As Cabrillo College is learning, changing the name of an institution is exactly the kind of issue that often mushrooms into a larger and more painful discussion about culture and society — one that could prove to divide friends and neighbors far more than other recent political debates.
I’m no clairvoyant, but I don’t need a crystal ball to tell you a few things about what’s awaiting us in 2023. First, the nation’s most compelling cringe comedy will emanate from the U.S. House of Representatives. Next, Twitter will descend into a level of depravity and awfulness we’re not even imagining yet. And, closer to home, Santa Cruz County’s Divisive Issue of the Year is already set in motion, poised to take the crown from 2022’s winner, the rail trail.
That, of course, would be the decision by the Cabrillo College board of trustees to change the name of the community college to something — crazy thought — not directly associated with slavery and genocide. The trustees voted by a convincing 7-1 to move forward with a name change — with a new name to be announced in August of next year — leaving the long-dead Spanish (or maybe Portuguese) explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo hanging out to dry.
These kinds of institutional name changes are gradually becoming a thing in America. This year, for instance, marked the first year under the new names of the recently rebranded NFL team in Washington and big-league baseball team in Cleveland, both of which had been operating under ugly nicknames — one of them a flat-out racial slur — for generations. A wave of similar name changes for sports-team nicknames at the college and high-school levels — many of them caricatures of Indigenous people — has risen just in the past few years.
The renaming of schools, as opposed to only their mascots, has been a bit more problematic. In San Francisco in 2021, the local school board voted to change the names of 44 schools across the city, dropping such iconic names as Washington and Lincoln, as well as less celebrated ones such as Dianne Feinstein. Just a few months later, in the face of a groundswell of criticism, the board rescinded its decision and the mass name changes were abandoned.
The University of California Hastings College of Law is changing its name because of its namesake Serranus Hastings’ role in the massacre of thousands of native people in California. Now the school is facing a potential ruinous lawsuit because of the name change.
And then there’s the bizarre story of Calhoun College on the campus of Yale University. In 2016, the university considered changing the name of one of its residential colleges, given that it was named after former vice president John C. Calhoun, perhaps the most odious of the slave-holding “statesmen” of the antebellum period. But then, Yale decided to keep the name precisely because Calhoun was such a moral disgrace. “We cannot erase American history,” said Yale’s president at the time, “but we can confront it, teach it, and learn from it. The decision to retain Calhoun College’s name reflects the importance of this vital educational imperative.”
But less than a year later, Yale had reversed course and jettisoned Calhoun as it should have in the first place.
As far as Cabrillo College is concerned, all this is to say that these name-change efforts can be volatile and unpredictable. And sitting here, at the beginning of this process, we cannot anticipate what strange turns this decision might take. Thousands of locals are affiliated, or were once affiliated, with Cabrillo in some way, and the opinions of those folks matter a lot in this debate. But just as many locals have never been attached to Cabrillo in any way.
But guess what: They’re going to opine on the matter as well. This is exactly the kind of issue that often mushrooms into larger and more painful themes of history and culture, and suddenly a decision by an independent community college can become a communitywide flashpoint for a profound reckoning that could divide friends and neighbors much more than a decrepit old railroad track ever could.
Obviously, much will depend upon the name that that college finally adopts. Maybe some smart person in Santa Cruz County or beyond will produce exactly the right name that will make this transition go down as smooth as butterscotch ice cream. But anyone who’s ever named a cat or a band knows that a perfectly resonant name can forever remain elusive.
So, let’s brainstorm a bit. What might the new name be?
Aptos: The obvious front-runner is the Joe Biden of this contest, the boring consensus name that will probably find traction exactly because it elicits the least hostility and derision. “Aptos” derives from the Ohlone language, which is a big plus as a tribute to the people whom Juan Cabrillo apparently viewed as something less than human. It would raise the profile of the village of Aptos considerably, though there is already an Aptos High School, so that’s a bit awkward.
Manzanita: This is a name I came up with in an earlier column about the Cabrillo name change. It’s no slam dunk, I realize, but the name has a kind of musical quality to it. It’s fun to say and would look great on a sweatshirt. Manzanita is, of course, a hardy evergreen shrub, native to California, with gnarly, dense branches and a distinctive red bark that is subject to peeling. The plant had several uses for the native peoples of California. And, if we can be sure about anything in this case, it’s that the college will almost certainly be not renamed after a person, living or dead. A manzanita shrub is not going to embarrass future generations.
K’brio: Here’s a wild card that might work as a kind of half-measure. Yes, signage will have to change, but we could still talk about the place just like we always have. Sure, it’s goofy. But where else other than a community college can you really reach out and get creative? Do you want to brand yourself to upcoming generations as the kind of anything-goes playground for out-of-the-box thinking? Get weird. An off-the-wall name is going to attract a lot of ridicule, but if you own it and grow with it, it’ll work for you. I was once visiting Savannah, Georgia, and walked into a boutique called “Fred.” I asked the woman why she called her store Fred, and she said simply, “Why not?” I say, get her on the naming committee.
In fact, let’s put all of us on the naming committee. Even though the college isn’t planning to decide until next August, why not provide some help? We’ve done that. Readers, help rename Cabrillo College. Pick one of our choices, or add your own. We’ll report back soon.
Whatever the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band wants: Descendants of the local Indigenous people of the Monterey Bay are experiencing a visibility these days that might be unprecedented. What better way to negate the legacy of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo than to hand over a blank check to the area’s original people? And considering we’re talking about Aptos, does anyone know the Mutsun word for “foggy summer”?