Credit: Andrew Reed/EdSource
Anaya Zenad, 13, stands at the sign of her school, Juan Crespi Middle in El Sobrante. Zenad, along with other students and faculty have worked to scrap the name, after students did a research project into Crespi and his role in the oppressive California mission system.
Update — School board unanimously approves name change

The name Juan Crespi never meant much to eighth grader Anaya Zenad and her classmates, other than it was the name of their middle school in El Sobrante.

But after the students researched the Franciscan missionary — and his role in expeditions that paved the way for the brutally oppressive California mission system in the 1700s — they felt the name had to go.

Earlier this year, Zenad joined with faculty to lead a series of community meetings on the school’s decades-old name and petitioned the West Contra Costa Unified school board to change it to something more in line with the school’s values of inclusivity and anti-racism.

On Wednesday, the board voted unanimously to change the name to Betty Reid Soskin Middle School, after the 99-year-old East Bay activist who is also the country’s oldest National Park ranger. 

Credit: Andrew Reed/EdSource

Anaya Zenad

Zenad said the mission system’s treatment of Indigenous children struck a chord with her. She learned about the physical and mental abuse that Indigenous children were subject to, such as being forced to labor at age 10.

She also learned that they were made to give up their own cultural practices and learn Christianity, making Zenad wonder why a school would bear the name of anyone associated with the mission system.

“I’m a person of color, and I don’t want to be treated horribly in school where I want to learn,” said Zenad, who is Mexican-American. “If that represents our school, then why would I even come?”

The school’s student body is majority Latino and Black, according to Ed-data.org.

Principal Guthrie Fleischman said the idea for the research project came about last year during America’s racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd. That’s also when faculty began talking about possibly changing the name in a way to “reimagine” the school for when students returned to campus. All Crespi students were assigned to do the project in January and encouraged to do their own research using accounts of Native Americans victimized by the mission system.

“Students have always been told a very whitewashed version of history. Essentially we wanted to provide an alternative perspective,” Fleischman said.

Zenad’s project focused on children victimized by the mission system, coming to the conclusion that Crespi was no role model.

“I thought our school was named after somebody hardworking, kind and caring,” Zenad said. “It makes me angry that we didn’t even know what our school name meant while seeing it every day.”

Crespi was a key figure in Spanish colonization in that he was one of the main chroniclers of the establishment of the mission system. He accompanied Junípero Serra and Gaspar de Portolá on their expeditions and documented the voyages for the Spanish.

Zenad’s enthusiasm for the project caught her teacher and Fleischman’s attention, who asked her and another student to lead a community meeting in February on potentially renaming the school. Zenad also delivered her presentation to the West Contra Costa Unified school board on May 19, prompting the board to unanimously appoint a committee to rename the school.

Fleishman said he has not encountered anyone against getting rid of the name. On the contrary, he said, every parent, student and administrator he has talked to about it is enthusiastic to “re-imagine the school under a different banner.”

“A name can be motivating, a call to action, or it can harbor trauma and violence and abuse,” Fleischman said.

Having the names of Spanish explorers and Franciscan missionaries from the 1700s, such as Crespi, Junípero Serra, Gaspar de Portolá, and Juan Bautista de Anza is a way of valorizing them, said UC San Diego ethnic studies professor Ross Frank. Frank is one of the principal investigators on the Critical Mission Studies project, a group of University of California scholars working to surface indigenous perspectives on California colonial missions and their aftermath.

Crespi middle school isn’t the only California school to try to rid itself of its old, controversial name. San Francisco Unified’s school board voted in November to rename 44 of the district’s 125 schools, though it reversed the decision in April 2021 saying the district would revisit the issue after students are back in school full time. In May, Tamalpais Union High School District’s school board voted to change the name of Sir Francis Drake High School — named after the English explorer and slave trader — to Archie Williams High School, after a former math teacher at the school who had been a World War II flight instructor and an Olympic gold medalist.

“When things predominantly get named after Spanish people that were involved in the Spanish colonization of California and the mission system, that is implanting the narrative across the landscape, creating visible marks of history,” Frank said. “So, we don’t get (Indigenous scholar) Pablo Tac high school, or schools named after the prominent people who resisted the missions or other names of native leaders or people.” 

Pablo Tac was a Native Californian, born in 1822, who, before dying at age 19, wrote about the conditions of indigenous people and created the first writing system for Luiseño, his native language.

Crespi may not have had a mission named after him, Frank said, but his accounts of the establishment of the mission system became the dominant narrative in history.

“That’s the story that sticks because it’s the written story,” he said. “It’s not like California Indians, for the most part, got a chance to write their story in concert or parallel to what the Spanish were referring to.”

Efforts to include more of a critical perspective of the mission system in California education gained traction in the 1960s and 1970s, during and after the tenure of conservative state Superintendent Max Rafferty from 1962 to 1970. Rafferty relied on “Cold War rhetoric, using scare tactics to call for a return to patriotism through traditional education” and supported “romantic mission stories” in history textbooks, wrote historian Zevi Gutfreund in his 2010 essay “Standing up to Sugarcubes, The Contest over Ethnic Identity in California’s Fourth-Grade Mission Curriculum.”

For decades, activists — mainly American Indian Historical Society founders Rupert and Jeannette Costo — fought for greater recognition of the fate of Indigenous Californians and against the sympathetic view of the Spanish colonizers in history textbooks. However, that’s also when the now controversial fourth grade model mission project became more popular, though it was never part of the state-mandated curriculum.

In 1998, the State Board of Education mandated that fourth grade standards of the Spanish mission and Mexican rancho periods include stories of Indians, Mexicans and Spaniards, according to Gutfreund’s essay.

In 2017, the state board released a new K-12 curriculum that urged against the mission project.

Fleischman said the Crespi project wasn’t only a lesson in history but a lesson in what students can accomplish through a “collective interrogation of what has been taken for granted.” By doing the projects, every student played a part in bringing about a tangible change.

He said he plans to take down the Crespi sign and order new staff uniforms the day after the school board’s vote.

“By creating the opportunity for students to do the work, investigate something and create a product that was going to have real-world implications, it’s more than just doing something for a grade,” Fleischman said. “You’re doing it because it will impact the future of a school. It’s empowering kids, teaching them civic engagement. This is being a part of your community.”

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  1. Roger 3 days ago3 days ago

    New name is terrific, but the attempted dumping of 44 San Francisco school names after sloppy research by activist school board really should not have been mentioned in this article. That especially should not have been done if Ms Zeynad truly instituted her own research and it was thorough. If she didn’t do that, then shame on the activists behind her pushing the change.

  2. Mike Cabrawly 1 month ago1 month ago

    Hmm, still waiting for at least one example of "horrible treatment of a student," after all that was a chief concern cited by the young misguided social justice warrior. So all the adults in the room decide it was a good idea to spend the time, money and energy to change the name. OK, so now what? Did all of the horrible treatment and racism suddenly vanish with the name change? No, I … Read More

    Hmm, still waiting for at least one example of “horrible treatment of a student,” after all that was a chief concern cited by the young misguided social justice warrior. So all the adults in the room decide it was a good idea to spend the time, money and energy to change the name. OK, so now what? Did all of the horrible treatment and racism suddenly vanish with the name change? No, I suppose not (as if there ever were any). Seems like if there were any actual problems and inequities (as mentioned by the little girl) the logical thing to do, to effect real change would be to scrub the entire school board and staff, starting with the principal on down, yeah? Makes more sense. That would be how to effect real and lasting change, not some silly name change… but everyone listed to an evidently uninformed child instead.

  3. James Coburn 1 month ago1 month ago

    As an alumnus of the first full class to attend this campus, I totally disagree with your decision to change the name of this campus. You can teach the whole history of California without having to change the name of campuses or removing landmarks created in the past. You say this is prejudiced towards one ethnic group, while you are being equally prejudiced by destroying a part of Calfornia's history so you can attempt … Read More

    As an alumnus of the first full class to attend this campus, I totally disagree with your decision to change the name of this campus. You can teach the whole history of California without having to change the name of campuses or removing landmarks created in the past. You say this is prejudiced towards one ethnic group, while you are being equally prejudiced by destroying a part of Calfornia’s history so you can attempt to be “politically correct.”

  4. Ken 3 months ago3 months ago

    Principal Fleishman stated for this article: "...he has not encountered anyone against getting rid of the name. On the contrary, he said, every parent, student and administrator he has talked to about it is enthusiastic to 're-imagine the school under a different banner.'" I find this to be a highly dubious claim. How many people did the principal talk to, actually? Were former students asked about this? What debate was there?'Were the claims of students … Read More

    Principal Fleishman stated for this article: “…he has not encountered anyone against getting rid of the name. On the contrary, he said, every parent, student and administrator he has talked to about it is enthusiastic to ‘re-imagine the school under a different banner.'”

    I find this to be a highly dubious claim. How many people did the principal talk to, actually? Were former students asked about this? What debate was there?’Were the claims of students like Anaya Zenad given credibility because she was having difficulty at school *because* of the Crespi school name? If so, how was that arrived at, exactly? I am myself half Mexican, yet I have no interest in looking back and erasing historical names from institutions for political ideology.

    Below, I give just one example of those who disagree with the name change had to say…

    “I get it, just like everybody else, but in my opinion the whole ‘change the name’ thing mostly is an empty, fashionable, self-serving liberal pretense. Changing the name changes nothing except how a few people feel about themselves.

    What might be a more suitable name? It’s not a Native American institution, for example, so it seems inappropriate to name it after an indigenous tribe or person. Any hero or legendary figure can be faulted for something. Should it be named after a fish, perhaps, or some other animal? What’s the point?

    If early explorers were monsters, it seems entirely appropriate to name contemporary public institutions after monsters. Why try to cover up the fact?

    Maybe it simply should be called ‘a school.’ Give it a number and someone will complain that it’s not a higher or a lower number than the neighboring school.”

    -Max

  5. Jose 3 months ago3 months ago

    Hope it is clear to all, that viewing history with the corrective now day standard, is not a fair assessment; the truth is we no longer can find Missionaries that conduct themself in the manner described. Are we willing to go after the natives that murder many of the early missionaries? The good thing is, as I repeat, we are as a people not what we were back then. Can we judge ourselves on our attitude as … Read More

    Hope it is clear to all, that viewing history with the corrective now day standard, is not a fair assessment; the truth is we no longer can find Missionaries that conduct themself in the manner described. Are we willing to go after the natives that murder many of the early missionaries?

    The good thing is, as I repeat, we are as a people not what we were back then.

    Can we judge ourselves on our attitude as a teenager? Disrespectful and all the connotations that our behavior entails?

  6. Christian Clifford 3 months ago3 months ago

    Naming the school after Pablo Tac is a great choice and I am confident Fr. Juan Crespi, O.F.M. would agree! I was so inspired by the life of Pablo Tac, the Luiseño (Payómkawichum) who went to Rome to study for the Catholic priesthood and whose writings are the earliest from a California Indian, that I wrote the short biography "Meet Pablo Tac: Indian from the Far Shores of California". I also started a petition requesting … Read More

    Naming the school after Pablo Tac is a great choice and I am confident Fr. Juan Crespi, O.F.M. would agree! I was so inspired by the life of Pablo Tac, the Luiseño (Payómkawichum) who went to Rome to study for the Catholic priesthood and whose writings are the earliest from a California Indian, that I wrote the short biography “Meet Pablo Tac: Indian from the Far Shores of California”. I also started a petition requesting that the Diocese of San Diego proceed as the petitioner to nominate Pablo Tac for the cause of canonization. To date, there are 458 signatories. Read it @ https://www.change.org/InvokePabloTac.

  7. Julia 3 months ago3 months ago

    A different perspective... Be careful not to likewise "take for granted" gratuitous blanket statements like "the brutally oppressive California mission system." I'm sure abuses existed, which is shameful and should be discussed, but this article doesn't even present any evidence that Fr. Juan Crespi wasn't "hardworking, kind and caring." You may not like him because he was a Spanish Catholic priest and wanted to convert people to Christianity - but that does not … Read More

    A different perspective… Be careful not to likewise “take for granted” gratuitous blanket statements like “the brutally oppressive California mission system.”

    I’m sure abuses existed, which is shameful and should be discussed, but this article doesn’t even present any evidence that Fr. Juan Crespi wasn’t “hardworking, kind and caring.” You may not like him because he was a Spanish Catholic priest and wanted to convert people to Christianity – but that does not make him brutally oppressive. Change the name if you like – but how about stopping the blanket maligning of historical figures and systems you never experienced who/which existed under all kinds of circumstances you can never fathom.

    Here is an outsiders’ experience about a 1/2 century after the end of the mission system: Robert Louis Stevenson – not a Catholic – wrote about his experience of mission Indians that did not give the impression that the ones he encountered were brutally oppressed – unless you believe that race, ancestry, and skin color determine how you must worship.

    Stevenson wrote: “I heard the old indians singing mass. That was a new experience, and one well worth hearing. … They sang by tradition, from the teaching of early missionaries long since turned to clay. …the old Gregorian singing preached a sermon more eloquent than his (the priest’s) own. Peace on earth, good will to men so it seemed to me to say; …” (Letter to Crevole Bronson)

    Elsewhere Stevenson also wrote:
    “An Indian, stone-blind, and about eighty years of age, conducts the singing; other Indians compose the choir; …. … I have never seen faces more vividly lit up with joy than the faces of those Indian singers. …”

  8. stephanie none erickson 3 months ago3 months ago

    There will be negative issues throughout history does not mean you eliminate them.

  9. Garrison Traver 3 months ago3 months ago

    NO! Just NO! This changing names of schools to honor some unknown local who will always be unknown is ridiculous! This is the work of some radical social studies teachers. This disenfranchises all of the thousands of kids that went to Juan Crespi. I know a lot of people who feel sad because their school Harry Ells doesn't exist anymore. I went to De Anza in the last class that … Read More

    NO! Just NO! This changing names of schools to honor some unknown local who will always be unknown is ridiculous! This is the work of some radical social studies teachers. This disenfranchises all of the thousands of kids that went to Juan Crespi. I know a lot of people who feel sad because their school Harry Ells doesn’t exist anymore.

    I went to De Anza in the last class that went 6 years (Class of 1969) , before Crespi was built next door to my house.

  10. Gary L. Pickard, Sr. 3 months ago3 months ago

    I understand the reasoning here. However, history, even history that may shame us, is, like it or not, history. What's next, sweeping General Vallejo under the rug? Incidentally, I'm Native American and proud of it. I'm not opposed to the changes sweeping the country in the name of political correctness. I'm opposed to attempting to change history & eliminate the Dark Days in history. It's very clever. I find that even an untold lie, is still … Read More

    I understand the reasoning here.

    However, history, even history that may shame us, is, like it or not, history. What’s next, sweeping General Vallejo under the rug?

    Incidentally, I’m Native American and proud of it. I’m not opposed to the changes sweeping the country in the name of political correctness. I’m opposed to attempting to change history & eliminate the Dark Days in history. It’s very clever. I find that even an untold lie, is still a lie. Eliminating any history good or bad, is as shameful as the history being wiped “without success” from being noteworthy.

    The idea that you can “alter” history is ludicrous. I see your point. I see as well, a pathetic attempt to presume to “create” what is the equivalent of, false memories.

    Replies

    • Riley B Mason 3 months ago3 months ago

      How is changing the name of the school an attempt to change history? A false narrative had been created, honoring a person who intentionally brought harm to the indigenous people of California. By learning the truth about Crespi, Serra, and the other purveyors of this ugly system which persecuted and punished people for their own sake, a more truthful narrative is going to be told. Rather than honoring an oppressor, the real history will now … Read More

      How is changing the name of the school an attempt to change history? A false narrative had been created, honoring a person who intentionally brought harm to the indigenous people of California. By learning the truth about Crespi, Serra, and the other purveyors of this ugly system which persecuted and punished people for their own sake, a more truthful narrative is going to be told.

      Rather than honoring an oppressor, the real history will now be told and taught to future students attending the school. History is not being changed; the truth is being told. As a result , dishonoring Crespi and renaming the school is certainly in order.

  11. Replies

    • John Fensterwald 3 months ago3 months ago

      Thanks, Ellen. A fine choice.

  12. Iqbal Badwalz 3 months ago3 months ago

    Great work by students taking ownership for the change.

  13. Victor 3 months ago3 months ago

    Nice work. However, seems to me the school should be named after a Native American who worked against the oppression.