(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Historian Iris Engstrand’s talk on 16th century explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo last week marked the first in a series of community public-education events as Cabrillo College considers changing its name.

It was supposed to offer a balanced view of the Iberian explorer’s life and legacy.

Instead, the talk itself has quickly courted controversy — drawing an apology and denunciation from top college officials, and offering up an example of how fraught the conversation around historical figures’ legacies can become.

A professor emerita at the University of San Diego and the author of numerous books and scholarly articles on Spanish and Californian history, Engstrand — during the livestreamed event on Thursday — defended the explorer’s legacy and rejected claims that he participated in genocide, murder, sex trafficking, and slave trade.

“Cabrillo was a man of his times, not ours,” said Engstrand, pushing back against each of those labels after giving an overview of the explorer’s background.

Slavery, Engstrand said, “was the only source of mass labor — a given necessity” in the 16th century. And it “is not fair to single out Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo for perhaps being a sex trafficker” given what she said was questionable sourcing and the pervasiveness of the practice, including in modern times.

Responding to a question from the audience, Engstrand ultimately advised college officials against stripping away Cabrillo’s name. “I wouldn’t like to see it changed, just because I’ve spent a lot of time with the documents and learning about his life,” Engstrand said. “He was really a pretty good guy.”

A planned question-and-answer session following her talk was cut short, according to college officials.

By the next day, as quotes circulated via email, the talk was met with outcry among some faculty and staff at the Aptos-based community college.

“I think that folks were shocked by it, and upset by it, and were hoping for something a little bit different,” said Cabrillo College history instructor Enrique Buelna. Buelna said he was “highly disappointed” by the talk, which he viewed as lacking balance. “She said some pretty heart-wrenching things,” Buelna said.

In a letter signed by Cabrillo College President Matt Wetstein and three elected trustees, officials on Monday denounced the talk for its “Euro-centric, anti-indigenous interpretations of history that lacked cultural humility.”

“While informative, Dr. Engstrand’s portrayal of Cabrillo left too much unexamined, denied and deflected,” the letter states. “We offer a heart-felt apology to members of our broader community who were harmed by the speaker’s presentation and share the anger that our first speaker defended cultural genocide, enslavement, and the sex trafficking of women.”

Reached by Lookout, Engstrand said the response caught her by surprise.

“I’m sorry they so misinterpreted what I was really trying to put across,” Engstrand said, adding that she had shared a draft of her talk with the college in advance and received no prior pushback on its framing.

“I explained several times my position,” she said, referencing in particular her disagreement with the use of terms like “genocide” in connection with Cabrillo — who served in the armies of Hernan Cortez as a crossbowman — and other Spanish colonials.

Some questions raised in connection to Cabrillo’s legacy are murkier, Engstrand said. “But you can’t judge anything really, by today, of what was going on in 1542,” she added. “That’s what I have to say.”

Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo is credited with being the first European to explore California when he sailed along the coastline in 1542 in service of the Spanish crown. Granted land in Guatemala for his service, historical records show he grew wealthy off the forced labor of the indigenous populous — one item on a long list of transgressions raised by his detractors.

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)

Cabrillo enjoyed a largely glittery reputation in California’s civic life in the 20th century, and Cabrillo College’s founders named the school in his honor in 1959. His name also adorns a national monument in San Diego — where his expedition landed — as well as a stretch of Highway 1 and a number of schools and roads.

Responding to the calls of faculty, staff and students that came amid a national reckoning on racial equity, Cabrillo College trustees in July set the college on course to consider changing its name by the end of 2021.

Engstrand’s talk led off a series of five events planned to serve as a forum for community discussion on the question. It was attended live by 191 people, according to a college spokesperson, and attendees were able to share their views via a survey, results from which were not immediately available.

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