Scenes from Mission San Juan Bautista
A bell near a section of El Camino Real at Mission San Juan Bautista.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

Cabrillo name controversy is only the beginning of California facing a reckoning with its past

In coming to terms with its colonial past, as Santa Cruz County is with the roiling Cabrillo College name-change process, California is approaching an accounting that is, in some ways, every bit as thorny as the Civil War/slavery history in the eastern half of the United States.

Atop the San Andreas Fault line, in the shade of the 200-year-old adobe church at Mission San Juan Bautista, an estimated 4,300 souls are buried in a small cemetery. The bodies of Christianized Indigenous people and European-born immigrants from the Spanish Mission period were stacked one on top of the other as they were buried, and today the graves are marked only by anonymous white crosses.

Those crosses are potent symbols of what we know and don’t know about California’s colonial past. The hotly contested debate over whether Cabrillo College should change its name has expanded in recent months to include rather abstract notions of community identity, the relevance of the past to those living in the modern world, and political ideas about how place names reveal a community’s values and who has the power to determine those values.

But, in this case, the road from the abstract to the concrete leads to San Juan Bautista, the impossibly picturesque mission town 16 miles east of Watsonville. It is here where you can gaze at the graves of both the conquerors and the conquered in the mission cemetery, and just below the cemetery wall, right at California’s most famous fault line, you can even walk on a remnant of the old El Camino Real, the path that connected each mission in Spanish-era California.

At a macro level, of course, the Cabrillo College debate isn’t really about the college or the life of its controversial namesake, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. You don’t have to zoom out too far to see how the Cabrillo debate relates to the oral or written land acknowledgements that are part of so much of public life today, as well the growing prominence of and respect for the native Amah Mutsun Tribal Band in recent years.

Each of these developments suggest that California is approaching a reckoning that is, in some ways, every bit as thorny as the Civil War/slavery history in the eastern half of the country. But modern-day Californians have no room to be smug when considering the roiling cultural debates regarding the Confederacy in the South. Some even say that Southerners are closer to facing the moral dimensions of their past than Californians are.

“It’s very hard to find anyone who is going to defend slavery anymore in the South, especially in polite society,” said Los Angeles Times columnist Gustavo Arellano. “On the other hand, you’re going to have apologists for the missions, the mission system, Junipero Serra and the conquistadors until California falls into the Pacific once and for all.”

The inescapable truth is that the vast majority of Californians are not descendants of the Amah Mutsun, or any other Native people who can stake a claim to pre-Mission California. That means almost all of us have built our lives — in some cases going back generations — on a legacy of conquest and stolen land, whether it’s the Spanish colonization of the Native people in the 1700s, or the U.S. government’s land-grab war with Mexico in the 1800s.

Cabrillo College will either change its name or it won’t. But whatever that outcome, what will remain are broader, almost existential questions: What do we do with the knowledge of that history? What responsibility do we contemporary Californians have to the people of the past? What does “restorative justice” even look like in this case?

Changes in ‘The City of History’

With its ancient and dramatically gnarled pepper trees and its sidewalk-staining olive trees, San Juan Bautista feels almost curated. “The City of History,” as it’s called, has a small commercial main street, no chains or franchises, and no close-by neighboring towns. The church at Mission San Juan Bautista still holds regular services and hosts events and is managed by the Diocese of Monterey, while the surrounding historical buildings are managed by the California State Parks system. (The Mission here serves as an almost literal illustration of the separation between church and state.)

For generations, the Mission San Juan Bautista has been a destination site for fourth graders from all over the Bay Area and Central Coast regions. As just about anyone who grew up in California can tell you, the fourth grade is the point in which students are first exposed to California history, including the Mission Era, Spanish and Mexican rule, the U.S.-Mexico war and the Gold Rush.

The museum exhibits in San Juan, on both the church and state sides, are still mostly focused on the white settlers of the Mission and post-Mission periods, perhaps an echo effect of the textbooks that for decades foregrounded the white folks’ narratives at the expense of the Native people of the area. But, a state parks interpreter told me, that focus might be gradually changing. On a corner lot, across from the mission, is a small garden with plants cultivated from the pre-Mission period by gardeners guided and advised by the Amah Mutsun Tribal Band. There are also plans, in the next year or two, to erect on the same site a period-realistic dwelling made from tule, the durable wetlands plant that the Native people harvested before the Spanish missionaries drained the nearby marshes.

Most who are products of the California school system might view the state’s history solely by what they learned in the fourth grade. But that fourth grade curriculum has evolved. The much-loathed (at least by parents) “Mission Project,” which involved building a replica California mission from sugar cubes and popsicle sticks, is now largely an artifact of the past. The state’s most recent History-Social Science Framework, adopted in 2016, officially discouraged teachers from the project. “Building missions from sugar cubes or popsicle sticks does not help students understand the period and is offensive to many,” said the framework. Indeed, teachers and parents alike felt that focusing on arts-and-crafts busywork and architectural layouts of the missions provided an out from looking at the uncomfortable questions of conquest, exploitation, even slavery.

In the place of sugar-cube churches is not just a new emphasis but a new orientation to history. Daisy Martin of the UC Santa Cruz History & Civics Project told me, “The most recent framework puts inquiry at the core of what students should be doing in history classrooms.” History as a grand mythic narrative — with dates and places, prominent actors, sweeping events and binding documents — is being reoriented as something like an open investigation, on the tenet that, though history is about things that happened long ago, our understanding of that history is a product of our times, a thing changing in front of our eyes.

The land acknowledgment recognizes that land on which UC Santa Cruz sits is Native land that was taken rather than...

What that means on a practical level, said Martin, is that the state now encourages history teachers to instruct students “to think like historians,” to not accept that history is one agreed-upon narrative, but the product of multiple sources, to seek out different perspectives, grounded first in fact.

“[We should ask] what aren’t we hearing and who aren’t we hearing from?” said Martin. “How was the language used to interpret the story? Why this word instead of that word?”

Martin suggested that teachers can bring in materials that tell a familiar story from a different perspective, such as Judith Scott’s “When the Mission Bells Rang,” a children’s book written in consultation with the Amah Mutsun that broaches the subject of how the missions disrupted the environment and the natural habitats of California.

Cabrillo through a modern lens

This process can be maddening to people who want a kind of unshakeable certainty from history. It is even playing out in the Cabrillo College debate where proponents of the name change are citing a persuasive case against Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo as a product of brutal and arrogant Spanish conquest, while other historians downplay Cabrillo’s sins. (In a 2021 online address, Iris Engstrand, a well-known historian of Spanish colonization in California, said, “To put it simply, the accomplishments of Cabrillo as a navigator and explorer established his reputation in history and make him worthy of recognition.” That prompted many silent expressions of disbelief from other participants, and former Santa Cruz city councilmember Christopher Krohn to say to Engstrand, “It’s hard for me to believe you’re defending an imperialista, owner of slaves, and someone who took orders from Hernan Cortes. Why do you thinks it’s OK for Spaniards to come to the New World and conquer people, as if that were a good thing?”)

A statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo looks over San Diego Bay at the Cabrillo National Monument.
A statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo looks over San Diego Bay at the Cabrillo National Monument.
(Via National Park Service)

By contrast, in San Diego, where Cabrillo’s name is more prominent than even in Santa Cruz County, a Cabrillo Festival celebrates the long-dead conquistador, and the hottest controversy surrounding Cabrillo is between the Spanish and the Portuguese communities, both of whom claim him as a favorite son. San Diego Bay is also the home of a statue of Cabrillo, installed as recently as 1988.

That first cohort of post-popsicle-stick fourth graders is now in high school, many of them contemplating college. Will that generation ultimately have a fuller understanding of the lessons of history? It’s probably way too simplistic to suggest that the most recent state guidelines pushing the sugar cubes off the table marks a radical new direction in the curriculum. It is, however, another step in the evolution of public education, and another move toward the undermining of the once powerful symbols of Old California, the mission bells that dot the path of El Camino Real, the images and namesakes of Junipero Serra, the monuments dedicated to people like Cabrillo.

Under the olive trees in San Juan Bautista, the cemetery straddling the San Andreas Fault presents a picture of serenity. But it tells no stories. The stark white crosses only raise questions.

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