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Differing Portraits of Cabrillo College’s Namesake Emerge

School received a request to change its name in July 2020

The debate over Cabrillo College’s renaming escalated last week after the keynote speaker at its Name Exploration Community Event called the accusations against Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo ‘patently false.’ PHOTO: TARMO HANNULA

As Santa Cruz County’s community college begins efforts to possibly rebrand itself with a new name—and reject the name of Spanish explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo—two drastically different pictures of the man at the center of the debate have emerged.

Cabrillo College began to explore a name change in July 2020, as movements such as Black Lives Matter prompted communities across the United States to look at their own institutions and the historical names they bore. The Washington Football Team, previously named the Redskins, are in the midst of just such a change.

Proponents of Cabrillo’s name change say they do not want the college associated with Cabrillo, who they say brutalized and subjugated the native people who populated the coast.

University of San Diego history professor emeritus Dr. Iris Engstrand—who was the keynote speaker on March 18 as the college launched the public informational phase of its renaming process—called accusations of genocide, slavery, sex trafficking and murder by Cabrillo, which sparked the drive to change the college’s name, “patently false.”

In fact, Engstrand said Cabrillo wanted to treat the native people well in the places along the California coast where his voyage brought him, so as to have both able workers and converts to the Catholic church. Furthermore, she said, Viceroy Antonio de Mendoza stipulated that no harm should be done to local natives during explorations.

“[Cabrillo] is a pretty typical, not cruel, Spaniard,” she said. “He was very concerned about the natives, that nobody would hurt them.”

But in a letter sent out on Monday, March 22, Cabrillo President Matt Wetstein—along with Board of Governors Chair Rachel Spencer and trustees Adam Spickler and Christina Cuevas—expressed disappointment in Engstrand’s presentation, saying she defended Cabrillo’s actions—and the imperialistic Spanish rule he brought—“through a lens of white supremacy and Eurocentrism.”

“While Dr. Engstrand shared a portrayal of Cabrillo that painted a portrait of him as an historic savior and explorer, her portrayal neglected to give credence to widely held historic beliefs that his roles in Cuba and Mexico led to what would be the modern-day equivalent of cultural genocide, sex trafficking and slave ownership,” the letter reads.

Wetstein vowed “a more balanced approach” in upcoming panel discussions regarding the college’s name change.

“We reject those statements made during her lecture that fail to give credence to the pain caused by cultural genocide, slavery, and the subjugation of women and Indigenous people—not only in Central America and Mexico at that time, but anywhere and in any period of history,” the letter reads. “We reject them as Euro-centric, anti-Indigenous interpretations of history that lacked cultural humility.”

The Name Exploration Subcommittee was formed after the school received a request to change its name in July 2020. The subcommittee includes trustees Spickler and Cuevas, Associated Students of Cabrillo College Student Trustee Amidia Frederick and Wetstein, according to the school website. It is expected to have at least five public meetings, including the one that took place March 18, and then come up with a recommendation for a potential name change sometime this fall.

The next virtual meeting is set for April 8. It will discuss the impacts of colonization on Native Americans.

Engstrand said that Cabrillo’s orders were to map the coast to the north and chart a course to China, find a route from Europe above Canada to the Pacific and establish trade relations with China.

She said that Cabrillo deserves credit for his voyage, which discovered the winter wind patterns and southern pacific trading current, and helped establish the beginning of trade with China and the greater Pacific Basin.

“To put it simply, it is the accomplishments of Cabrillo as a navigator and explorer that established his reputation in history and make him worthy of recognition,” she said.

Engstrand said Cabrillo’s expedition along the coast of California was not rooted in genocide, and that there is no known instance of him murdering anyone.

“He was part of an army composed of Spaniards and natives … to defeat the Aztecs,” she said.

He also joined Pedro de Alvarado in the conquest of Guatemala, where he settled down with a native woman and had two daughters with her. He later married Beatriz Sanchez de Ortega, who returned to Guatemala with him.

Engstrand said that slavery in that time was outlawed in Spain, except for enemies captured on the battlefield who were used for mass labor.

She said that sex trafficking in the 16th century was not a crime, but an accepted fact of life.

In fact, many of Cabrillo’s actions, she stressed, were accepted practices.

“Cabrillo was a man of his times, not ours,” she said. 

Accusations of sex slavery, Engstrand said, stem from a letter to King Charles V of Spain written on Nov. 20, 1539, by Bishop Francisco Marroquín of Santiago de Guatemala. That letter described the Spaniards rounding up native girls and women to “serve the men of the shipyard as bed companions, cooks and laundresses,” Engstrand said.

These men were operating under the orders of Pedro De Alvarado, not Cabrillo, Engstrand said.

For information on upcoming name change events, visit bit.ly/31acZp0

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Benjamin R.

    April 6, 2021 at 9:50 am

    After following up on this story, I discovered that Cabrillo officials did indeed receive a draft of Dr. Engstrand’s presentation in advance, making their subsequent shock and dismay over her statements seem all the more questionable. It’s also been reported that the question and answer segment of the event was cut short. Again, why wasn’t that time afforded to challenge the speaker instead of blindsiding her in a critical letter?
    I think Cabrillo College really needs to re-frame the debate over the college’s namesake in terms of a condemnation of Spanish imperialism and missionary conquest. Or would that cut too close to the sins of our own forefathers?

  2. Benjamin R.

    April 5, 2021 at 6:57 pm

    Cabrillo College blunders again… and again. First, they invite a highly regarded and authoritative historian to address a very controversial subject without a clue as to what she will say, with no plans for a panel discussion or informed debate, and then they basically defame their own guest speaker. Apparently, the board assumed that Dr. Engstrand would parrot the “widely held historic beliefs” of others, rather than share her research, documentation, and historical perspective. One wonders why the board invited a historian at all, since they seem to have already reached their own conclusions (to which they are certainly entitled).
    Dr. Engstrand said many things during her talk that could be challenged, but I’m sure she would insist that her facts regarding Juan Cabrillo can’t be definitively refuted. She certainly has a social scientist’s coldly objective perspective that seems to cavalierly excuse conquest and colonialism, just because that’s the way it’s always been. At issue here seems to be conquest in general, rather than the defense or condemnation of one man.
    I’d also like to know why Mr. Wetstein and the board members didn’t speak up in the moment. Their critical letter sounds more like a CYA attempt to deflect anger from anti-(Juan) Cabrillo activists.
    Lastly, I wonder if the “more balanced approach” Mr. Wetstein promises in upcoming panel discussions means that both sides will be presented, or just that forthcoming presentations will be more politically correct?

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