El Camino Real Bells Controversy Rings Loud

Alta readers share passionate responses to Marcela Davison Avilés’s article on a onetime tourist campaign that recalls California’s checkered missionary past.

For many drivers, a common place to see the bells is along California highway 101 or 82, or El Camino Real; this gold-painted bell sits in front of San Bruno City Hall.
For many drivers, a common place to see the bells is along California highway 101 or 82, or El Camino Real; this gold-painted bell sits in front of San Bruno City Hall.

Do the iconic mission bells along California’s El Camino Real evoke a past so painful, we shouldn’t be reminded of it? That’s a question explored by Alta contributor Marcela Davison Avilés in “The Bells Toll. But for Whom?,” an article that appeared in our Spring 2020 issue—and it’s a question Alta readers were eager to examine. Here’s a small sampling of the responses Avilés’s article inspired: 

Moral Judgments

Why today do we the living make moral judgments, based on contemporary norms, about the moral actions of people who lived centuries ago? Think for a moment: Junípero Serra and others lived and acted (rightly or wrongly) according to the societal and religious moral understandings of their own times, just as we individuals do today.

But societal and religious moral judgments change because living in time, as we all inescapably do, reveals to us values that earlier people did not know, perceive, understand, accept, enact, etc. If we judge people and their actions only by the norms of the present day, so shall we too be judged.

When we do, we violate the inescapable meaning that we humans live in time, in history. Moral and legal norms perpetually call each of us, individually and in society, to live in more moral ways, but we live in time and, because of that, human moral judgments change/grow/develop.

John F. Foster, Whitethorn, California

Ugly Behavior


We Americans have been responsible for some very ugly behavior, which needs to be discussed as part of our history, especially with our children and adolescents. Removing the bells does not achieve this. Leaving the bells as a reminder of what happened, with the true history being provided for all of us and taught to our children, is the way to prevent repeating the past.

Rosemary Tisch, Saratoga, California

For the Love of California

I love every inch of California. Mostly I love cruising her highways, always alert to some stunning scenery, natural or man-made. When I was new to the state, I often found myself on a portion of El Camino Real, identified by road signs. Then I started noticing the carriage bells out in the country, spaced about a mile apart, consistently reminding me of the route. Driving through the city of Monterey, I was surprised to find a bell or two still guiding my journey. I saw them again on the route to San Diego as well as the road through the great redwoods. 

I don’t know who erected them, but I am always intrigued by these subtle reminders. They make me think of older times when, instead of a 300-horsepower conveyance, I might well be guiding a team of horses and a stagecoach. The bells are an elegant symbol, unique to the Golden State. They should be treated as treasures, never to be removed from our roadways. 

I may live in New York, temporarily. But I will always be a Californian.

Lee Ponton, New York City, New York

Father Serra Wasn’t Perfect

Maybe Father Serra wasn’t perfect, but the missions are a big part of California history, and I think the bells honor the missions and the history in an affectionate way.

Richard Orton, Santa Monica Beach, California

Share your opinion on the bells of El Camino Real (or anything else Alta-related) by sending a note to letters@altaonline.com.

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