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By Collin Breaux

Featured photo: The current San Juan Capistrano city seal with Saint Junipero Serra and a young Indigenous boy is displayed at City Hall. The City Council is considering choosing a new seal design that will not have feature Serra. Photo: Collin Breaux

A mayoral subcommittee will consider design options for San Juan Capistrano’s new city seal, which could contain a bell reflective of Mission San Juan Capistrano and the famous swallow bird said to return to the city every spring.

The subcommittee will be comprised of Mayor Pro Tem Howard Hart and Councilmember John Taylor. The City Council voted, 3-2, for the subcommittee on Tuesday, Aug. 2. Mayor Derek Reeve, Councilmember Troy Bourne and Taylor voted yes. Councilmember Sergio Farias and Hart voted no, with Farias saying he would like to see Bourne on the subcommittee.

The subcommittee is expected to return to the City Council at a Sept. 6 meeting with a recommendation.

City officials have been considering implementing a new seal design this year, following a request brought forward by Bourne and Farias in December. The two councilmembers said the current seal design, which features Father Junipero Serra hugging a young Indigenous boy, does not show up well on a smartphone.

Local residents have sent in a variety of potential new designs which incorporate elements requested by councilmembers, including a Mission bell, swallow and depiction of Native American culture.

If a design is not approved by the City Council, a default option previously brought forth by Bourne and Farias—which features a bell and swallow in black and white—will automatically become the new seal. When exactly the default option could become official has been ambiguous, and City Manager Ben Siegel requested clarification on the matter.

Reeve and several residents have spoken against the default design due to what they feel is its inadequate visual quality.

“One thing that everyone is united upon is they don’t like your seal,” Reeve said with a laugh.

Farias said the City Council “made mistakes” with requiring numerous details, instead of allowing artists to come up with designs on their own.

“We forced these elements into the seal,” Farias said. “We’re holding back an artist’s creativity by saying you have to include these elements into it, and I honestly think we did a disservice in the design.”

Farias added he would be willing to vote for a design that did not include all the previously required elements.

One of the options under consideration is a design by artist Kimberleigh Gavin, which was recommended by the Cultural Heritage Commission. Gavin’s design includes oranges and walnuts to reflect San Juan’s agricultural history, along with a swallow, Mission bell, horse-rider, Acjachemen huts, hills and a blue sky. The bell has the words “San Juan” on it and is based on an actual bell at the Mission.

“One of the unique things about our Mission here is we have bells that are named,” said Gavin, who is also a local docent. “One of the actual bells is named ‘San Juan.’ I thought how perfect to select that bell and put it there in the middle because it’s just a perfect statement of San Juan.”

In an email sent to councilmembers before Tuesday’s meeting, Mission San Juan Capistrano Executive Director Mechelle Lawrence Adams said further edits and work on Gavin’s proposed design are “highly recommended” for a number of reasons, including the design being “too busy visually in color.”

“There are so many stories being told in the seal that it undermines our primary history of open space, Mission, and horses,” Adams said. “ ‘Less is more,’ my strong recommendation is that whoever designs it, work on simplifying it. It’s not too late to do better.”

Adams further said not showing an Indigenous person and full Mission bell wall is a “very lost opportunity.”

Another design submitted by Devan Rexinger, which features a Mission bell and swallow, caught Hart’s eye.

Whichever specific design is chosen will likely not have Junipero Serra on it, meaning Serra will be essentially taken off the city seal. Serra’s legacy has come under scrutiny in recent times due to his treatment of Indigenous people while establishing the Mission system in California, an issue briefly alluded to during tense council discussions earlier this year.

Reeve has previously spoken in favor of Serra, and even said he did not want to see the religious figure—who was canonized in 2015 and considered instrumental to San Juan’s founding—undergo “canceling.” Reeve also was the one to suggest Taylor and Hart serve on the subcommittee since the two did not have strong feelings on Serra in comparison to other councilmembers.

In January, Farias said he has avoided discussing Serra since he has “personal feelings” on the matter as someone of Native American descent and that the current seal design reflects “a certain attitude of European explorers.” At the same January meeting, Bourne said the “divisiveness” of Serra had not been brought up on the dais “for a reason.”

“At some point, we’re going to have a Junipero Serra discussion—not tonight,” Reeve said during Tuesday’s meeting. “I’m going to bring it up at some point, and I’m going to go down in flames. I just want the subcommittee to be aware of that.”

Collin Breaux

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 cbreaux@picketfencemedia.com.

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