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Councilman LaCava wants new San Diego emblem, saying current seal ‘erases the history’ of Native Americans

The San Diego city seal was designed by architect Carleton Monroe Winslow and was adopted in 1914.
(Courtesy)

The La Jolla resident says ‘this is about learning from our history and recognizing the symbol does not reflect who we are.’

San Diego City Councilman Joe LaCava of La Jolla wants the city seal changed to one that includes “modern elements” such as the area’s connection to the U.S.-Mexico border and the role of Native Americans in its culture.

“The city of San Diego should be an example,” LaCava said in a statement. “The current city seal erases the history of the indigenous peoples who occupied this land long before us and glorifies those who stole it. Words matter, symbols matter, actions matter. It’s time we take action to right this wrong.”

The seal’s description, the statement continues, “reads that ‘the caravel [ship] represents the exploration and settlement by the Spanish.’ Other scholarly articles elaborate to say, for a crest a typical ‘Carmelite belfry’ is used, which suggests the early Christianization of San Diego by the ‘mission fathers’ of Fray Junipero Serra.”

San Diego Councilman Joe LaCava of La Jolla says the city seal needs to include “modern elements.”
San Diego Councilman Joe LaCava of La Jolla says the city seal needs to include “modern elements,” including the role of Native Americans in its culture.
(File)

LaCava’s District 1 covers La Jolla, Carmel Valley, Del Mar Mesa, Pacific Highlands Ranch, Torrey Hills, Torrey Pines and University City. He told the La Jolla Light that once he was sworn into office in December following his November election, he started paying attention to the 107-year-old city seal because he was seeing it on all official correspondence.

“My family took a greater interest in the seal and researched it and looked at the individual elements that made it up,” he said. “I also started reflecting on the students that wanted to rename Junipero Serra High school to something more geographically based.”

Serra was one of the first Spanish missionaries in the region, settling the first nine of 21 missions in California from San Diego to San Francisco. He also was the namesake of the San Diego Unified School District’s Junipero Serra High School in Tierrasanta, but the district board voted unanimously March 9 to change the name to Canyon Hills High School after students petitioned for the change, citing Serra’s missionary past.

“We have been having conversations about the systemic racism that is built into our institutions,” LaCava said. “As a person elected to office, it was my responsibility to identify those elements and tackle them one by one. These symbols reflect our values as a city. To those that have been marginalized and underrepresented by these institutions, these become symbolic.”

He said he hasn’t formed an opinion as to what should be on the seal. “It needs to be a public conversation.”

“I hope the mayor and my council colleagues will embrace this, at which time we will identify a more public conversation of how to handle it,” LaCava said. “The path I see forward is the start of the conversation and agree that this should be heard and then build a public base of support.”

He said he would introduce the proposal at an upcoming council meeting to be determined and start collecting public feedback “in the next month or two.”

When his proposal came to light, critics took to social media to suggest LaCava focus on “real” issues.

Twitter user Edgar Martinez called LaCava an “imbecile,” contending that the ship on the city seal represents San Diego’s “rich maritime history.”

PJ Potter wrote that “a better use of time is getting the brand of hot dogs changed that they sell at Petco [Park]. I can name 50 other issues that you were elected to help fix before this!”

LaCava said that “we will still do the hard work we have to do — balance the budget, help with small-business recovery — but these are things we can do in parallel. We have a robust city staff that can handle these issues.”

Acknowledging that some will accuse him of fueling “cancel culture,” he said: “History will always be preserved in our books and academia, but this is about learning from our history and recognizing the symbol does not reflect who we are. If these symbols no longer reflect our values, it is incumbent on us to change them.”

The seal was designed by architect Carleton Monroe Winslow and was adopted by city leaders on April 15, 1914. Winslow also designed multiple buildings for the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park and The Bishop’s School in La Jolla.

LaCava’s predecessor on the City Council, Barbara Bry, said she supports his plan but didn’t comment further. Will Moore, who ran against LaCava in last year’s council race, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

La Jolla resident and San Diego Historical Resources Board member Courtney Coyle briefly mentioned the proposal during the board’s March 25 meeting. “We are on Kumeyaay land, and acknowledging that is becoming an important thing in public meetings,” she said.

She offered to have the HRB’s Archaeological and Tribal Cultural Resources Subcommittee assist in providing input.

According to the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, “beginning with the Spanish invasion of 1769, continuing through the Mexican period of 1826 to 1848, and on through the American period, the Kumeyaay were forced off their ancestral lands. Nearly all of the Kumeyaay lands were taken into private ownership or made U.S. government holdings. Treaties negotiated with 18 California tribes in 1850 to set aside 8.5 million acres in specific tribal lands were never ratified by the U.S. Senate as a result of opposition by the state of California. Today, the acreage of tribal reservations in California is approximately 500,000 acres.”

Kumeyaay tribal members are divided into 12 separate bands: Barona, Campo, Ewiiaapaayp, Inaja-Cosmit, Jamul, LaPosta, Manzanita, Mesa Grande, San Pasqual, Santa Ysabel, Sycuan and Viejas.

Messages seeking comment from the Barona band’s cultural center were not returned.

Native American historian, comedian and storyteller Abel Silvas said he supports LaCava’s proposed change, saying the seal is “European-centric with the logo” and “does not show Native Americans.”

The phrase “semper vigilans,” which is written on the seal, means “always vigilant” or “always alert.” Silvas said that for some, that can be read as settlers being on high alert for those they met arriving in San Diego, painting natives as someone to be vigilant against.

He said he identifies as a “Diegueño Californio,” whose ancestors built the missions of San Diego. “There needs to be a seal for all of us [including those who built the missions],” he said. “It’s a complex issue.”

— San Diego Union-Tribune staff writer David Garrick contributed to this report.