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Featured image: The current city seal for San Juan Capistrano features Saint Junipero Serra with a young Native American boy. Photo: Collin Breaux
By Collin Breaux | Twitter: @collin_breaux
The San Juan Capistrano City Council has decided to extend the deadline for a new city seal until the end of 2022, instead of the middle of the year—though Saint Junipero Serra could still be effectively removed from the town’s emblem.
The topic again came up for discussion at a council meeting on Tuesday, Jan. 18, after Mayor Derek Reeve had placed the item on the agenda for discussion. While the council previously discussed the matter during a December meeting and voted to enact a new seal by the middle of 2022, Reeve—who is in favor of keeping Serra on the seal—wanted to revisit the conversation.
Serra’s legacy has come under scrutiny in recent times due to his role in the genocide of indigenous people while establishing missions throughout California. Serra—also known as Father Junipero Serra due to his role as a Catholic priest—is considered instrumental in the founding of San Juan Capistrano and Mission San Juan Capistrano, a historic landmark.
Councilmembers Troy Bourne and Sergio Farias were the ones to suggest changing the seal, with the official reason that the current one featuring Serra and intricate designs does not show up well on a smartphone. However, they acknowledged the controversy surrounding Serra during the Tuesday meeting during dialogue on the dais that was, at times, heated.
“It’s, frankly, something I’ve avoided discussing, because I do have personal feelings as someone who is of Native American heritage—not of the United States but of the Americas,” Farias said. “It’s not something that I want to bring to the dais. It’s something I’m avoiding talking about. I have feelings about these statues that you reference on the seal. It’s not an innocent depiction. It comes with a certain attitude of European explorers when they came here.”
The depiction in the current seal referenced by Farias is of a Native American boy standing in front of Serra. Some see the image as one of subservience. Reeve also alluded to further inappropriate connotations of the image, given it is of a Catholic priest with a boy.
Reeve said he hopes Serra will remain on the new seal and that while contemporary perceptions of Serra have changed, Mission and Native American history should be reflected in the new seal. Descendants in the Juaneño and Acjachemen communities—the indigenous people of San Juan Capistrano—have said they would like to see their culture reflected in the new seal.
“I don’t have a problem with (wanting to change the seal). What I have a problem with, though, is effectively canceling Junipero Serra, canceling the Mission, canceling Native American history—all of which without San Juan Capistrano would not exist,” Reeve said. “I understand the argument that was brought up about cellphones and simplicity, but I generally do not believe that is the reason why we’re here. I think that was more of a way out, but that’s not the real reason we’re here.”
Farias said Reeve was bringing up the term “cancel” on the dais, and that councilmembers have previously done a good job not bringing up mainstream controversial issues and instead focusing on city issues.
Councilmembers also debated the exact mechanism for selecting a new seal, and ultimately decided on getting input from the community and Cultural Heritage Commission—steps mentioned before in December. The city spending up to $10,000 for a graphic designer to draft some options was suggested by Reeve, but that ultimately was not approved as an official motion. Bourne also mentioned some graphic designers who live in the area have already made suggestions.
“Just come to the (Cultural Heritage Commission) meeting and voice whatever you want. Draw up your own city seal. Voice all your opinions. Everybody is open to do that,” Bourne said to Reeve. “I think we’re talking about process tonight. We’re trying to keep this about process, and you want to make it about popular culture and divisiveness. None of that was in the original motion. Not only was it not in the motion, it wasn’t even part of the discussion. It never came up until you raised it.”
“It was never brought up, because no one wanted to bring it up,” Reeve said.
“For a reason,” Bourne said.
A potential new seal design introduced in December by Bourne and Farias features a Mission bell and a swallow bird. Reeve has said he does not like the design and referred to it as a “Taco Bell” design. Councilmember John Taylor also said he is not fond of the design, but he would prefer that design being selected over keeping the current seal with Serra and the Native American child.
In a Facebook post after the meeting, Mayor Pro Tem Howard Hart said while he was not thrilled with the alternative design proposed by Bourne and Farias and that it looks “plain” compared to the seals of neighboring cities, the City Council has decided to change the current seal since what was depicted 60 years ago has now acquired new meaning.
“Lacking any artistic talent myself, I am asking for your assistance in designing a new San Juan Capistrano city seal,” Hart said. “Council requests that any seal that is proposed pay homage to our unique historical influences—namely, the Mission and our Native American past. Depiction of Fr. Serra is considered desirable, too, as are horses and swallows.”
Hart said the public is welcome to submit ideas to city staff or to him.
In other news from the meeting, the council approved a recommendation from Reeve to consider renaming the portion of Ortega Highway from Del Obispo Street to Camino Capistrano to something that mentions the Mission.
That area is near Mission San Juan Capistrano, and Reeve brought up the matter after talking with Mission Executive Director Mechelle Lawrence Adams and due to a desire to further reflect the local importance of the Mission. The Cultural Heritage Commission will give input on a new name, and city staff will also reach out to the California Department of Transportation to make sure they have no objections. A new street name could be selected later this year.
Collin Breaux covers San Juan Capistrano and other South Orange County news as the City Editor for The Capistrano Dispatch. Before moving to California, he covered Hurricane Michael, politics and education in Panama City, Florida. He can be reached by email at email@example.com.