The Serpent Statue in San Jose That People Think Is Something Else

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"Quetzalcoatl" by Robert Graham in San Jose's Plaza de Cesar Chavez. The Aztec god is often depicted as a coiled snake, but people of all ages complain the sculpture looks like something else, something scatological in nature. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

In recent years, there have been a lot of political battles over public sculptures, mostly because those sculptures lionize figures from a past we’re not so proud of anymore. But in San Jose, debate has bubbled for decades over a sculpture that was intended to celebrate the city’s Mexican-American heritage.

It’s a coiled snake made of Plaster of Paris and colored a dull earthy black. The snake is prominently placed on the south end of the Plaza de Cesar Chavez, a place where San Jose locals come to party, protest and just hang out.

If you stand near the sculpture long enough, local children will walk by and do a double take, before asking their parents, "Is that ... poop?"

"I probably heard this story before, but it hasn’t stick [sic] to me and I keep wondering what it means," says Daniel Fonseca. He is an interior designer and musician originally from Columbia who has lived in downtown San Jose for 20 years.

"Quetzalcoatl" by Robert Graham in San Jose's Plaza de Cesar Chavez, seen from behind.
"Quetzalcoatl" by Robert Graham in San Jose's Plaza de Cesar Chavez, seen from behind. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

"I have a little bit of sense. I mean, it’s related to the Mexican-American community, to the Aztec community, I want to think. But I never really stared at it and spend time with it and find out what the significance of it is," says Fonseca.

The Winged Serpent God

The sculpture is of Quetzalcoatl (say que-tzal-coh-what-l), the Aztec god of wind and wisdom, commonly referred to as "the feathered serpent." This iconic, dragonlike deity hails from Mesoamerican Teotihuacan, an ancient metropolis that once flourished northeast of modern-day Mexico City. Teotihuacan dominated the regional cultural landscape for centuries, and the art from Teotihuacan continues to resonate today throughout the Americas.

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You’ve seen Quetzalcoatl or his name, whether you realize it or not, all over the place, including on some Aeromexico planes.

Quetzalcoatl also shows up as a colorful monster in video games, and there's a chocolate bar by Bay Area confectioners Guittard that is named Quetzalcoatl. (I tasted one for research purposes, and it was good.)

In fact, there are so many gorgeous depictions of Quetzalcoatl many people wonder how a sculpture that invites laughter plopped down in San Jose.

How It Came To Be

There is a plaque by the base of this sculpture, but as we’ll explain shortly, it doesn’t really do a good job of describing the sculpture. Instead, we ask for the backstory from Scott Herhold, a retired columnist for the Mercury News who periodically conducts tours of the public art in downtown San Jose.

He tells us that, back in the 1980s, San Jose’s Redevelopment Agency wanted a statue to honor Thomas Fallon, the 10th mayor of San Jose.

"He was an adventurer, an Irishman, one of the first Anglo settlers here," Herhold says. "In 1846, he raised the flag, the American flag. Remember, this was part of Mexico still. From that point on, of course, San Jose really has been Anglo rather than Mexican."

Well, it’s been Anglo and Mexican-American, but Anglos dominated San Jose’s civic narrative for more than 100 years. But by 1988, when artist Robert Glen was commissioned to create a tribute to the Anglo hero, attitudes had changed. The Redevelopment Agency got blowback from the Mexican-American community. A new committee was established to pick a new artist.

Herhold continues, "They eventually settled on a man by the name of Robert Graham. Graham had originally designed some work for the Redevelopment Agency. He was also part Latino himself."

The San Jose State alum was highly regarded nationwide. His sculptures are on view all over the United States, including a commanding bronze memorial to Duke Ellington in New York's Central Park and a couple diminutive nudes outside the Federal Building in San Jose.

Two bronze nudes by Robert Graham at the western entrance of the federal building at 300 S. First Street in San Jose.
Two bronze nudes by Robert Graham at the western entrance of the Federal Building on S. First Street in San Jose. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

Graham's first drawings of Quetzalcoatl were of a winged creature. "They liked it very much," Herhold says, pausing for effect. "It came out differently than they thought."

There is a plaque at the base of the sculpture, but it doesn’t describe what you’re looking at. It describes a concept that was killed. "The winged serpent showed him sort of upright, with the wings out. Think almost of a peacock. It had that kind of feel to it," Herhold says.

About six weeks before the unveiling, he says, Graham told the Redevelopment Agency that his concept had changed. "It was just a change in his artist conception."

Conflicting Stories

I should stop here and tell you that’s not what Blanca Alvarado remembers. The retired San Jose politician was on the committee that worked with Graham, and her story differs from Herhold’s.

"I think Scott and I need a little bit of time, and he needs a little more education, so that as he describes the piece on his tour, he'll be better informed," she says.

The plaque at the base of the sculpture talks about the “plumed serpent,” but this is no plumed serpent. Confusing. Former Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold explains the plaque is referring to artist Robert Graham’s original concept.
The plaque at the base of the sculpture talks about the “plumed serpent,” but this is no plumed serpent. Confusing. Former Mercury News columnist Scott Herhold explains the plaque is referring to artist Robert Graham’s original concept. (Photo: Courtesy of Michael Ogilvie)

Alvarado says she also preferred Graham’s first, winged take on Quetzalcoatl. "It was quite elegant. It was a very, very beautiful piece."

Alvarado says that Graham's original sculpture was axed by the Redevelopment Agency. They worried that the domed pedestal he proposed would become an attractive place to sleep for homeless people.

"He was very frustrated by that objection. So he went to Mexico, and he stood there for three months at Teotihuacan, and he studied the stonework," says Alvarado.

His second proposal stems directly from that study. The coiled, stylized rattlesnake version of Queztecoatl was a thing, is a thing. Coatl, after all, means serpent in the Aztec language Nahuatl.

Graham made a small version of his final sculpture as a gift for Alvarado. She doesn't know what material he used, but it's green, the color of oxidized copper. It now sits in her backyard and it's quite lovely.

She doesn’t know what material he used but it’s green, the color of oxidized copper, and it’s quite lovely.
Blanca Alvarado doesn’t know what material was used but it’s green, the color of oxidized copper, and it’s quite lovely. (Rachael Myrow/KQED)

The thing is, Graham opted for his sculpture in the park to be that earthy black and, coiled as it is, it suggests something else. Intentionally so? That’s an open question.

Graham's (Possible) Revenge

"I think it’s fundamentally an act of revenge," Herhold says.

Is Herhold telling us Graham wanted revenge because his fabulous proposal for a winged serpent got the ax? No. Herhold thinks it's revenge for an entirely different project.

"Robert Graham had designed, as I mentioned, some work for the Redevelopment Agency. The initial idea was to build gateways on the four sides of the city. So one on the south, one on the north, one on the west and one on the east. And the Redevelopment Agency showed the media some pictures of this, and the Mercury News in particular sort of said thumbs-down to this. This is a silly idea, these gateways. So Graham had to withdraw that idea. And the feeling, at least among the Redevelopment Agency people I know, was that this was his act of revenge for the loss of that earlier commission," says Herhold.

He has written about this in the Mercury News.

How can he be so sure that the Quetzalcoatl sculpture is indeed an act of revenge?

Herhold acknowledges, "I don’t think you can be sure. Graham is now dead, and as far as I know, he never specifically said this was an act of revenge. But I can tell you the people that I know who were very well placed in the Redevelopment Agency, and even his mother, say this was his revenge."

That prompts this response from our Bay Curious question asker Daniel Fonseca. "If it was an act of revenge, I think it was very well captured, you know, because that is the first reaction: poop!"

But then Fonseca adds, "There must be a way to elevate this sculpture, to not have 'poop' be the first thing that you think. Like add some gardens around. Something that will bring out its significance. It’s set on a pedestal, so even the pedestal could be painted. It clearly needs some work."

On that score, at least, Blanca Alvarado agrees. "It needs some sprucing up," she says.

The sculpture was recently power-washed, but that’s it for the foreseeable future, according to San Jose’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which maintains the installation.

That said, Alvarado is a veteran political activist, and she says she’s fixing to get busy at City Hall, pushing for some imaginative improvement to San Jose's Queztecoatl.

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