Posted by: Brad Nixon | June 23, 2020

Moving Statues: Art, Symbol, History; Señor Cabrillo, Welcome to 2020

One dictionary definition of “statue” is “a three-dimensional form or likeness*.”

English is an inherently slippery, deceptive language. I think most of you may agree that there is a considerable difference between a “form” and a “likeness.”

Once we leap from impossibly abstract discussions about “what is a ‘likeness’?” we get down to the issue that’s in the news.

What if a statue depicts a historical figure? Why is a statue of that historical personage standing in or in front of a public building, or in a park? 

History, after all, is already written. Whether or not a statue commemorates or merely acknowledges history, facts are facts.

Aren’t they?

That is precisely the discussion — an often heated one — current both here in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“Facts” are facts, but how we interpret and represent them is complex. That’s the messiness inherent in being such complex creatures. If we were birds, lizards or spiders, statues might simply be convenient places on which to perch, warm ourselves in the sun or build nests. For humans, statues aren’t simply random objects: they signify, commemorate, memorialize.

Ah, there’s the rub.

What does a statue signify?

One statue, a few miles from me, is a case on point in the current “discussion.”

It’s a stylized depiction of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, commander of the first European expedition to explore the coast of what is now California in 1542. I wrote about the statue and its setting at this link.

For historical context, Cabrillo sailed into San Pedro Bay 22 years before Shakespeare was born, and five years before the birth of Miguel de Cervantes. Another world.

Cabrillo statue Brad Nixon 1984 sm

The heritage of California is different than that of the eastern United States. Here, the land was “settled” not by colonists of Dutch, English or French origin, but Spanish ones.

I live a few miles from where Cabrillo landed in what he named Bahía de San Pedro, now the harbor of Los Angeles. In 1542, the area had been occupied for between eight and 10,000 years by a number of indigenous inhabitants.

Cabrillo, the Spanish Conquistador, was the first European to arrive, followed by an ambitious wave of successors. They encountered a number of scattered but highly successful societies with distinctive cultures, religions, world-views.

Those communities, though, lacked certain attributes the Spanish — and their European contemporaries far to the east — possessed in abundance: metal tools, horses, cattle and sheep, gunpowder, a highly evolved military command-and-control  hierarchy and — impossible to quantify — a will to dominate.

Within a few decades, the Spanish on the coast of what is now California, Oregon and Washington had subjected local native populations to participating in establishing Nueva Espagna. The term for it was encomienda. In Spanish, that means, literally, “commissioned.” Locals were “commissioned” to work in building Spanish missions, farms, vineyards, manufactories. When the “commissioners” are holding guns, the connotations of that term are, at best, questionable.

Now, we’re left with a statue, erected in the 1930s, commemorating Cabrillo’s arrival.

What does it represent? What does it signify?

That’s the question that’s left to us.

Somewhere between sunset on June 21, 2020 and the next morning, someone spray-painted the word, “Colonizer” on the base of the Cabrillo statue, and spread red paint on his statue.


A dialectic that has been ongoing for some time has risen to the top of the news.

The question, even on the surface, doesn’t lend itself to simple answers.

Does an “observance” of Cabrillo’s arrival represent something that signifies more?

Does placing a statue near the place Cabrillo set foot on land not only commemorate the occasion, but enshrine it as something to be honored?

We cannot rewrite history. History has been recorded. We can’t change the past. We can, however, consider how we regard the framework from which we view it.

This event was reported in The Daily Breeze, a reputable newspaper that covers suburban southern Los Angeles, at this link:

Is the act of painting the Cabrillo statue vandalizing, or demonstrating? Have the actors involved defaced a monument, or raised a question we should ask?

The purpose of public protest, ultimately, is to ask the question: Why this, and not something else?

I admit, this act has caused me to ask the question.

I invite comments. Let us talk to one another. Who are we? What do statues represent, and what do they signify?

© Brad Nixon 2020, 2021

*American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language; © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000. News photograph © George Matthews, San Pedro Caring Proactive Residents Clean Up Crew, The Daily Breeze, June 21, 2020


  1. IMO, the monuments are symbols of our past, they represent our history – good or bad. It can’t be changed, so learn it, learn from it and move forward. Violence, defacing, destruction only causes more tension and rifts in society. Perhaps we should have kept the draft and had these “children” learn to grow up and learn some discipline.


    • Here, G.P., I both thank you for your comment, and respectfully offer a slightly different perspective. I agree with you: We cannot change history. Nor should we try.
      We can, however, examine how we view it. Statues, public sculpture, as you and I are proving in this discussion, offer us one way to examine not only what happened, but how we interpret it.
      Public protest, I agree, is messy, and not always effective. It does, however, make us think.
      There are, I suspect no statues to Hitler in Belgium. I think most of the statues of Stalin have come down. Museums are full of statues of rulers, potentates, emperors, kings, queens we no longer recognize.
      It’s an ongoing discussion, and this is the one we’re having now. I’m glad to have you involved.
      As for the draft, I participated in 1970. As it happened, I ended up with a number that — had there been a black market in draft numbers — I could’ve sold for a considerable sum of money.
      I’m not certain I learned anything about 16th century Spanish rule or what statues represent as part of that exercise.
      Like you, I assume, I can point to the names of young people I once knew, engraved on a granite wall not far from the Lincoln Memorial. THERE is a monument that should always stand.
      The simple fact that you and I — and any other citizen — can engage in this discussion, is precisely the point. Here we are. We don’t always agree, but together, we have something worth keeping. Thank you.


      • You’re comparing George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt with Hitler and Stalin? I thought you had more respect than that, Brad.
        I sent Toritto 2 pictures, one of ISIS tearing down a statue and the George Washington statue now defaced and burnt from a burning flag, did you happen to see it? What is the difference between the 2? How long before the new movement decided the Vietnam Wall comes down?
        But yes, we do have the ability and freedom to discuss our views.


      • G.P., this is one problem in corresponding via the written word, instead of speaking to one another. It’s far too easy to say something that can be mistaken. No, of course not. My point (which I apparently failed to convey) is precisely the opposite. There is every reason to have our national heroes enshrined and to reject the notion of honoring those who’ve opposed us.
        As a young man, I could wander around Europe and see statues or busts of Stalin, Lenin, but they’re gone. To this day, you can walk into Tiananmen Square in Beijing and have Mao’s smiling face beaming at you. Murderer of 30 million people. He won’t be there forever.
        Let’s you and I stand some day at the viewpoint at Mt. Rushmore, look up at George, Tom, Teddy, Abe, and consider where we are.
        We stand on the shoulders of giants.
        What I say.

        Liked by 1 person

      • One day I hope we do.

        Here’s a letter from Oxford that dares to speak up.


  2. You mentioned Mao. From my perspective, what’s happening in this country has been transformed from a concern for racism and the role of Blacks in our society into a wholesale attack on society as a whole.

    When Mao and General Lin Biao, his second-in-charge and designated successor, launched the Chinese Cultural Revolution in a speech from Tiananmen Square on August 18, 1966, the Destruction of the Four Olds was presented as a primary goal. Posters from the time show brigades of Red Guards attacking those “Four Olds” — Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas — by sledge hammering, trampling, burning, and burying Chinese literature, film, religious iconography and cultural artifacts emblematic of foreign imperialism and China’s feudal past.

    Show me the difference. At this point, I can’t see it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Despite the “like,” there is nothing to like about what’s happened in China.
      I would like to mention here that no one in China can read my (or your) blog posts (should anyone care to), because I’m outside the Great Fire Wall. More than a billion fellow humans with whom we may not — cannot — engage.
      I was out in Tiananmen Square early one morning, on a run before the day kicked in. It’s one mile around the square. The trick is, every time you circle around, you look up at Mao’s fat face, murderer of tens of millions, and give him the finger. Then, at the end of that portion of the circuit, you turn, and, well, there’s his mausoleum in the middle of the square. He’s still dead, and will hopefully remain so.
      Then, run back to the hotel, put on the duds, get ready for a day of work with the Beijing office.
      Thirty million human souls.


      • In a somewhat different context, Yevtushenko pondered another leader and a different mausolem in his poem “The Heirs of Stalin.” The poem concludes:

        “No, Stalin has not given up. He thinks he can cheat death.
        We carried him from the mausoleum.
        But how remove Stalin’s heirs from Stalin!
        Some of his heirs tend roses in retirement,
        thinking in secret their enforced leisure will not last.
        Others, from platforms, even heap abuse on Stalin
        but, at night, yearn for the good old days.
        No wonder Stalin’s heirs seem to suffer
        these days from heart trouble. They, the former henchmen,
        hate this era of emptied prison camps
        and auditoriums full of people listening to poets.
        The Party discourages me from being smug.
        ‘Why care? ‘ some say, but I can’t remain inactive.
        While Stalin’s heirs walk this earth,
        Stalin, I fancy, still lurks in the mausoleum.”

        Under both Mao and Stalin, the bodies piled up: truly unspeakable horrors. But the horror didn’t begin with the bodies, and at least some who call themselves protestors today either don’t know what their behavior could nurture, or know, and don’t care.


      • I’m betting there’s a play on words in there, although I know no Russian, somewhere between “rooting out” and “divining.” Ah, god, Linda, in our own short lives, we’ve carried our share of these tyrants to their mausoleums. How many more? My shoulders are tired.


      • The entire piece is worth reading, as I just have. Damn! If I’d only studied Russian.
        “And I appeal to our government
        With the request
        To double,
        To triple
        The guard at this slab
        So that Stalin may not rise,
        And, with Stalin,
        the past.”


  3. The meme of defacing statues has unfortunately been around, globally, for a while. It seems to me that if a valid case for a different interpretation of what the statue represents can be broadly accept by the community they stand in (that is, whoever was making the fuss managed to convince the community-at-large that their cause has true merit), then an alternative plaque could also be attached to the statue alongside whatever the original inscription was.


    • I think so, too, in the main.
      I think it’s an excellent opportunity to say something like, “This person did THIS, but there are also THESE things to consider.”
      On the other hand, as I hope to demonstrate in my next blog post, public protest (red paint on a statue of a local figure I considered unassailable), there’s a reason to call attention to these matters.
      You probably knew at least one person in your undergraduate years who went to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. Well, Cecil Rhodes has a lot to answer for. Would you turn down a Rhodes appointment? Oh, man.
      Let’s keep talking. This is not simple, not easy.


  4. You say this statue was erected in the 1930’s. Suddenly, 90 years later, we have a problem with it. Thiy is called Presentism: judging objects from the past with the morale of today. This means that everything, at any point in time, will be considered inappropriate. Does this mean we have to forget about the past?


    • Christopher, that is precisely the question, isn’t it? Thanks for asking it. Rather than suggesting there’s an answer, one way or another, I’d like to suggest that the statue (which, actually, I think is really an attractive work of art) offers an opportunity to examine what happened here in California, and just how we deal with our heritage. Nothing’s simple. I don’t think there’s a “yes” or “no.” We do, however, have an opportunity to ask questions, not afforded the citizens of every country in the world. Thank you for commenting.


  5. Germany has taken a rather different approach in dealing with its horrendous past, particularly the first half of the last century. Although you won’t find public statues glorifying Nazi leaders there, Germany does not run away from its history of murdering millions of people. Instead, in Berlin, for example, there are numerous public displays and plaques to remind Germans of their past to ensure that it is not repeated.


  6. “We can’t change the past.” In 1984 George Orwell, as someone who had moved away from Communism, portrayed a world in which the government does change the past, sending any inconvenient facts into the sarcastically named “memory hole.” He chose too soon a date, 1984, but now transgressives are at it with a fury.


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