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Replica Statue Is Gift That Keeps on Giving

Scaled-down Lady Liberty, donated by an immigrant from Taiwan, has attained near-landmark status in front of City Hall.

July 25, 2002|CARA MIA DiMASSA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are many names for the woman who stands watch along a busy street in El Monte with one arm outstretched toward the sun.

To the people of El Monte, she is "Lady Liberty."

Or "Mother of Exiles," as poet Emma Lazarus once labeled her more-famous New York cousin.

Or something more akin to a plastic lawn flamingo, as one dissenter suggested when the 23-foot, one-ton statue was installed in El Monte in 1987.

Since then, the fiberglass replica of the Statue of Liberty has become a beacon of sorts for this community in which more than half of the 116,000 residents are foreign-born, according to census estimates, and only one in five residents speaks English at home.

"It's kind of an interesting, almost-landmark in El Monte," said Assistant City Manager Juan Mireles. "A lot of people, even on weekends, will stop by and take photographs of themselves with the statue."

In Southern California, where amusement parks boast scaled-down versions of everything from the Matterhorn to the Golden Gate Bridge, El Monte's faux Statue of Liberty might seem like one more example of local kitsch--an incongruous sight on Valley Boulevard.

Yet El Monte's statue possesses a certain magnetism and draws people not so much with its grandeur, but by the idea it represents.

In the weeks after Sept. 11, area residents left flowers, wreaths and candles at the statue's base as a tribute to those who died in the terrorist attacks.

"Other people, they know the Statue of Liberty in El Monte," said Dr. Jiiang T. Wang, a physician and Taiwanese immigrant who donated the statue to the city in 1986. He had obtained the statue from friends in Taiwan in exchange for forgiving a $50,000 debt.

Right away, he said, he knew that he wanted to donate it to a city--preferably one near a freeway--"so that people could see it when they drove by."

Wang, a resident of Sierra Madre, was considering giving Liberty to the nearby city of Duarte. But then Grace Black, who worked as executive secretary for the El Monte City Council, spotted the statue behind a vacant building, where Wang had been storing it.

She approached Wang, who has run the Duke Medical Clinic in El Monte for 29 years, and asked if he would consider lending the statue to El Monte for its Fourth of July celebration. That event, held at Arroyo High School, coincided with the centennial of the original Statue of Liberty.

Wang instead offered to donate the statue to the city.

"She was so excited. She got back to me and the city agreed to accept my donation," Wang said. "On July 4, I donated the statue to the city. That's the story."

But that wasn't the end of it.

Uncertain Future

After that Independence Day celebration in 1986, the statue collected dust in a public works yard for more than a year as the city debated what to do with it. The high school declined it, worried that a two-story statue would be a target for vandalism. Judges at the El Monte courthouse turned it down, in part because it clashed with the building's modern architecture.

When word of the statue's uncertain future spread, Wang received calls from as far away as Montana offering it a home.

That got El Monte officials moving. They gave Liberty a tryout in front of City Hall and across the street from the courthouse.

Lady Liberty was an instant hit.

When the council voted a month later to approve the site as a permanent home for the statue, only one councilman--the source of the pink flamingo analogy--voted against it. More than 250 people, including representatives from El Monte's sister cities in Mexico and France, attended the dedication ceremony in November 1987.

Over time, El Monte has continued to embrace Wang's gift. A pixilated image of the statue adorns the city's Web site, and every City Council agenda features a black-and-white picture of the original Statue of Liberty in the upper left corner.

"I did not expect it to become almost a landmark for the city," Wang said.

And while it may not be a bona fide monument, the statue is given landmark treatment. The El Monte Public Works Department installed a 3-foot, cement-and-steel base for Liberty, with a bronze plaque that reads: "Donated to the city of El Monte for the enjoyment of all its citizens." Lights around its perimeter illuminate the statue at night.

"We do wash the statue, I would say every six months, using an aerial lift--a cherry picker--with brushes and water," said Joe Espinosa, head of the Public Works Department. "We give it a good bath. We haven't painted it in a few years. We are trying to make it look authentic. The longer you let it go, the more natural the color."

When the statue arrived from Taiwan, its bare fiberglass was white. City officials, determined to make it look more like the original, decided to paint it green. But instead of a dusty, weathered color, Liberty ended up bright mint green. The color was subsequently toned down.

Evolving Green

But what shade of green is the statue these days, exactly?

"It's the color of copper oxidized," said Clarke Moseley, El Monte city attorney.

"It's a teal," said Espinosa, the person who should know. "We try to match it up as close as we can. With the weathering, you are never going to match the same color."

"People pretty much respect" the statue, Espinosa added. "Nobody has ever [defiled] it. People see the statue and want to touch it and gather round it or look at it."

There was one bizarre incident in 1991, even if the motivation was, in a way, patriotic. A Baldwin Park man, frustrated at not being allowed to serve in the Persian Gulf War because he was an immigrant, tried to commit suicide in front of the statue. He was unsuccessful.

Wang, for his part, says he is happy with the way El Monte has acted as caretaker for his statue and how it has become an integral part of civic life.

"I feel comfortable now, very comfortable now," he said. "I feel it's in the right city."

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