A vandal who defaced the Quetzalcoatl sculpture in Plaza de Cesar Chavez this week may have helped align the piece with the intentions of the artist who created it. The notoriously monochromatic statue of the mythological Mayan plumed serpent now looks out at the downtown San Jose skyline with red eyes aglow. That is probably closer to what the renowned sculptor Robert Graham had in mind when he conceived the artwork.
Quetzy, as it’s come to be known, was originally supposed to be a grand project—a multicolored bronze god, with magnificent red-and-green wings, standing three stories tall. But the idea was met with an epic close-minded freakout.
First, uptight old locals who were already appalled that downtown’s central plaza was at that same moment being renamed for a Chicano rabble-rouser, protested the expenditure on a pre-Columbian icon. Then, in 1994, a local Christian organization going by the Marvel Comics Superhero–inspired name “Justice Foundation” tried to strip the public money from the project claiming that it was an unconstitutional promotion of religion.
They associated Quetzalcoatl with the serpent from the Garden of Eden (Satan!) and with human sacrifice (a misreading of history, but whatever). To prove their point they cited the works of New Age hucksters Jose Arguelles and Hunbatz Men, as obscure then as they are now.
The lawsuit was dismissed, but in the course of things, the statue was defanged and downsized. Ever since the squat, gray-brown version of the piece was unveiled, many San Joseans have suspected that the artist deliberately dropped a turd on the lawn to retaliate for the city’s mucking with his more ambitious proposal.
But there’s no evidence of that on Graham’s online portfolio, which proudly displays the piece along with his many other civic monuments, including the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Charlie “Bird” Parker Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri, and (ironically?) the Great Bronze Doors of the Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles’ Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.
Of the Plumed Serpent, the late sculptor, an SJSU grad, said (ironically?): “It was created for the City of San Jose to symbolize the spirit of social harmony and diversity.”