2099.
By the year 2100, “it could look like a forest of dead trees and no new trees,” Sweet said. Or, “it could look like just a few trees hanging on. We’re not really sure.”
In their “pessimistic scenario,” we could see average hot temperatures in the summer be about five to nine degrees Fahrenheit hotter in the park, with perhaps as much as 3 to 7 inches less rainfall per year. “Which is a lot,” she said. “If Joshua trees could survive those conditions, they would already be in them.”
Of course, in a turn-ofthe-next-century California wrought by worst-case scenario climate predictions, a Joshua Tree National Park tragically devoid of living Joshua trees would probably be among the least of our concerns.
Deadly heat spells, surging sea levels, apocalyptic wildfires and destructive droughts certainly come to mind. But a future of such dystopian proportions can be difficult to wrap our heads around.
Put all of the above in a single logline and you can almost imagine the studio executive telling a Hollywood screenwriter that it’s too many disasters for one movie. The audience will tune out.
So instead, picture a nearly 800,000-acre park where a towering and notoriously tough succulent has survived for millennia, now punctuated by dead Joshua trees.
“Our goal was to give people a really tangible look at what might happen if we don’t reduce carbon emissions,” Sweet said. With the Essential California newsletter, you will get quickly up to speed on the stories shaping California. Sign up at latimes.com/ essentialcalifornia.
For a park’s Joshua trees, time may be running out Joshua Tree National Park is barely 40 miles from