San Diego Unified’s Junipero Serra High School will now be called Canyon Hills High School after students successfully petitioned for the name change, saying that the name of the founder of California’s mission system is offensive to indigenous peoples whose ancestors were subjected to its doctrine.

On Tuesday night, the San Diego Unified School Board unanimously voted for the name change and to change the school’s mascot from a conquistador to a rattlesnake, or a “Rattler.”

Students who started the name and mascot change effort said it’s offensive and racist to have a conquistador as a mascot because it represents the Spanish colonization of the Americas, during which Spanish conquerors carried out a genocide of indigenous peoples, killing millions by disease and by force. Serra was the founder of California’s mission system, which assimilated indigenous people to Catholicism and Spanish culture and was a key strategy of Spanish colonization.

“The mascot and Serra himself are tied to the oppression of native peoples, and we shouldn’t be glorifying a mascot like the conquistador with all the violence,” said Charlotte Taila, a Canyon Hills High junior who started a petition last summer to change the mascot. “We shouldn’t be cheering for conquistadors when there’s nothing to be celebrated.”

Local indigenous leaders praised the name change and said it will bring “much-needed healing” to the Kumeyaay and other first peoples.

“This very important name change starts the process of telling the truth,” said Angela Elliott-Santos, chairwoman of the Kumeyaay Heritage Preservation Council and Manzanita band of the Kumeyaay Nation, during Tuesday night’s board meeting. “The change will provide for a more accurate and ethical view of history.”

In addition to changing the school’s name, Elliott-Santos said the Kumeyaay Nation looks forward to seeing an acknowledgement of Kumeyaay land on the school campus and working with the school to create an accurate curriculum about Kumeyaay culture and history.

Also on Tuesday, the board voted to name a future City Heights campus after the late Rev. George Walker Smith, a faith and civic leader who was the first African-American elected to office in San Diego as a school board member.

And the board voted unanimously to change the name of a joint community park at Pacific Beach Middle School from “Pacific Beach Joint-Use Field” to “Fannie and William Payne Joint-Use Field.”

William Payne, a graduate of Paris’ Sorbonne University, was the first Black teacher at Pacific Beach Middle and the second Black teacher in San Diego Unified. His wife, Fannie Payne, had a master’s degree from San Diego State University and was a public school teacher in San Diego. Both were active community members.

In 1945, more than 1,900 Pacific Beach residents petitioned for William Payne to be removed from Pacific Beach Middle because they didn’t think a Black teacher was needed there, considering that only two Black families owned property in Pacific Beach.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, two Pacific Beach residents worked with two students at the middle school to change the name of the field to honor the Paynes.

“We understand that this is a symbolic action that does not directly undo the historical implications of racism and anti-Blackness in Pacific Beach,” said Pacific Beach Middle School student Juliniel Woods, who helped lead the effort to change the name, at Tuesday’s meeting. “They may not have received the praise they deserved in their lifetime but now, with your help, we can finally give them their rightful recognition and continue to uncover the history of San Diego.”

The Canyon Hills Rattlers

The high school has had the conquistador mascot and Serra’s name since it opened in 1976, said Principal Erica Renfree. Renfree said she has heard concerns from students and others, especially about the mascot, during the years she has been principal.

“I do believe it’s important because we have gotten feedback from the years … that certain communities don’t feel welcome here, and we want to make this a completely inclusive school of all race, gender, everything,” Renfree said.

The school will be renamed Canyon Hills, or Mat Kwatup KunKun, because it is located in the Tierrasanta and Murphy Canyon neighborhoods, which have a canyon landscape. Meanwhile, the neighborhood Tierrasanta is sometimes referred to as “The Island in the Hills.”

The new mascot — the Rattler, or ‘ewii tenwai — is sacred to the Kumeyaay, who frequently depict the animal on baskets, Elliott-Santos said.

The name change had support from the San Diego-based Kanap Kuahan Coalition, which includes the Kumeyaay and Original Peoples Alliance, Union del Barrio, Tipey Joa Native Warriors and American Indian Movement of Southern California.

“San Diego County is home to 19 federally recognized tribes, all of whom have suffered death, enslavement, rape, forced relocation, and dissociation from their linguistic and cultural practices at the hands of the Spanish military and the Mission system,” said Grace Alvarez Sesma, a representative of the coalition, in a letter to the San Diego school board. “It is an affront to the original stewards and caretakers of this land that we all live on and benefit from to name an educational institution after their oppressor, and furthermore the mascot of that institution after their murderer.”

San Diego city’s Human Relations Commission supports the name change, saying that the Serra school name harms children because of its connection to “our broken and racist past.”

“As with the confederate names, using the name of Father Junipero Serra for school names and symbols has a traumatizing impact on students, families, teachers, and staff of all backgrounds,” the commission wrote in a letter to the superintendent and former board president.

Kevin Eckery, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of San Diego, said it’s up to the community and school board to decide what to name a school and there are many factors that go into that decision.

“As Catholics, we are grateful for the sacrifices made by St. Junipero Serra and for bringing our faith to California,” Eckery said in an email. “The Mission Era remains a very important part of California’s history. Studying that history, and learning from it, is what education is all about….”

The above comes from a March 9 story in the San Diego Union-Tribune.