Cabrillo College name change: The life and death of a good idea

The football field at Cabrillo College
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Splitting the baby down the middle is often the worst outcome of any contentious debate like the Cabrillo College name-change discourse. But in this case, might “Cabrilla” be the answer? The change is as minimalist as you can get, a single syllable, a single utterance. It’s a great idea. And it’ll never happen.

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On the subject of whether Cabrillo College should change its name, I have some pretty strong opinions — two of them, in fact.

The first thing I have to say is that, no, Cabrillo should not change its name. No matter where the name originated, this fine community college has invested more than a half-century of sweat equity in that name, which carries a meaning in Santa Cruz County well beyond the legacy of some centuries-dead explorer. By this point, that word is just too deeply ingrained in the community, and a name change would effectively zero out the reputation the college has worked to build to date, as well as the reputation of the countless teachers and artists associated with it.

My other opinion is: Of course, Cabrillo College should change its name. Once you learn the full extent of how Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo profited from the exploitation, suffering and even genocide of the Indigenous people of North America, you have to ask yourself why would a respected educational institution want to continue to be forever linked to such a thoroughly discredited symbol of European colonization? Even if you’ve never heard of the man, you memorialize him every time you mention the college’s name. Can’t we set an example for future generations and put a stop to that tacit endorsement of colonialism?

In other words, I’ve found a pretty comfortable seat up here on the fence. It’s called ambivalence, and in the binary, red/blue atmosphere that has characterized American political culture in the 21st century, ambivalence is way out of fashion.

But from the folks I’ve talked to, I’m not the only one uncomfortable with the certainty that comes from full-throated advocacy for either side. Even for many who stand on one side or the other of this issue, I suspect that those sentiments run more like 60-40 rather than do-or-die militancy. This isn’t Giants-Dodgers, or Democrats-Republicans.

Of course, the debate doesn’t really matter at this point. Cabrillo’s board of trustees has already voted for a name change. The only question now is what that new name will be, and the only name eliminated from discussion going forward is “Cabrillo.”

So, can the college now come up with a name that might make those opposed to the name change a little more comfortable with the decision? Assuming the decision-makers even want to do that, here’s an idea:

Cabrilla … with an “a.”

The idea comes from former Cabrillo College Foundation board president Linda Burroughs. “It’s kind of sad,” Linda told me in reference to the inevitability of the name change. Mulling a way to not entirely lose the reputation behind the Cabrillo College name, she flashed on “Cabrilla.”

“I looked up ‘cabrilla,’ and there were a whole bunch of definitions for it,” she said, “the main one being a sea bass who lives in the waters of the Mediterranean and off the coast of California. And I thought, how can you mess up [naming the school after] a sea bass?”

That sound you hear is militants on both sides of this issue scoffing.

Splitting the baby down the middle is often the worst outcome of any contentious debate. But in this case, Linda’s idea sounds like a great middle ground. The change is as minimalist as you can get, a single syllable, a single utterance, a single letter. It divorces the school forever from the toxic legacy of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, without compelling locals to embrace an awkward new word. It gives the college a subtle feminist twist, is not some radical about-face, and doesn’t entirely flush away the school’s identity going back 60 years.

It’s a great idea.

And it’ll never happen.

Cabrillo College campus
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Linda’s right. “Cabrilla” is a fish name, included in the scientific name of several species of commercially harvested fish, also known as grouper, or comber, or sea bass. But, in Spanish, cabrilla can mean a number of other things. It’s a small foamy ocean wave. It can mean “bench” or “trestle.”

But — and here’s the poison pill in the cabrilla omelette — in Peruvian slang, it may mean “gay man,” or a man with traditionally feminine characteristics.

That comes from this source. Here’s another. But other sources say the Peruvian term for gay man is cabro or cabrito, both of which are dangerously close to a common Spanish-language vulgarity.

Sure, it’s possible that the term “cabrilla” in this context carries a positive and respectful connotation. But, having lived in the world among humans for most of my life, I suspect that it’s much (much) more likely that it’s derogatory, insulting, maybe even a slur. I talked to a couple of Peruvian folks I know, and, though they could not definitively confirm that “cabrilla” was bad news, their Spidey sense told them it most probably was.

Either way, it means “cabrilla” is likely to go nowhere with the Cabrillo

Cabrillo College campus
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

College Name Exploration Subcommittee, which is faced with the delicate task of dreaming up some name for the school that will not inflame one constituency or another in the community, that is relatively ridicule-proof, and that can stand the test of time — because, unless it’s a baseball stadium, no institution can endure renaming more than once.

The subcommittee has shared its principles for considering a name change, and those principles stress diversity, respect and shared values. Who could possibly argue with that? But it also creates an environment that is deadly for any name that is creative, weird, colorful or witty. It almost guarantees that the eventual new name will be some anodyne, innocuous, tentative surrender to the impossible task of rebranding with a mandate to offend no one rather than to please everyone.

Sure, I get it. The job is to rename an institute of higher learning, not an iPhone app. Still, for the sake of the college’s future, you gotta hope someone with an instinct for marketing can somehow find a way to get in the room where the name change will happen. Deciding on a new name might turn out to be the easy part. Selling that name, especially to generations of prospective students — some now in grade school, others yet to be born — will be a bigger job. Of that, there can be no ambivalence.


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