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Mural at Santa Monica City Hall Gets Airing as Petition for Its Removal Circulates


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September 15, 2017 -- The battle over a mural's depiction of Native Americans in Santa Monica City Hall is escalating, with the controversy being aired at both the Landmarks and Arts commissions and likely headed to the City Council.

Opponents -- who are launching a petition drive today asking the Council to remove the nearly 80-year-old painting -- say its portrayal of indigenous people kneeling before Spanish Conquistadors is demeaning and compare their battle to efforts to remove confederate monuments ("Protesters Renew Call for Removal of Santa Monica City Hall Mural," September 11, 2017).

"We want a discussion by the City Council and an official response," said Oscar de la Torre, the head of the Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC), who is spearheading the drive.
City Hall Mural
Courtesy City of Santa Monica

"The image is not in a vacuum," de la Torre said. "We're seeing it in its historic context and what's happening now. We know what happened to the Native Americans."

Historic preservationists say de la Torre is misinterpreting the mural, which depicts a friendly encounter between the Spaniards and natives that supposedly led to the naming of Santa Monica ("Historian Says Activist Misinterpreting Santa Monica City Hall Mural as Racist," June 30, 2015).

"The mural shows Native Americans proudly revealing a natural spring to their visitors, water being a precious resource and the source of life," said Ruthann Lehrer, a former landmarks commissioner and board member of the Santa Monica Conservancy.

"For Santa Monica, having our own water supply enabled our city to remain independent of Los Angeles," she added.

On Monday, Coral Lemlein, the Conservancy's president, along with activist Jerry Rubin, brought the issue to the Landmarks Commission, which in 1979 designated City Hall and its defining features, including the mural, a historic landmark.

"The murals are explicitly mentioned in the designation," which protects it from any alterations, said Lemlein, who expects the issue to end up before the council.

Lemlein suggests that a plaque could be added decribing the mural by Santa Monica-born artist Stanton Macdonald-Wright that has decorated the west wall in the City Hall foyer since the historic structure’s completion in 1938-39.

"It seems that instead of talking about what we should be destroying, we should be talking about what we need (to preserve)," Lemlein said.

The issue is next headed to the City's Arts Commission, which will discuss the mural at its meeting Monday.

Arts Commissioner Phil Brock said the mural is not part of the City's official art collection and is not currently under the jurisdiction of the board, but he supports its preservation.

"I will vote to keep the mural at City Hall," Brock said. "Oscar [de la Torre] and his supporters may be misinterpreting its intention."

De la Torre counters that the image depicted in the mural is clear -- it shows two native Americans kneeling at the feet of a conquistador and a priest. They wear a loin cloth, although natives were known to dress in leather and jewels, de la Torre said.

In addition, you don't see their eyes and they are drinking from the same stream as a horse with one hoof in the water, he said.

"My son looks at the mural and feels inferior," de la Torre said. "The mural has a psychological impact on the people that see it."

The Conservancy's leaders, de la Torre says, are missing the point because they cannot relate to the plight of "people of color."

"How diverse is the conservancy? How many Mexicans and African Americans do they have in leadership positions?" he said. "Here you have an all white organization telling people of color what to think."

Lemlein acknowledges that the conservancy has no blacks or Hispanics in leadership positions, but says it works closely with African-American historian Alison Jefferson.

"We have had a more diverse board at certain times," Lemlein said. "It's something we have as a goal."

Lemlein and other supporters of the mural note that de la Torre first raised the issue after the council slashed City funding for the Pico Youth and Family Center ("Activist Calls City Hall Mural of Kneeling Native Americans Santa Monica's Confederate Flag," June 25, 2015).

De la Torre, however, sees the defunding of the center, which currently receives no money from the City, as another example of the racism depicted in the mural.

He notes that in its history the council has had only one Latino, fewer that the two Native Americans depicted in the mural.

He also points to another mural across the lobby painted by Macdonald-Wright.

"It shows blonde people playing polo and tennis," de la Torre said. "There's no one of color, but there's a dog.

"The City of Santa Monica puts more money in dog parks that in the Pico Youth and Family Center where the people congregate," de la Torre said. "It's a symbol of how we're currently being treated."


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