Cabrillo College historian on how the school got its name and why some are opposed to changing it

Cabrillo College historian Sandy Lydon in 2019.
(Via Sandy Lydon)

Local historian and longtime Cabrillo College instructor Sandy Lydon started working at the college 10 years after it was founded. He saw the college establish its reputation, and tells Lookout what the name Cabrillo means to him. Lydon wouldn’t name the college after Cabrillo today if he had the chance, but now that the school has voted to change its name, he hopes people won’t forget all it has accomplished.

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A Q&A with historian Sandy Lydon

The day after voters approved the creation of a junior college in Santa Cruz County in 1958, a reporter threw around potential names for it.

“Already several names have been suggested. They have ranged from Santa Cruz County college, Cabrillo college, Mid-County college and Begonia College,” wrote Wally Trabing in the Santa Cruz Sentinel on Oct. 22, 1958.

Just months later, on March 2, 1959, the college’s first board of trustees approved the name: Cabrillo College.

When local historian Sandy Lydon, now 83, later interviewed the trustees about the college’s history, he asked them where they came up with the name.

“Wally Trabing,” Lydon recalled the trustees saying. They had read it mentioned enough times in Trabing’s articles and didn’t hear any significant objections to it, according to Lydon.

At the time, Lydon says, people had done enough surveying of residents to know that the name for the college needed to be unrelated to anyone or any area in Santa Cruz County in order to be seen as neutral. The name Cabrillo was then considered neutral to the organizers, and it followed a push by California’s Portuguese community to name the local stretch of Highway 1 after 16th-century explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo.

“They selected it because nobody knew who [Cabrillo] was,” he said. “I’ve often called it an empty vessel. It was an empty name.”

Fast forward 61 years, and weeks after the murder of George Floyd launched a historic social justice movement, digital media instructor John Govsky gave a passionate speech before Cabrillo’s board requesting that it change the name of the college.

After two years of research and community engagement, a committee recommended a name change, despite survey results showing that most people wanted to keep the name.

The board agreed to change the name at its November meeting. Lydon was among about 20 community members who spoke out against the name change at the gathering.

Lydon, who taught history at the college from 1968 to 2019, spoke about the importance of honoring the previous history of the college and emphasized that the change should not be paid for from the college’s general fund.

“I think we can do this change, if we must, without dishonoring people like the pioneers who went before,” he said during the meeting. “I’m channeling them. I think these days, I’m about the last one left.”

He also noted that if it weren’t for the county establishing the college, UC Santa Cruz might not exist.

Lydon says there were many attempts to establish a community college in the decades leading up its creation. Those attempts failed for various reasons, including opponents — focused in the city of Santa Cruz — saying it would cost too much, along with disputes over where the college should be located and what it should be called.

So in 1954, 70% of voters in the county gave a loud “no” to the idea of a college.

But when the University of California Board of Regents announced in 1957 that it was considering a campus on the Central Coast, opinions changed. State policy required that UC campuses could reside only in counties with a community college. So voters returned to the polls Oct. 21, 1958, and voted 70% in favor of creating a community college.

Lookout spoke with Lydon about the Cabrillo College’s history, how it got its name and his feelings on why the college should keep the name Cabrillo.

An aerial view of Cabrillo College's Aptos campus.
An aerial view of Cabrillo’s Aptos campus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lookout: You talked to Wally Trabing to confirm the trustees got the idea from him. Why did Trabing suggest the name Cabrillo?

Sandy Lydon: I’m in Wally Trabing’s living room interviewing him, I said, “Wally. Is that true?” And he smiled and said, “Yeah.” Then my question was, “Why?” and he said, well, it seemed to him, at the time, that it fit the requirement that it’d be neutral. [Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo] had never been here. And it sort of symbolized the unity that Highway 1 brought from Watsonville to Santa Cruz, to him. Of course, this was later, when I interviewed him, like maybe 15 to 18 years after [they adopted the name].

Lookout: Did the college seek community input on the name?

Lydon: You’re right in the sense that [the community] didn’t ever vote or express themselves specifically about the name. But indirectly in June of 1960, they did. And in practice, they did because by 1960 this [college was known as] Cabrillo. It wasn’t Cabrillo College. It was Cabrillo.

Lookout: What is your response to the college changing the name?

Lydon: I’m sorry that they changed it. I believe by removing the name and not in some other way amending but keeping [the name], they’re removing the opportunity for education. They take the name down, and they bury it. And I think that that would be too bad. As a historian — I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for continuing conversation.

I think a very courageous thing could have been to leave the name and explain the complexity. It’s an educational institution. That’s what it’s supposed to be doing.

Lookout: Do you think the petition to change the name created an opportunity for education?

Lydon: There’s no question that it’s created an interest in both the historical figure and the origins of the college. I have to say that when I first heard that there was a discussion going on, this was back in 2019. I was surprised because ... he’s not a local figure and I didn’t teach local regional history. The [best local] thing he ever left, or someone in his crew left, was a description of the Santa Lucia Mountains from the sea. The description is the best description anyone ever spoke in any language about what those mountains look like from the sea. I always use that description and give his expedition credit for it.

Lookout: What else did you disagree with about the name change?

Lydon: My disappointment about what happened in the meeting [Nov. 14] is primarily about process. I think in the spirit of things that Cabrillo College has always done, the community was not able to have its voice heard. And as a matter of fact, there is a feeling of the voice that they heard from the community being dismissed and ignored. And I think that’s unfortunate. I think Rachael Spencer, the trustee who voted against it, was not voting against Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo pro or con, but was voting against in order to continue the conversation to include the wider community. I agree with her.

Lookout: One of the reasons for changing the name is that it continues to cause harm to Native Americans and other historically marginalized groups. What do you think of that argument?

Lydon: I think that we’ve been through this before, back in the late ‘60s and ‘70s with the civil rights thing and then the ethnic studies movement. We had an ethnic studies program. I taught classes on racism. In fact, I taught classes on Indian policy. It’s like we’ve never done anything before [to educate students on the harms done to marginalized communities].

We were one of the first, I was one of the first college instructors to do research in history of Asians in America, and we were one of the first three colleges to have a class on Asian American history. San Francisco and Pasadena had theirs, we were third. We worked with the local communities. The way they’re portraying it is, we’re just a bunch of old racists who don’t get it. We get it. Word got back to me that there were people calling me a racist.

Lookout: Would you choose to still name the college after Cabrillo if you had the chance?

Lydon: No. I think now the name has gained so much baggage, historical and emotional. I think it would not be appropriate.

Lookout: Do you have any suggestions for new names?

Lydon: There are three Indigenous names that were used in this county that have survived. Three are Zayante — and that’s spelled variously depending upon which Spaniard heard it — Soquel and Aptos. The spellings all vary a lot for each. One of them is for a group, we think, and that would be Aptos. One of them is for a person, a captain of a group, which is Soquel. And I think Zayante is also a group.

One of the thoughts my wife and I had, ruminating in the middle of the night about this was, since the college is physically in Soquel, it’s not in Aptos. The border between Aptos and Soquel is the gully on the east side of the campus where The Farm restaurant is. That gully — Borregas Gulch — is the boundary between Aptos and Soquel and actually, originally the boundary between the Santa Cruz High School District and the Pajaro Valley school district. That’s the dividing line. They put the college on the Soquel side but they gave it an Aptos address. Maybe in the spirit of the selection of the original site, [the school could] be called Soquel-Aptos Community College or hyphenated the other way. Either one of those options, you’ll get a fight.

Those are historical names, they’re indigenous people and they represent that the college is located in the middle of the county. I think that would be .. but, angels fear to tread.


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