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.
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.”