Cabrillo College (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was long celebrated for his historic 1542 voyage along the California coastline, becoming the first European to explore the state. And in 1959, when a new community college was founded in Aptos, in central Santa Cruz County, officials named it in his honor — following the example of numerous other namesakes, including a national monument near his landing spot in San Diego and a nearby stretch of Highway 1.

But behind his once-glossy public image is a brutal side to the explorer’s legacy: A conquistador in the armies of Hernan Cortes, historical records show Cabrillo took part in the massacre of an indigenous village as a teenager. Cabrillo’s service to the Spanish crown was rewarded with a land grant in Guatemala, where he grew wealthy through mines and farmland worked by slave labor. Even his famed expedition’s three ships were crewed, in part, by indigenous slaves.

“Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo was a war criminal who systematically profited from the genocide, oppression and sexual exploitation of indigenous people,” Kofi Akinjide, Cabrillo College’s director of student equity and success, told college trustees in July.

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)

After being confronted with the explorer’s legacy by Akinjide and scores of others, Cabrillo College officials are now navigating a different kind of uncharted waters as they weigh whether to keep or change the college’s name. The elected board of trustees is approaching the question cautiously, but has set itself on a course to make a decision before the end of the year.

“There was enough sentiment that it was agreed that we should respond to this and do it in a thoughtful way, which is why it’s taken us a while to get to where we are today,” said Christina Cuevas, a college trustee and chair of a board subcommittee exploring the question.

National reckoning

Cabrillo College is one of a long list of institutions grappling with the legacies of their eponyms a year into a national reckoning fueled by the Black Lives Matter movement.

In San Francisco, a school board in January voted to rename 44 schools — a push since put on hold in the face of a backlash. Nearby, Watsonville is moving a bust of George Washington from its central plaza, while Santa Cruz is removing its final mission bell. Cabrillo College appears in a somewhat unique position, however, as an institution of its size that is far along the path toward changing its own name.

In July, students, alumni, faculty and community members flooded college trustees with their views on the question, most advocating for the name to be changed and condemning the legacy of Cabrillo — the man — in harsh terms.

Akinjide was among the authors of a staff and faculty-led petition urging consideration of a name change. The petition, and the groundswell of advocacy accompanying that included a number of student voices, prompted the college to move forward with exploring the name change.

“It is time to acknowledge the past and say goodbye to Cabrillo, a conqueror that led to the subjugation of the Indigenous people of this land,” one student, Marianne Thompson, told the board.

Critics of changing the college’s name change have questioned some of the interpretations of the history and have raised concerns about the potential move’s financial impact. It would cost roughly $1 million to change signs, websites, logos, among other necessary steps, according to an early estimate from college president Matt Wetstein.

“It was chosen as the name back in 1959 that was acceptable to all back then and should stay,” Aptos resident Kris Kirby told trustees last summer. “This current climate should not be dictated by a small group of people who want the name changed.”

Other critics, such as Cabrillo instructor Jeff Bergamini, question the pragmatic impact. “How is a symbolic change, like a name change, supposed to advance anything in terms of material improvements?” Bergamini said.

Reevaluating a legacy

Records around how the college selected its name are scarce. According to several college officials, the name Cabrillo was championed by a local newspaper columnist, and satisfied at least one goal of the college’s founders: avoiding a name that would tie it geographically to one end of the county or another.

The explorer Cabrillo also had a connection to the Monterey Bay, becoming the first European to enter it in November 1542 according to historical records. The next six decades passed with little high-profile debate around the name, though his sordid legacy of the explorer had long been the subject of irate discussions around the college among at least some faculty and students.

Digital media instructor John Govsky became the first to publicly raise the issue last year at a June board meeting where Govsky had planned to speak about union and employee issues. But he had just watched a news broadcast of demonstrators toppling a statue and said it struck him deeply.

“I felt, well, we have our own monument to racism, and it’s right here, where I work,” Govsky said. “I explained this to the board in a bit of an impromptu emotional outpouring and said, ‘You know, I don’t even want to wear a T-shirt that says Cabrillo on it. I can’t do it. It’s like wearing a T-shirt that says, Charles Manson — I can’t do it. We should change the name of the school.’ And apparently it struck a nerve.”

Cabrillo College's Aptos campus overlooks the Monterey Bay.
Cabrillo College’s Aptos campus overlooks the Monterey Bay. (Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Govsky received a flood of supportive messages and began organizing the effort with Akinjide and others, an effort that would become the formal resolution submitted to trustees.

Unknown to him, current and former students were also banding together to push for the change. Wetstein, the college president, then brought the question to the board on July 20, so far the most high-profile public hearing on the question.

Community conversation

After an initial outcry and flurry of activity, the name change debate has largely played out quietly in recent months.

The college subcommittee, and a task force including students, has been looking closely at how other institutions have handled similar discussions.

The conversation is now on the verge of becoming much more public. In the weeks ahead, the Cabrillo College is taking the issue out of its board room and into the community as it plans to host talks from historians and members of the indigenous community, and facilitate a student debate.

The series of events commences 6 p.m. Thursday with a talk from UC San Diego history professor Iris Enstrand, titled, “Who Was Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo?”

Cuevas said she and the other subcommittee members — which include another trustee, a student representative and Westein — are committed to keeping an open mind. The decision, she said, is “not a fait accompli.”

Cuevas has little doubt the dialogue will at times venture into heated territory, but she’s hoping to foster a sincere discussion that gives space for the full spectrum of viewpoints.

“We hope that this to be an educational opportunity, not just for us, but for the community at large,” Cuevas said.

Nick Ibarra covers higher education for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.

Higher education reporter for Lookout Santa Cruz, in partnership with Open Campus.