City's search for identity opens hot debate over art

SAN JOSE, CALIF. — SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Real cities, major cities, cities with smarts and sophistication have art. So a few years ago, seeking to establish a cultural outpost in the bland, high-tech wilderness of the Silicon Valley, San Jose officials went shopping for a major piece of public art.

It would make everyone forget, they said, that so far the city's creative pinnacle had been when singer Dionne Warwick asked if anyone knew the way here, without ever asking if it was worth driving to.


But searching for an artistic identity in the '90s is not what it was in the early part of the century, when city officials could unveil statues of patriarchs without worrying about dissenters.

Ever since the city began looking for culture, it has been mired in feuds. The first purchase San Jose made was a $200,000 statue that so offended the Latino community the piece was relegated to a warehouse. Next the city decided upon a $500,000 sculpture of an Aztec serpent god that Latinos liked but Christian fundamentalists say will provoke human sacrifices.


"Art in public places is really needed to identify and create a certain ambience," said Vice Mayor Blanca Alvarado, who is seeking to quell the controversy. Of the Aztec god statue, which brought pickets to City Council meetings, she said, "I'm beginning to see this sculpture is going to be a point of education."

The first sculpture commemorated Thomas Fallon, a 19th-century militia captain who took San Jose from the Mexicans -- a man who was, in the words of Ms. Alvarado, "a drunkard, a womanizer, someone who flew the flag of California at the same time he was ripping off the land holdings of prominent Mexicans."

Officials were not going to make the same mistake twice. When they went shopping again last year, they sought an image that would honor the heritage of Latinos, who make up 25 percent of the population in this city 45 miles south of San Francisco.

Their attention focused on the Aztec and Toltec god known as Quetzalcoatl (ket-sal ko-at'l) who is represented by a snake called the Plumed Serpent. Ms. Alvarado said she was drawn to sculptor Robert Graham's rendition of the snake.

"Part of the beauty of the Plumed Serpent is the mythology," she said. "His rulership included the philosophy of love, beauty, duality, poetry, flowers, life and death."

But others see the Plumed Serpent differently. Salvatore Caruso, chairman of the city's planning commission, has produced a library book that says Quetzalcoatl taught his followers to tear out a still-beating human heart.

"How can you bring a symbol of this grotesque indignity to people?" he asked.

Last week an agitated crowd of 200, most of them opposing the sculpture, crowded the City Council meeting. On the other side was a group of scholars who contended that Quetzalcoatl was not associated with human sacrifice.


Christian fundamentalists, some active in the Evangel Christian Fellowship that sponsored Operation Rescue this summer, have seized the issue and promise to hold prayer vigils at the site.

"Blanca said she was compelled by the artist's rendition of the sculpture, she didn't even know why," said Nathan Hill, host of a Christian television news magazine program here. "I can tell her why. It refers to the powers behind it. It's still alive. Spirits don't die."

He predicted that if the sculpture is put in Plaza Park downtown, the park could become the site of modern-day human sacrifices.

"If they erect this thing downtown, who's to say if the homeless are going to start to disappear?" said Mr. Hill.

The city says the sculpture will appear sometime next year; no amount of protest can change that, officials say. The piece, they vow, will pack an artistic wallop that will bring San Jose fame.

"We'll probably have the most distinctive Mexican work of art north of Mexico," said John Lusardi, director of program development at the city's Redevelopment Agency. "It will be an identity piece."


The city also is moving ahead on other public art projects. It plans to erect sculptures to honor Asian, Native American and European settlers. After those sculptures are in place, the statue of Captain Fallon is scheduled to come out of the warehouse and have its day.