A drone shot of Cabrillo College's Aptos campus
Cabrillo College
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Opinion from Community Voices

Can we in Santa Cruz please get a grip on the Cabrillo name change issue?

Everyone needs to relax about the Cabrillo issue, says former Santa Cruz mayor and longtime housing activist Don Lane. “While there are some very real concerns on both sides when it comes to the name change, it feels like many folks in the community have exaggerated these issues,” Lane says. He dismisses the “history” argument, unpacks “whataboutism” and evokes dead Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. He also begs us to listen to each others’ pain and, in true Santa Cruz spirit, act “differently.”

Can we all be just a bit more careful about what we say?

Take a deep breath … wait a day… challenge yourself … really listen … reflect.

Why might I bring this up? Because of something that seems relatively unimportant in the larger scheme of things has become a local firestorm of controversy.

(We all know those larger things: climate change wreaking havoc, homelessness, a war in Ukraine, a poorly functioning health care system, democratic institutions in danger, gun violence, people denied their basic rights … even things like student debt, local transportation systems, expensive housing).

I’m talking about the Cabrillo College naming issue.

One wise gentleman I know suggested that lots of folks are appropriately upset and frustrated about many big issues going on in the world and are jumping on the Cabrillo topic as a substitute for venting on these larger frustrations. “We can’t do much about these huge worldwide and national challenges so let’s bite into something smaller.”

Still, he and I agreed that it is hard to fathom why the name of the college is quite this big a deal.

While there are some very real concerns on both sides when it comes to the name change, it feels like many folks in the community have exaggerated these issues. At the risk of losing some of the folks reading this, I think the opponents of the name change are probably winning the overstatement competition.

Perhaps the best example is the one about erasing history. I don’t think this is an accurate statement about what’s happening here.

When a community or a country chooses to name something after a person, it is honoring that person. If we no longer want to honor that person, we think about removing that person’s name from that building, institution etc. It’s happening all over the country.

That’s all that’s going on here. What makes us different?

I have not heard a single statement that says we should remove Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo from the history books at our community college or not speak of him. I feel quite certain that the books and online articles about Cabrillo the man will continue to tell his story—both the good and the bad.

It could be instructive to note an example: In Baghdad, Iraq the airport was once named Saddam International Airport. Once Saddam Hussein was overthrown, that name was changed. That was not to erase history. It was a statement that the people of Iraq no longer honored a person that inflicted much death and misery on that country.

Former Santa Cruz mayor Don Lane.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Another over-the-top reaction has been from those who say they would withhold their contributions to their beloved local community college and the students it serves. In case they haven’t considered this point, it’s possible to make a donation to help students at Cabrillo without contributing a dime to the costs that will come if the college does complete a name change.

I hope we don’t get so carried away that we will penalize economically disadvantaged students because of the naming controversy.

Then there’s the ridicule.

Some just can’t leave things at “I disagree. I don’t think it’s a good idea. And let me make some cogent points.”

Instead, insults, jokes and ridicule are the ways they choose to do battle. (Read letters to the editor in the Sentinel to find many examples.)

I think we know that the initial push for this and other name changes came from people with a variety of connections to Cabrillo who are members of communities that have been treated badly for centuries. People from those communities have a sound reason for saying they are sick of the community honoring people who represent the disrespectful treatment their peoples have experienced.

So, perhaps, instead of making light of this important concern, one might seriously engage with the issue and help figure out some kind of reconciliation. Please.

Finally, I want to note the awkwardly named phenomenon “whataboutism” that seems to also be coming into the discussion. “What about the fact that Cabrillo was a great, adventurous explorer who was good to some people?”

There’s a famous old line about the Italian dictator Mussolini: “At least he made the trains run on time.” But the nation of Italy doesn’t honor Mussolini even though he got the trains running on time -- because he was also a brutal dictator.

It’s also certainly true that some of the community voices in support of the college name change have said some indelicate things.

The assertions made about the predominant ethnicity and age range of the most visible/vocal opponents have not helped cool off the discussion.

I suspect there is some truth to those assertions, but making them hasn’t contributed to a healthy discussion, either.

I know one Cabrillo Trustee, Adam Spickler, has quite recently apologized publicly for his statements along these lines. Kudos to him for taking responsibility in this way.

Faculty and students hike the steps on Cabrillo College campus on Nov. 22, 2021, in Aptos.
Faculty and students hike the steps on Cabrillo College campus on Nov. 22, 2021, in Aptos.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I wonder if others who have heated up this debate might consider making similar statements to cool things down. This part is so tricky and difficult — because race-oriented and privilege-oriented debates almost always get heated and lead almost everyone to line up with their “team.”

And yet, we have to talk about racial and social disparities both past and present. I wish I knew the perfect way to do this.

One small thing I do know: if folks are not willing to listen to each other and simply continue to trumpet their own views, the debate is doing very little good for those who rely on Cabrillo for their education and employment.

And it’s doing very little good for the tenor of community discussions in general.

Of course, this kind of discourse is taking place all over the country. But Santa Cruz has always prided itself on being a bit different and perhaps a bit more enlightened. This could be a good time to work on that.

Let’s try taking those deep breaths, listening more, and reflecting longer – instead of jumping to divisive and disparaging language.

Finally, I hope some folks will ask themselves this question: if you are able to feel this strongly about retaining the current Cabrillo name because you think this “proud” name is super important to you — are you also able to recognize that those who want the name changed feel equally strongly that the “disrespectful” name of their college is equally super important to them?

Don Lane has lived in Santa Cruz for 49 years, first as a UCSC student, then as the founder/owner of the Saturn Cafe, and then as a city councilmember and mayor. He currently serves in a volunteer capacity as chair of the governing board of Housing Santa Cruz County and vice chair of the board of Housing Matters. He also goes camping with his wife, teaches part time at UCSC, writes a blog about housing and homelessness issues, plays basketball with the Santa Cruz Geezers, and makes ice cream at home. Both his daughters grew up in Santa Cruz but have now moved away. His last piece for Lookout ran in February.