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

The winner in latest Cabrillo renaming delay? That a larger conversation continues

On one hand, Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was a morally dubious character. On the other hand, Wallace Baine writes, an institutional change like the proposed renaming of Santa Cruz County’s community college should leave room to allow community members to get used to that change. So while a decision to put off Cabrillo College’s name change will displease many, the time will allow for some honest examinations.

The NFL season is beginning this weekend and, as local fans can tell you, the San Francisco 49ers need a kicker. I suggest they hire those on Cabrillo College’s Name Exploration Subcommittee, because the way they kicked the can down the road on the Cabrillo name-change controversy, I think we can all agree, was impressive.

In case you’re too football-obsessed to have heard, on Thursday the Name Exploration Subcommittee subcommittee recommended to Cabrillo’s governing board that the college’s proposed name change be postponed to “no sooner than 2028” (bet you’re calculating how old Biden, McConnell and Pelosi will be by then). The board is scheduled to vote on that recommendation on Monday.

It’s easy — I mean, so easy — to be told, “Hmm, not at this time, maybe later” and hear that as, “No, not now, not ever, not even when hell freezes over. Ain’t. Gonna. Happen.” Ask any teenager with parents. It’s also easy, and often too fun to resist, to look at every decision made by any organization on any controversial debate to be a strict win-lose binary. I’m sure that many advocating for a name change are indulging in both of those psychological shortcuts. But what if the subcommittee got it right? What if a Cabrillo name change is inevitable, and the 2020-23 debate was just the first step not only in that direction, but in the direction of a larger, more substantial reckoning with California’s often brutal and exploitative past?

Let me declare that I don’t consider myself a partisan in this issue. On one hand, it sure seems legit to me that Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was a morally dubious character, and that the college has every right to change its name to something more in keeping with its educational mission if it wants to. On the other hand, a community college exists within a community, and to allow that community some time and context to get used to such a big change, well, it only seems neighborly.

As much as I am wary of can-of-worms or slippery-slope arguments, I would hope that, whatever the Cabrillo board decides on Monday, it’s only the beginning of a larger debate (which, I realize, puts me in opposition to this controversy’s third partisan side, the make-a-decision-already-so-we-can-stop-hearing-about-it crowd). In the case of American history, it’s almost always a healthy, if uncomfortable, idea to look honestly at the past if, for no other reason, to address a fundamental question: How did we all get here? In fact, it’s along that fault line from which most of today’s political red state/blue state toxicity emerges.

In California, generations have simply swallowed the Spanish conquest/Mexican War past as a half-remembered fourth-grade lesson plan and then just gotten on with their lives, divorced from its more profound implications. Just as in the Deep South, with the legacy of the Confederacy, Californians should address the messy past without getting into a defensive crouch, even if — especially if — that includes some awkward conversations about our own responsibilities to the victims of the past.

Cultural change of this kind doesn’t happen quickly and it doesn’t happen with one local issue like the Cabrillo name change. It’s a turning-around-a-battleship problem that comes about only incrementally. A survey in the subcommittee’s 2022 name-change report reveals that support to change the name is highest among employees of the college, and lowest among supporters of the Cabrillo College Foundation, which includes donors and alumni. The wild card in the middle is, of course, the student body, which comes in at just under half supporting a name change.

Cabrillo College sign
(Via Cabrillo College)

It was only in 2016 that the state of California changed the curriculum standards when it comes to teaching California history in the fourth grade, effectively killing the Mission Project (remember building mini missions out of sugar cubes?) and introducing a less Eurocentric framing on the past. That means that the first generations of those students will soon be landing on campuses like Cabrillo, and any possible name change might be a more compelling story for future student bodies. They do that survey again in 2028 and it’s a safe bet that the 50-50 student split will tip much further toward a name change. Maybe in a few years, such a thing happens more organically.

The latest subcommittee recommendations also suggest that the college address not only the Cabrillo controversy but Native American history more explicitly with a lecture series, and a faculty position in Native American and Indigenous studies. With the exception of those benighted souls who view any honest reassessment of history as a capitulation to woke nonsense — and, at least demographically, that vanishing population will be even more toothless in 2028 — that has to be good news to almost anyone in this debate.

It matters who Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was, but it also matters what Cabrillo College has become under that identity. It’s not inconsistent to argue both that European conquest was a catastrophe for Indigenous people that we should not endorse by immortalizing the name of one of those conquistadors, and that maybe the college has earned a greater hold on that name in the minds of locals than some long-dead Spaniard.

We don’t have to go all-in on one side or the other. It’s OK to be ambivalent and to recognize the concerns of both sides. If the Cabrillo board adopts the subcommittee’s recommendations, it’s not a win for one side, or a loss for another, as long as it leads to a continuing conversation.

It’s not easy turning a battleship around.

Now, can you pass me that can of worms, and can we talk about this Santa Cruz/Holy Cross business?

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