Proponents of a name change say Cabrillo College's namesake enslaved Indigenous people and should no longer be honored.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Wallace Baine

WALLACE BAINE: Is it time to jettison the name ‘Cabrillo’? Or, in fact, time to double down on it?

In his new Sunday column, our Wally takes a cue from the original Wally who is credited for the naming of Cabrillo College way back in the day. You’ve got to wait for it, but our Wally provides a pretty compelling alternative. Check it out and then offer up your own opinion.

There is a bible on the subject of place names in Santa Cruz County. It’s a dictionary unsurprisingly called “Santa Cruz County Place Names” (OK, so zero points for cleverness or poetic allusions) by former UC Santa Cruz librarian Donald T. Clark.

Wallace

In the entry for “Cabrillo College,” Clark’s book gives credit for that name to longtime Sentinel columnist Wally Trabing, whose suggestion that the new college be named for 16th-century explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was, according to Clark, adopted by the new school’s trustees in 1959.

You might be picturing a dozen irritable, bleary-eyed people in a windowless room somewhere at 3 a.m., smelling of Sanka and Lucky Strikes, ready to leap at any compromise that doesn’t favor or discriminate against any constituency in the county.

During a lull in the endless arguing, our intrepid reporter clears his throat and mumbles, “How about ‘Cabrillo’?” followed by sighs, shrugs and a little snoring. Cut to 10 minutes later, when a dozen Fords and Buicks wearily creep out of the parking lot, an institution newly christened.

It almost certainly didn’t happen that way. And, from some folks I’ve talked to, Trabing’s role in the naming of Cabrillo might not be so clear-cut. Still, to the degree it is true, this episode tells me one thing: If one semi-famous Santa Cruz white-guy newspaper columnist named Wally was responsible for Cabrillo’s original naming, then maybe, more than 60 years later, another semi-famous Santa Cruz white-guy newspaper columnist named Wally should take up the call to rename it.

Cabrillo
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

I hope I’m the man for the mission.

This is all necessary because of the much-talked-about campaign to rename Cabrillo College due to what history tells us about the unsavory life and legacy of its namesake. Of course, history is not always reliable, especially when it comes to someone who lived 500 years ago (history can’t even tell us for sure whether Cabrillo was Spanish or Portuguese).

Still, it’s apparent that, like many elites and conquistadors of that era, Cabrillo feathered his bed on the slavery and genocide that characterized European colonization of the “New World.”

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As to whether rebranding the college is a good idea or a bad one, I can’t find much relevance in the opinions of anyone who is not an immediate stakeholder — students, faculty, staff, administrators, maybe the neighbors in Aptos. Still, who is not fascinated by the seismic ramifications of such a decision?

And the new name will matter just as much as the fact that the old one was discarded. If you knew you might one day wake up to Sprint/T-Mobile College instead of, say, Cesar Chavez College, would that change your view of dropping “Cabrillo”?

If you knew you might one day wake-up to Sprint/T-Mobile College instead of, say, Cesar Chavez College, would that change your view of dropping “Cabrillo”

From the time Adam named all the animals, every generation has gotten to name something. One generation got to name rivers and mountains, another cities and roads, another baseball teams and cocktails. We got to name dot-com companies and microbrews. Them’s the breaks.

But renaming, that’s a different deal. That’s audacious. That’s an insistence that today doesn’t have to follow a script that was written yesterday. Renaming is a power move. Ask anyone who goes by a name that they were not born with.

That doesn’t mean it’s always a wise move, or an easy one. Dropping “Cabrillo College” leaves high and dry all those companies that followed in the college’s wake, from the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music, Cabrillo Liquor & Delicatessen or Cabrillo Athletic & Fitness Club.

Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Sure, an academic institution has a different obligation to history than a liquor store. But assigning “Cabrillo” to oblivion could also bury the college’s own proud past in the visual arts, theater, technology and literature — much of which I’ve witnessed in the more than 30 years I’ve been covering this community. The brilliant artists, writers, and thinkers that have taught at Cabrillo over the years are all going to find themselves on the outside of the bright demarcation line that renaming will create.

After more than 60 years, the word “Cabrillo” in this community has come to mean primarily the college, and its reputation and legacy. The centuries-dead explorer is relevant only to the degree that the renaming event has dragged him out of obscurity.

Cabrillo Athletic & Fitness Club
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

In that sense, at least in the minds of nearly everybody breathing Santa Cruz County’s air today, the college now owns “Cabrillo” in a way that Señor Cabrillo no longer can claim. Call it squatter’s rights. The name has equity, weight, value in the same way that a divorced woman has built equity in her good name, even if it came from some deadbeat she cut out of her life decades ago. Why give that up?

On the other hand, the marriage between Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo and Santa Cruz County has always been kind of bogus from the beginning. Even if the man was the picture of moral rectitude, he never belonged to us. Sure, he cruised by the Monterey Bay, the first European to do so, just 50 years after Columbus, but he never made landfall anywhere nearby.

Within a couple months, he had developed gangrene from a broken bone and died in the Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara. Whatever legacy he had, good or bad, it was a Southern California thing. The college was not, in fact, named directly after the explorer but after the one entity that unites north and south in Santa Cruz County: Highway 1, which is officially designated the “Cabrillo Highway” (a name exactly no one uses).

Cabrillo Highway
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

So — with apologies to Wally Trabing, whom I knew and considered a friend — the whole “Cabrillo” thing was misbegotten from the beginning. Maybe it’s time for a reset, and maybe we should welcome whatever slippery-slope, cascading effects that might follow from a name change. California generally seems poised for a wholesale reevaluation of its morally suspect colonial past. Could such a revolution begin in Aptos?

Like the recent recall election, the Cabrillo name-change debate is two questions, the second wholly dependent on the first: Should “Cabrillo” be dropped? If so, what should be the new name?

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The lesson here is that naming stuff after people is always going to be an iffy enterprise in the long term. Hero worship rarely ages well. Who knows, maybe even “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” will one day be up for reevaluation.

So, in the tradition of guys named Wally naming local community colleges — the precedent has been established, people — I humbly suggest a turn to the natural world. I would elevate a particular plant, beautiful and beguiling, common up and down the Coast Range, a shrub in some instances, a mighty tree in others.

The statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo looks over San Diego Bay at the Cabrillo National Monument.
The statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo looks over San Diego Bay at the Cabrillo National Monument.
(NPS Photo / T. Jordan)

Drought-tolerant and evergreen, designed to thrive in California’s unique environment, some species can live for more than 100 years. Isn’t that what a community college wants to produce in its student body: diversity, adaptability, toughness, tenacity?

It even has a musical-sounding name that frankly would look excellent on signage and hoodies. May I present:

Manzanita College.

If the liquor-store folks are good with it, I say we got ourselves a winner.

Get the thoughts of Wallace Baine every Sunday right here at lookoutsantacruz.com and please become one of our important journalism-supporting members, if you aren’t already, by signing up here (and telling three friends to do the same). Tell Wallace what you think about Manzanita College by emailing him at wallace@lookoutlocal.com.