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Historian Says Activist Misinterpreting Santa Monica City Hall Mural as Racist

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Hector Gonzalez
Staff Writer

June 30, 2015 -- A local activist who attacked a mural at City Hall as a depiction of conquered Native Americans is misinterpreting what artist Stanton MacDonald-Wright meant by the scene, said a Santa Monica Conservancy official.

Pico Youth and Family Center (PYFC) founder and local Latino activist Oscar de la Torre declared war on the 74-year-old art work last week and vowed to launch a campaign to “take this mural down” during a rally protesting a funding cut for PYFC.

Calling it “the Santa Monica confederate flag,” De la Torre said the mural is an insult to Native Americans because it shows them “bowing down to the Spaniards who came and oppressed and murdered and committed genocide in the Americas.”

When placed in that context, the scene showing Native American kneeling as Spaniards stand over them could be easily misread, said Ruthann Lehrer of the Santa Monica Conservancy. Adding to the misinterpretation is the fact that few people know the story behind the scene shown in the mural, she added.

“I think the history of Santa Monica is not widely known,” said Lehrer. “I happen to know about it because the Conservancy puts on a walking tour of downtown every weekend that tells the entire story of Santa Monica’s development.

“As part of the research for that history, the story of the name was found.”

The mural, painted by Wright, a Santa Monica native, when the historic structure was built in 1938-39, became a symbol of racism at last week’s demonstration to secure funding for PYFC. The demonstration was joined by members of the Indian American Movement’s L.A. Chapter, organizers said.

But Lehrer said Wright’s mural is apolitical. The scene showing Native Americans, a Spanish friar and two Conquistadors together at a stream stems from “an oft-repeated legend about the naming of Santa Monica,” she added.

“Father Juan Crespi, one of the diarists of the Portola expedition of 1769 to Alta California, describes arriving at the location of springs near here, shown to them by friendly Native Americans who also brought food and gifts,” said Wright.

“The story goes that Father Crespi remarked that the streams of water reminded him of the tears of Saint Monica as she lamented over her then-wayward son Augustine before his conversion, as that day was Saint Monica’s name-day.

“This story supposedly later inspired the naming of our City as Santa Monica,” said Lehrer.

The springs shown in the mural still exist today, said Lehrer, “a sacred place restored and tended by descendants of Tongva/Gabrieleno Native Americans on the grounds of University High School.”

“So what is depicted in the mural shows Native Americans revealing a natural spring to their visitors, water being a precious resource and the source of life for people and animals.”

Although he was born into privilege -- his father owned a resort on Santa Monica Beach -- Wright worked as an artist for the federal government’s New Deal for American workers, a program that put thousands of unemployed artists to work.

“It was one of the most democratic programs of its time,” said Lehrer. “It was a program designed to create art for the people.”

As director of the Southern California Works Progress Administration from 1935 to 1942, Wright was commissioned to complete murals that now adorn walls at City Hall and the Santa Monica Public Library.

“He created and inspired public art for the people, and was a charismatic presence in the Los Angeles art scene for several decades,” said Lehrer.

Lehrer said she hopes Wright’s intention and the meaning of his mural will become clearer as more people learn about the legend behind it.

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