By Ali Sarilgan
When I first heard the news that the ASSU had decided to take action to rename property named after Junipero Serra, I said to myself “Hey, here is another superfluous controversy.” In fact, the first draft of this very article was a snarky satire that elaborately criticized Alexander the Great for not being a Democrat, proposed to demolish the University of Virginia because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and called for the renaming of America, not only the country but also the continent, due to Amerigo Vespucci’s acts toward Native Americans.
I believed, and still do believe, that America’s main advantage over the rest of the world was being able to isolate itself from its past. We are still killing one another in Turkey about an incident that happened in 1915, and the Muslim world still can’t free itself from the conflict that began in 680 following the Battle of Karbala. It seemed to me that the U.S., just like any other nation, had committed crimes throughout its history, but got over them for the greater good. Why try and fail to change history when you can understand it and change the future? After all, Junipero Serra was only doing what he believed was righteous and was serving his God and King within the context of his time.
As I typed in these words, I suddenly stopped, took a step back and read what I had written. Why was I defending a Spanish missionary and his alleged genocide?
To me, Serra had always been just a name. It was the address I sent my SAT scores to and the dorm I passed by every day on my way to class. I was accustomed to it, and, frankly, thought it was some plant like Soto. What was all the fuss about? The Native American community was clearly hurt by this issue, but why did they care so much about Serra, when they could be fighting over Columbus Day or something more important? It was just a name.
Over winter break, my dog and I conducted a little experiment. His name is Haydut, which is the Turkish word for burglar. As a puppy, he would push away all his siblings and drink all his mother’s milk. He weighed about 15 pounds while all the other puppies weighed around eight, so I figured that his name was an appropriate choice. And every time I call out his name he wiggles his tail with excited anticipation. But why? Is the word meaningful to him or does he just recognize the sound? Does he recognize the silly face I make and the pitch of my sound while I holler at him, or is he aware that he actually has a name? So after letting him roam freely in the street until he lost all interest in me, I said in a detached tone: “Haydut.” He didn’t even bother to turn around. Then I loudly said “Pickle!” in the same way I called him. He immediately came back running. His name meant nothing to him. To be fair, my dog is not the brightest apple in the basket; he is eight years old and still hasn’t figured out why he has to raise his leg before he starts peeing. So I don’t want to generalize the entire canine family, but Haydut really got me thinking.
Why are we humans so obsessed with our names? Everything around us is constantly changing. We make new friends, our relatives pass away, we switch schools, we age, we get sick, we marry, we divorce… Intimidated by this constant motion, we hang on to the only stable, unchanged things in our lives: our names.
Every morning we wake up as a different person from the one we were yesterday. Some days we’re sad, some days we’re happy, and some days we stare at a complete stranger that is standing in the mirror. But the second someone calls our name, we are reminded of who we are, or maybe, who everyone else wants us to be. Imagine a boy named Moses by his parents, who hopes that he grows up to represent the ideals of the Prophet, or a little girl named Elizabeth named in wishes that she can become as graceful as the Queen. With one single word, their entire lives are defined for them. Unless you’re a dog, whose only apparent purpose in life is to eat all that is dear to me, your name is the most important thing you have.
So imagine that you are a Native American living in Serra. What would you feel? I personally do not know. I still think that getting stuck in the past and trying to change it is a futile and painful thing to do. Some attempts to rename certain structures seem completely ludicrous to me, like Princeton’s debate over Woodrow Wilson, while I find some to be completely justifiable, like renaming Stalingrad. But where do we draw the line? And, most important, is it our line to draw?
We, Homo sapiens, have established a pretty scary track record over the past few millennia and we must carry the burden together. Renaming certain structures may seem unimportant at first but the words we choose to use, both implicitly and explicitly, determine our view of the world. We must discuss and decide together. Or the next thing we know, eight years will go by and just like Haydut, we’ll still be surprised to find pee on our leg.
Contact Ali Sarilgan at sarali19 ‘at’ stanford.edu.