Recently Watsonville residents had the great pleasure of seeing the holiday lights lit up in our Downtown Plaza. Such events as these are fantastic as they provide opportunities for the community to gather in a safe environment and celebrate the spirit of Christmas and the holidays in general.
Unfortunately, people are often scared to do so because of guys named Joker and Smiley who ironically don’t have the best personalities in the world. Nonetheless, I find the Plaza to hold an undeniable ideological importance in our community. Such was made evident by the strong support and perhaps stronger backlash of former Mayor Luis Alejo’s suggestion that the Plaza’s name (officially Watsonville Plaza Park) be changed to Dolores Huerta Plaza in honor of the longtime Farmworker and Civil Rights activist.
Many, most notably local commentator Steve Bankhead, were critical of Alejo’s intentions and suggested that his intentions of naming the park after Huerta were politically motivated given Alejo’s endorsements and donations received from the UFW. Additionally, Bankhead writes in a September 17th, 2010 letter to the Register-Pajaronian, “I seem to recall the original 1860 land grant of the plaza property to the city from Don Sebastian Rodriguez contained certain stipulations regarding what can be done with it by future land holders… [carrying] restrictions against using the plaza for any commercial or political purposes.”
Whereas I agree that Bankhead’s recognition of the original land grant may impose deal-breaking restrictions against naming the park after someone for possible political/commercial purposes, I don’t believe that Alejo had intentions of foul play in mind. Instead, I think that he intended to formally celebrate one of the most decorated civil rights leaders of the past century and in doing so invoke pride amongst the predominantly farmworker community of the Pájaro Valley. I also doubt that such recognition of Huerta would power his own immediate political success.
That being said, I would have to agree in saying that I believe we can and should find a different title for Watsonville City Plaza. I personally would not propose Dolores Huerta and this is in no small part because of the great discontent that it has sparked amongst longtime community members, many of whom have agricultural roots and may have suffered because of her efforts or simply don’t want to have the city named after a non-Native of our Valley.
And yet, I cannot refrain from arguing that the name Watsonville City Plaza does not significantly enough highlight our Valley’s rich and celebration-worthy character. The name Watsonville is of course named after our city’s so-called founder, a nineteenth-century Southern sympathizer who according to local historian Betty Lewis “obtained” (her quotation marks, not mine) land from Sebastian Rodriguez in what was followed by legal disputes that the lawyer and soon to be judge apparently won in 1850 or so. Watson, who was born in Georgia dropped out of West Point and moved to Texas where he is said to have killed a man and as a result moved out West along with his African-American slave who fortunately later gained his freedom. By 1862, he had moved on again, this time to Nevada.
In short, our City and therefore our Plaza are named after a scumbag. As a proud lifelong resident of “Watsonville” and a man who stands opposed to injustice in any form that deeply bothers me. To clarify, I do not propose that we residents seek to rename the City. I do, however, believe that a conversation to rename the Plaza is a worthwhile one.
But what to rename the Plaza? And for what purpose? Many including former Mayor Betty Bobeda and fellow Patchista Cathy Perez have suggested that the Park possibly be named after persons with local ties, suggesting Sebastian Rodriguez himself and Dale Skillicorn, respectively. As with Alejo’s proposal for Huerta, these suggestions propose people subject to political scrutiny as perhaps any suggestion would. Push comes to shove, were these my options I would lean towards Rodriguez, who I admittedly know little about but who probably has the greatest claim to the City’s namesake.
And yet, Rodriguez as an option still fails to satisfy what I would argue is the primary reasoning of renaming the Plaza in the first place. Renaming the Plaza is a means by which to inexpensively propose a revamped identity of the City itself. And indeed an identity is currently already in place. The specter of Henry Watson and any influence he may have had is poetically rebutted when we glance at one of the Plaza’s most distinctive features, namely the Civil War-era canons that demarcate California’s affiliation with Northern Union states during this conflict. I don’t know when these canons were first introduced, but it suffices to say they have been a mainstay in Watsonville for many, many decades and rightfully so.
Of equal, if not greater, significance is that of the much more recent bust of George Washington which provides a welcoming of sorts for all persons driving northbound on Main St. who take the time to admire our plot of Plaza and its backdrop of kiosk, trees and passers-by. I like Washington as much as the next guy and tend to prefer thinking of him as bravely passing the frozen Delaware to ambush the unsuspecting Hessian mercenaries under the employment of the British. However, I suspect that the timing and intention behind erecting Washington’s bust is part of what I would call a larger backlash against the wave of immigration that has greatly increased the representation of Latinas/os in Watsonville. Thus the bust, in this sense, is a reassertion of the desires of many to retain some semblance of a pre-NAFTA Watsonville which was charmingly home to Ford’s, Woolworth’s, JC Penny’s, the Fox Theater and a host of other cherished city mainstays.
To my personal dismay, the area of downtown and these particular spaces have since become vacated and/or home to discount malls and dollar stores which have as good of a chance at attracting outside dollars from Santa Cruz, Monterey and Gilroy as the Raiders have of winning the Super Bowl. Before Capitola became home to a Target of its own, some were willing to drive to Watsonville for the Target that is ours. But they don’t have to do that anymore and the fact that a murder occurred there last year doesn’t help matters either. Target, the Grocery Outlet and visions of Costco or like-mannered facilities, I believe, will continue to struggle to attract outside dollars because of our lack of a marketable and trendy identity and, at best, can only hope to retain dollars that will otherwise go elsewhere.
Efforts to attract outside investment are difficult at best, and I fully believe that City staff is trying its best to do so. I think that these efforts can be supplemented by a community-based effort to foster a marketable identity through the conceptual and physical space of the Plaza. That George Washington looks on proudly speaks to the fact that the Plaza is already a site of ideological assertion, this prior to the proposals of Alejo and others.
And I don’t think that I am the only person who would take note of such ideologically fraught articulations. When one is heading northwest on Freedom Boulevard past Callahan and the Riksha and just shy of Cassidy’s Pizza, there can be seen one of many electrical boxes that is a part of the City’s efforts to subtly beautify the cityscape in a way that’s reflective of city residents. This particular electric box is interesting because it is a rendering of the City Plaza in what could loosely be referred to as the Mexican mural tradition. And lo and behold, on the side of the box is old Georgie himself. In this rendition of Washington, however, he appears decidedly Mesoamerican and mediated in such a way as to represent Washington within an alternate perspective to that of the Plaza’s bronze bust. For better or worse, I am not going to sit here and say that the one is better than the other, so much as I wish to emphasize that multiple narratives of Watsonville identity abound in our city and a space like the Plaza provides a unique opportunity to craft an identity that can be not only marketed to outsiders and their dollars but can serve to foster a pride in our hometown that because off gang violence and economic struggles is often lacking.
But how to articulate an identity that is as inclusive of all as possible? And just as importantly which can flourish within our network of nearby localities and our geographical boundedness? Undoubtedly our identity to the outside world is intimately informed by our agricultural roots and production of apples and strawberries, a fact celebrated and encouraged by the many apple box murals and the like that abound downtown most particularly. Another creative means by which the city has been rebranded has been through the rediscovery of the sloughs and marketing of Watsonville as a bird lovers’ retreat.
And then there are also of course the imbeciles shooting guns and stabbing each other for the rights to the streets of “Watsón,” the term which they and other voiceless youth glitter with gang signs and graffiti on near every street corner. Even the Strawberry Festival got in on the act last year as their posters depicted a highly sensualized brown woman barefoot and curvaceous in the strawberry fields in a cross between a “Lowrider” magazine cover and an Aztec bakery calendar.
Then there is also of course the launch of The Ville clothing and accessories which have sought to promote positive self-identity with the city and its people through various local icons such as strawberries, St. Patrick’s Church and o course the Plaza kiosk. There are obvious overlaps and contradictions in these narratives of identity and while most have their charms, all have aspired towards establishing a sense of place with a mixed bag of success.
Interestingly enough, I would argue that all in their own way are imbricated with a sense of regionalism distinctively and perhaps pronouncedly Californian. As a case in point, The Ville shirts have been such a local intrigue because of their adaptation of the Golden State Warriors’ The City emblem, thus importing an outside form and filling it with local content. Such clothing products as The City, The Ville or The Cruz are part o the larger line of California-themed clothing and apparel as denoted by the thousands of shirts, sweaters, and stickers of “Nor-Cal” or “State of California” products that kids and young adults wear.
As coincidence would have it, Watsonville is next-door neighbor to some of the most distinctively Californian locales in all of the state. A good drive from Los Angeles and an hour south of Frisco and Silicon Valley, we got Surf City U.S.A Santa Cruz to the northwest, looking like something out of a tourist how-to guide; to the south, there’s Monterey, first Capital of California and home to Cannery Row, Fisherman’s Wharf and the Aquarium; and then of course there is also Steinbeck’s Salinas Valley and Kerouac and Jeffers’ Big Sur, all breathtakingly beautiful and even intimidating to us Watson-Villains, the bad-boy, illegal town that tourists speed past despite our mad dogs and dollar store offerings. But what a privilege and opportunity to live where we do, just beyond the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, inland Redwoods and historic El Camino Real Mission network. That is all tasty pie that I would like Watsonville to taste from, ollallieberry style if possible.
After rambling on considerably about the need to re-articulate the ideological space of the Plaza and the expanse of our authentically Californian backdrop that we have been unable to draw upon, I have a few suggestions to propose about what I would suggest we consider in potentially renaming our Plaza. First idea: Plaza de Colores. “De Colores” is a folksong sung throughout the Americas and adapted by the Roman-Catholic Church. Its lyrics which throughout sing of the different colors in the world (and to my ear, diversity), particularly pertains to life within the countryside, birds and rainbows. I believe the Catholic nature of the song speaks to the large composition of Catholic immigrants in our community from Croatia, Italy, Mexico, Portugal and the Philippines. Whereas I do recognize that such Catholic connotations attached to our Plaza exclude some and create a potentially controversial nexus between Church and State, I think that there is already a deep-seated attachment to the song within the Spanish-speaking community as it is often sung in children’s settings and as a lullaby to children. I am confident that the song’s relationship to the countryside and nature at large can be shared with the whole community.
The song’s relationship to the community is further exemplified by the Hall and Church in Pájaro (where I had my wedding reception!) named San Pablo de Colores. I believe that naming the Plaza after the song would also allow for at least annual community gatherings at the onset of Spring to commemorate our Valley’s relationship to the natural cycles of the seasons and harvests, which our Valley is of course dependent on.
Second (and much longer and favored) idea: Plaza Khalifia. I will first proceed to answer the question of who the hell is Khalifia? Khalifia is actually better known to history as Calafia, the mythical queen who ruled the island of black warrior women, otherwise known as the island of California. She first appears in the novel Las sergas de Esplandián, the Adventures of Esplandián, written by the Spaniard Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo (otro Rodriguez, huh) in and around the year 1500. The novel was inspired by the voyages of Christopher Columbus and his many descriptions of “lo fantástico” which obviously included newly “discovered” lands complete with monsters and muzzled Natives. To those back home in Spain, such as Rodriguez de Montalvo, this New World was the equivalent of us flying to Mars and meeting Martians and opening up the Christmas present dream come true of a fantastic world of treasure, mystery and adventure – a utopic and terrestrial paradise. Whereas to my knowledge he never traveled to the New World himself, he certainly dreamed of it and appropriated the Greek stories of Amazonian women and mystical griffins to the New World in what I would argue essentially became the first Magical Realist novel in the great Latin American tradition of what Cuban literary giant Alejo Carpentier has referred to as “lo real maravilloso” (or at the least it is a significant antecedent of such a tradition).
The novel is still more interesting to me because it is simultaneously an imaginative rendering of the New World as well as a traumatic projection of the Old World, most specifically that of the Spanish Reconquista. 1492 is not only notable for being the year that Columbus discovered the New World but also the year that Isabella I of Castilla and Ferdinand II of Aragon completed the Reconquista (and consequently launched the Inquisition), which called for the conversion or exile of all Muslim and Jewish subjects and which led to the appropriation of land and wealth necessary to finance Columbus’ first voyage (which, by the way, despite innocuous children’s history book renderings, was heavily informed by the pursuit of gold and the chopping off of hands). Much, much, much “Spanish” literature has been devoted to the articulation of a “Spanish” identity which often addressed and ironed out the Moorish and Jewish wrinkles on what we today refer to as Spain and its cultural and physiological genetic makeup in the land that the hegemonic Arabic-speaking people referred to as the territory of Al-Andalus.
To return to the plot of Las sergas de Esplandián, the African-portrayed Calafia came to represent many things: she was the mysterious Other, a woman described as black because Rodriguez de Montalvo had no idea of what the Amerindian people looked like beyond Columbus’ descriptions of muzzled men; she was the leader the mysterious island of Amazonian warrior women who sliced of one breast so as to better aim and discharge their weapons; and she was a symbol of the unruly woman which traditional culture sought to firmly harness within the domestic sphere.
To the title character Esplandián’s great dismay, Calafia aligns her people with the evil Muslim warrior Radiaro and conspire to re-conquer Christian-controlled Constantinople. Her women warriors and half-eagle, half-lion griffins take the Christian forces by storm, but ultimately her griffins can only discriminate between men and women, not Christians and Muslims, and her and Radiaro’s efforts to regain control of Constantinople are stymied. Upon being defeated, however, Calafia is lustfully overtaken by the beauty and charm of Esplandián and his Spanish compatriots and ultimately, of course, marries one of Esplandián’s knights, Talenque, and the New World is thus symbolically spared from Muslim Orientalization and instead co-produces what we can call American Occidentalization, in which Native and African laborers produce the great wealth that simultaneously and inter-constitutively make modernity and coloniality and five centuries worth of technological advance and “rugged individualism” possible.
Beyond the literary world of Rodriguez de Montalvo, the novel and its title character of Calafia have an obviously very material and historical influence on world history. Just as the historical influenced the fictional in the case of Columbus and Rodriguez de Montalvo, so too did the fictional influence the historical in the case of Rodriguez de Montalvo and Hernán Cortés and his crew. While it is known that Cortés has historical importance beyond just his conquest of the Aztec Empire in that he also “discovered” the strip of land known today as Baja California, it is less known how this strip of land that he “discovered” came to precisely bear the name of California. That he knew of the writings of Rodriguez de Montalvo can be firmly established by the act that he makes specific reference to them in his Cartas de relación, along with some other few bloody details.
Such an observation is made all the more interesting when considering that as governor of what is now Mexico, he commissioned an exploratory expedition that ultimately resulted in mutiny. Following this mutiny, however, chief mutineer Fortún Ximenez ultimately hit land upon what is today known as La Paz which is in the Mexican state of Baja California Sur. Ximenez thought that La Paz was part of a larger island and it is believed that he named this believed island California, having been influenced by the mythical island described in Las sergas de Esplandián. Although it is never documented to my knowledge that Cortes officially denominates the area as California. The name, however, appears in documents pertaining to Joao “Rodriguez” (is he Spanish or Portuguese? People argue) Cabrillo, who our local community college and the entirety of Highway 1 are named after, suggesting that though it was not made official, it was likely in popular usage and was of course eventually used to refer to “Alta California” as well, our U.S. state of Hollywood flicks, strawberries and gnarly swells.
I have now digressed far, far away from where I thought that I would be going. To reiterate, whereas I personally like the idea of Plaza de Colores, my suggestion would be that we re-name the Watsonville City Plaza to Plaza Khalifia as a means to capitalize on our geographic and cultural positionality so as to begin to spawn the kind of intellectual and entrepreneurial activity that can potentially revitalize our Downtown and foster sources of cultural pride capable of resisting and overpowering the influence of gangs, drugs and general misdirection in our community.
But why Khalifia and not Calafia? And why even bother using a name coined and popularized by European conquistadores? The name Calafia, as suggests early 20th Century scholar Ruth Putnam, most likely adapts from Arabic and means to say “female caliph” (something I would think is an impossibility within Islamic culture itself as I don’t believe women are or have historically been allowed to become caliphs). A caliph for its part has historically been denoted as a spiritual leader of Islam that claims succession from Muhammad. Thus Spaniards such as Rodriguez de Montalvo would be heavily disenchanted and even horrified by such characters which makes Calafia’s seduction all the more cathartic for he and his sixteenth century readers. However, if one is to adapt the English translation of the Arabic word we would have the term “Khalifa” which then translated back upon the Spanish neologism of Calafia would become Khalifia.
Although the Western letters are obviously not true to those of Arabic, I feel that it is the closest tenable approximation for the purpose of renaming our Plaza. I feel it necessary to take such measures so as to continue to be mindful of the origins of the name Calafia which as I hope that I have demonstrated serves as a matrix through which African, Amerindian, Arabich, Islamic, Jewish, Catholic, Spanish, Mexican, U.S., Californian, good, evil, conquest, re-conquest, male and female terms can all intersect and be articulated anew. Calafia is of course merely a fictional imagining and I would argue needs not be “historically” accurate as such historical interpretations are often just as imaginative. Moreover, like the Plaza itself, I see the figure as a conceptual space where such interpretations as those that I have presented can be inserted. On a more superficial level, I also like the way that Khalifia is visually written, and I also favor the phonetic pronunciation of Khalifia versus Calafia, as the latter isn’t as consistent with the pronunciation of the word California, or even urban offshoots such as Califas or Cali.
To answer the question of why use a Spanish, colonially-assigned name, I would answer because the wheel of indetermination has to stop spinning somewhere. So long as we recognize this fact, I think it’s fine. Besides, were we to go down that path, we would likely have to discard all of language period.
Not to be lost in the shuffle is Alejo’s original intent of recognizing a female. Beyond Huerta, every other possible suggestion, be it Rodriguez, Skillicorn, Washington, Cabrillo or the up until no unmentioned Sebastian Vizcaíno, who first “discovered” the Monterey Bay region, or also unmentioned Gaspar de Portolá Rivera who named our “Pájaro” Valley is a man. Like most statues or memorials, these are all men. Like Huerta, Khalifia is of course not a native to the area, but then again she is not a native to any area as she is a character of fictional origins on the utopic island of California.
And my mentioning of “utopic” isn’t without its own relevance. The term originally derives from Thomas Moore’s work Utopia, which taking the Greek term topos and adding the prefix of u- to it is literally intended to signify “non-place” or, as I would interpret, place from whence dream worlds can be constructed. It might sound silly to refer to the Plaza itself as a place where dream worlds can be constructed, but the Plaza as I have argued is certainly a place of ideological contention and therefore indetermination. In future writings to come, I intend to articulate different possible imaginings of our cityscape that make use of our rich historical past, our present conditions and resources, and our possible futures.
But I would like to re-emphasize the need to rename the Plaza, which is the result of its current homage paid to a scoundrel who cared little about the dirt he exploited. I also would like to re-emphasize the salience of cultural richness attributed to “California” as a concept of that which is cool for lack of a better term. Given the right framing and marketing, our Plaza and downtown can eventually be marketed as a California hot-spot along the way and within a flurry of other such hot-spots. Such a notion is not to suggest that we need to make ourselves more exploitable, far be it from that. Rather it is to suggest that we have so much more to offer and become.
Lastly, I would strongly encourage members of the Watsonville City Parks and Recreational Council, the Watsonville City Council, and community members at large to give serious contemplation on the proposal to consider changing the Plaza’s official name and begin fielding new ideas with the potentiality of formally changing the Plaza’s name. Doing so would inexpensively create a basis by which to rebrand and promote the rest of Watsonville’s downtown and beyond in efforts to promote commercial activity and community building around such cyclical events as Christmas lightings, Earth Day and whatever else comes to our minds.