Cabrillo College instructor John Govsky.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Cabrillo College

‘A monument to racism in Santa Cruz County’: Ahead of Cabrillo College renaming vote, supporters press for change

With Cabrillo College’s board of trustees slated to vote Monday on renaming the school, breaking the connection with 16th-century European explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and undoing harm to Native peoples are top of mind for those advocating for the move.

Over the past several months, Cabrillo College digital media instructor John Govsky has watched with dismay the outpouring of opposition to changing the name of the school.

“Whenever you try to make change in a social justice context, you always have a backlash,” he said. “There’s always a conservative backlash, and I think that’s what we’re seeing.”

Govsky was the first to publicly raise the idea of changing the name when he spoke to trustees during a June 2020 board meeting. Moments before the gathering, he watched on TV as demonstrators knocked down a Confederate statue amid the social reckoning after the murder of George Floyd weeks earlier.

“I was watching these people tear down a Confederate statue and I realized that we have our own monument to racism in Santa Cruz County,” he said. “And it’s called Cabrillo College.”

Later that summer, Govsky submitted a petition to the board with just over 100 signatures calling for the school to drop the Cabrillo name. His action kicked off a process that will culminate in a meeting Monday night at which Cabrillo College’s board of trustees is set to choose a new name.

More than three years after he first raised the issue, Govsky said he believes that despite an intense backlash, renaming the school is still the right decision.

John Govsky at Cabrillo College.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

He argues that while a name change might be disruptive and cost money, the community should not honor the memory of 16th-century European explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. And he doesn’t understand how donors who oppose the name change are saying they could reduce their contributions to the Cabrillo College Foundation, which supports student scholarships and programs.

“It’s even more disappointing to me that people would hold students almost hostage to get their way,” he said. “To me, that’s just beyond the pale.”

Cabrillo’s board is scheduled to vote on selecting a new name during its meeting set for 6:15 p.m. Monday at the Aptos campus’ Horticulture Center. Board members will choose among five names: Aptos, Cajastaca, Costa Vista, Santa Cruz Coast and Seacliff.

The process has drawn an outpouring of opposition and sparked fierce debate, including among donors to the college’s foundation, some of whom have said they are weighing whether to stop donating.

But despite the rising voices of opposition, many students, faculty and community members say they strongly support the college’s decision to change it and argue that Cabrillo is not someone whose history and values reflect those of the community college.

Nearly half of the college’s employees and almost 40% of students supported a name change, compared to around 20% of foundation donors, according to a study the school put out last year.

A sign on Cabrillo College's Aptos campus.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo served in the armies of Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés — who brought down the Mexica Empire (also known as the Aztec Empire) — and he directly profited off of the enslavement of Native people who worked land in Guatemala whom he was given through the Spanish encomienda system. Cabrillo reportedly never set foot in Santa Cruz, but wrote accounts of the California coast from his expedition in 1542.

Cabrillo College student Olivia Iturria, 19, said she doesn’t want to go to a school named after someone with Cabrillo’s background.

“I don’t want to go to a school honoring this guy who would enslave human beings,” she said. “Whether it was just yesterday or the 1500s, innocent people are innocent people.”

The college’s faculty union, faculty senate, its anthropology department, the Chicano/Latino Affairs Council and others have all issued statements in support of changing the name.

Lookout talked to seven community members, including Cabrillo College faculty and students, who support changing the name. Like Iturria, supporters for the name change say that after the college’s three-year name-exploration process, it’s time to move forward by continuing to educate the community about the region’s history and select a name that better reflects what the higher education institution stands for.

To Cabrillo College history department chair Enrique Buelna, the naming of the college after Cabrillo is one example among many of a one-sided view of history — one that celebrates European heroes with little to no mention of Native peoples. Buelna, the son of Mexican immigrants, experienced this while growing up in Los Angeles.

“Mexican Americans were in American history; however, textbooks, anything, were always empty of our participation,” he said. “In other words, it’s always been, basically, we have no history.”

Cabrillo College history instructor Enrique Buelna in his office on the Aptos campus.
(Hillary Ojeda / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Buelna started teaching at Cabrillo in 2005 and teaches Chicano studies and ethnic studies. He has taught his students about the 16th-century explorer.

“Cabrillo is not a good character,” he said. “That individual was involved in some pretty terrible episodes, one of them primarily, he took part in the destruction of the Mexica Empire. Those are my origins. That’s where I come from, where my people come from.”

He said it’s hurtful to have the institution named after Cabrillo. Buelna added that while it’s not an accepted hurt, it’s a way of life for many of Mexican descent to feel invisible.

“We can try to change things, and oftentimes it works out,” he said.

Many of his students, like him, didn’t grow up learning about Native history and are blown away to learn about it. Buelna said his students often ask him, “Why did they name the college after Cabrillo?”

Buelna tells them it’s a complicated question. “It was done in the 1950s. It was done at a time when we celebrated European civilization, religion, culture, without looking at the experiences of Native Americans, Mexicans or anything like that,” he said. “That just didn’t seem to be very important.”

Buelna said contemporaries of Cabrillo’s time, such as Spanish clergyman and activist Bartolomé de las Casas, did speak out against the violence inflicted on Native people. Still, he said, people today still gloss over or don’t know about Cabrillo’s participation in it.

“He’s painted in a very positive way as some explorer, but he was part and parcel of a colonial project of spreading the empire,” Buelna said. “And in a very violent way.”

Buelna believes that some people who named the college in 1959, and some who want to keep the name, might feel a connection to Cabrillo as a European who helped launch what California is today.

“I guess that’s what these people in the 1950s were trying to do — trying to create a connection with Europe, you know, ‘We brought civilization, we brought language, we brought religion, we brought technology,’” he said. “Well, those things were already here.”

Spring 2022 Cabrillo College graduate Layla Dias, 24, spent months helping to inform students about the name-change process. A founding member and former vice president of the college’s Indigenous Club, she and fellow club members support changing the name.

Dias said by changing the name, the college is taking one step to undo the harms caused by colonization. She has Native ancestry through her grandmother who descends from Nimíipuu people, who resided across regions including Washington, Idaho and Oregon.

“It’s very hard, sad and frustrating trying to reconnect with a culture that experienced a purposeful and intentional attempt to destroy it,” she said.

On Cabrillo College's Aptos campus
Cabrillo College’s Aptos campus.
(Thomas Sawano / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Joshua Dean, 19, who graduated from Cabrillo in the spring and is starting at UC Berkeley this fall, said because the costs to change the name will be paid by donations and not the college’s general fund, he doesn’t understand why people would object to the change.

“I think it’s a sign of progress to move forward and change our priorities away from a white-centric history,” he said. “And ultimately, it’s a name — it’s the least important part of the college. ”

Iturria, the 19-year-old current Cabrillo College student, said she loves the school and at the end of the day, it is just a name.

“I feel like it doesn’t affect anyone who went to school here if they change the name, but it does affect the people that were tortured by [Cabrillo],” said Iturria. “So it’s not about past students, but it’s about the history of what that name holds — all the trauma and the disrespect.”

FOR THE RECORD: An earlier version of this article stated that Stan Rushworth had said he supported the Cabrillo College name change. While his support was noted in a November 2022 Cabrillo College report as having written a letter in support of the name change in July 2021, he did not respond this week to Lookout’s interview request, so was not directly spoken with on the issue. Lookout regrets the error.

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