Why a local Indigenous leader wants to remove California’s highway bells
Before it was stolen, an 85-pound cast iron bell, supported by a curved green metal pole reminiscent of a shepherd's hook, stood on the corner of Soquel and Dakota avenues in Santa Cruz. The bell is gone, but the jagged, hacksawed metal post now holds a sign that reads: "'El Camino Real' mission bell removed."
Hundreds of similar bell markers still stand along the El Camino Real, or King's Highway — a network of roads that connect California’s 21 Spanish missions. The bells honor the history of the Spanish missions in California.
But to Chairman Valentin Lopez of the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band, the history of the missions is a painful one. In August, he and other Indigenous leaders from tribes across California congregated in Santa Cruz, to call for the removal of the bell markers across the state.
“What we’re calling for is for all bells throughout the state of California be removed,” Lopez said at the event. “They should no longer be used for tourist attractions. They should no longer be used for lies. The truth needs to be told.”
Santa Cruz is the first city in California to be rid of its El Camino Real mission bells. The bell removal movement started on the UC Santa Cruz campus, where the city’s first bell was removed in 2019. The second bell marker was stolen from Mission Plaza in 2020 during a protest. The city opted not to replace it.
The event in August was supposed to culminate with the removal of the city's third and final bell, located on the corner of Soquel and Dakota avenues. But the bell was stolen on the eve of the ceremony.
It’s unclear whether the theft was in support or in protest of the formal bell removal event. But to Lopez, the result was the same.
“They took it down, and we can live with that,” he said.
The ceremony continued despite the missing bell, with songs, prayers, and speeches that articulated how many Indigenous people in California regard the bell markers and the legacy they symbolize.
“What the bells represent...whenever I hear them, I have an overwhelming feeling of anxiety,” said Merri Lopez-Keifer, one of the speakers. Lopez-Keifer is the director of the Office of Native American Affairs for the California Department of Justice. “That’s historical trauma. It pains me to hear a mission bell.”
The El Camino Real mission bell markers were first installed in 1906 as a way to drum up car tourism along California’s burgeoning highway system. By 1913, 450 bells had been placed along roads and in front of missions and other landmarks, according to the California Bell Company, which continues to create the bell markers today.
For many Californians, they’re iconic pieces of the state’s history.
“I love the bells,” said Steve Principe, a Santa Cruz resident who attended the bell removal event in August. “I know what the bells are all about — the El Camino Real. All these things are history pieces.”
Despite his fondness for the bells, he appreciated attending the event. He said considering the perspectives of others is an “important moment in our cultural evolution.” But he’s not sure that removing the bells is the right choice.
“I think we miss out on a learning moment,” he said. “I think it’s maybe more valuable to keep these historical markers, and then add to them. Add some new perspective.”
But Martin Rizzo-Martinez, the state park historian for Santa Cruz, said the bells recall an inaccurate version of history.
“The bells were specifically made to erase the truth about the history (of the missions),” he said.
Rizzo-Martinez said that once Native Americans were baptized at a mission, they were expected to live there as laborers. Conditions were cramped and unsanitary, contributing to the rapid spread of deadly diseases. Those who fled were considered fugitives, recaptured and often punished.
“The missions had stocks and whips. Punishment was a very visible part of life,” he said.
Padre Quintana, a priest at Mission Santa Cruz who Rizzo-Martinez said punished Indigenous people with a steel-tipped whip, is a particularly brutal example.
“And while all the padres were not Quintana — they were not all that bad — there were quite a few of them who were,” he said.
Rizzo-Martinez’s research uses oral histories of local Indigenous people paired with the written records of the missionaries themselves. Using records on births, deaths and baptisms, he established that nearly 2,500 Indigenous people lived at Mission Santa Cruz. By the end of its roughly 40 years of operation, only about 200 survived.
“The vast majority of people coming to the missions died, and they died rapidly, shortly after coming here,” he said. “It's a combination of disease, but also terrible living conditions and a system that punished people frequently, and really worked them to death in many cases.”
The mortality rate for children is especially grim. He said that nearly 500 children were born at the mission. Death records indicate that over 75% of them died before the age of five. Most of those deaths occurred within a year after birth.
The bodies of those thousands of Indigenous people were unearthed in the late 1800s, when Holy Cross Church was being constructed on the site of the dilapidated Mission Santa Cruz. They were carted across Santa Cruz to what is now the Holy Cross Cemetery in Live Oak, and put in a mass, unmarked grave. In 2016, a memorial finally honored them.
The discovery of similar mass graves in Canada led to a national reckoning over the history of its Indian boarding schools.
“There's a similar situation here where you have, pretty much next to each mission, hundreds if not thousands of native people who died here,” Rizzo-Martinez said. “And the numbers are similar to what we found at Santa Cruz. They're horrific. They're awful.”
Chairman Lopez of the Amah Mutsun, who grew up Catholic, said the people of today aren’t responsible for the mistakes of the past. But he believes institutions should be held accountable.
“The perpetrators today are those institutions…the Catholic Church, the State of California, the federal government,” he said. “Indigenous people need healing from that brutal history. But in all honesty, the perpetrators need that healing more than Indigenous people do.”
In an emailed statement to KAZU News, the California Department of Transportation said there are about 515 El Camino Real bell markers along the state’s highways, and that the agency is mandated to maintain the bells. Removing them would require an act of the state legislature.
Like in Santa Cruz, Lopez also hopes to work with local tribes and communities. He said the movement will begin ramping up next year.