Acalanes needs a dialogue on the Dons

Evolved into a more conversational term to respectfully address older men

School spirit materials

Mara Korzeniowska

calanes Celebrates Latine Culture and Reevaluates its mascot, the Don.

After 80 years of their school being “Home of the Dons,” Acalanes community members discuss the various meanings of the Spanish word and address a growing movement for equity and reform.

To the Latine community, the word Don itself has a multitude of different meanings and connotations. One includes a complex historical context tracing back to Spanish colonization in the Americas. 

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word don, coming from the Latin word dominus for owner/lord/master, refers to Spanish men who seized Native American land and stole their labor. The Dons maintained a continuous presence in California throughout the era of the Spanish encomienda (the conquerors’ system of forced labor) and mission systems as well as the Mexican land grants.

The Acalanes Don “would be like, ‘sir’, like he’s a landowner,” Acalanes Spanish teacher Monika Voellm said. “You’re using a title to refer to him like they did in feudal times … There were native peoples here and then the Spanish came through and developed the missions … The Spanish gave land grants to people and whoever received that land was usually called [a] Don, because … the people who worked on the land called [the owner a Don].”

Over time, the Don has evolved into a more conversational term to respectfully address older men or men of authority in Latin America.

“When a teenager [talks to a] guy … more than 30 or 50 [years old, they] have to call them a Don [to] show respect to that person,” Acalanes Custodian Edgar Gonzalez said.

In contrast, Acalanes takes a singular approach with its current interpretation of the Don, focusing on current aspects of its school culture such as citizenship and support for the community. 

“We’ve really used [the Don] as it’s morphed into the characteristics of what we think represent our community and represent Acalanes students; things like integrity, trustworthiness, responsibility, compassion, and [to be] caring and humble. You can kind of morph it into any positive attributes that you want to apply to when we say, ‘What does it mean to be a Don?’” former Acalanes principal Travis Bell said.

The Acalanes Dons first originated when Acalanes’ first graduating class, the class of 1941, chose the mascot as a historical tribute to the land’s background. Their chosen definition of the Don revolved around the Spanish landowners that first colonized the Acalanes area. 

“The name ‘Acalanes’ came from the tribe of Native Americans who lived here thousands of years ago. They were a Miwok tribe called the ‘Saclan’ and, over time, somehow when the Mexicans and Spanish [Dons] were here, ‘Saclan’ became ‘Saclanes’, and then Acalanes came from that,” Acalanes alumna and President of the Lafayette Historical Society Mary McCosker said.

In the 80 years since then, the Don fell into common use in the Acalanes vocabulary, baffling Spanish speakers due to the traditional nature of the word and its exclusionary tone toward non-male students.

“To have our mascot be the “sirs” [was] truly the intention of it … all the female athletes here are the Lady Dons, which is the “lady sirs”. It just doesn’t even make sense to me on that level,” Voellm said.

Other members of the Latine community did not find the “respectful sir” aspect to translate well in terms of respect that students have for the campus.

Dons are “ like an important person … Like I know every school has to be respected but … [since] Acalanes uses the Dons names, [its students] need to respect our school, like [be] very respectful to the school,” Gonzalez said.

An additional off-putting aspect of the Don to the Latine community was the school’s past use of Dons’ imagery, which used to decorate Acalanes merchandise, spirit events, and, most notably, the front of the main gym.

“Like how do you represent a Don in a culturally sensitive way? Is there a way to represent that in a culturally sensitive way?,” Voellm said. “ Like when I first got here, there were a lot of things like ponchos and Chevy’s [sombrero] hats, sometimes the mustache. It was an issue. We brought it up and it took some time and it shifted. But now … the Don got a little bit more like, OK, ‘what might the person actually have worn when they had that land?’, but it’s still fraught with issues. Because one was a stereotype and not even historically accurate, but also kind of stereotypical and maybe problematic.”

To remedy the harm caused by its stereotypical depictions of the Don, Acalanes administration decided to rebrand in the year 2013. In this rebranding process, the current Acalanes A replaced the Dons caricature in all Acalanes merchandise and buildings.

“We did feel, I think it was my first year as principal, like we wanted to do away with some of the racialized depictions of our mascot,” Bell said. “We used to have this image of the Don of a quote-unquote Don on our gym … it was like a caricature of a Don. So it didn’t feel right or good to have that there. So, we invested some significant money in redoing that, we really moved away from any form of appropriation, like sombreros or mustaches on the A or whatever, and really moved into the A as our primary image, even though our mascot was still the Don.”

The Acalanes administration was hesitant to change the mascot then, as there did not seem to be a pressing student conversation surrounding the Don.

“So we really didn’t have that. And when we asked students about it, it kind of was a point of low interest. So when we were talking to students and we had conversations with them, people would be like, ‘Oh yeah, I could see that.’ But there wasn’t this huge sort of felt desired step into that,” Bell said.

Additionally, administrators wanted to ensure that all aspects of the Acalanes community would accept a change.

“Changing the mascot is more than just images. When I talk about stakeholders and talking about faculty, current students, current parents, current community members, but then a whole other group of alumni. There’s so much [changing] than just the image,” Bell said.

Instead of changing the mascot completely in 2013, Bell opted for extensive equity training to equip the community with a way to appropriately handle the situation.

“The other sort of response was that we really felt that we had some much more pressing needs to consider when it came to equity and inclusion. First and foremost was getting our staff trained in the courageous conversation protocol and the beyond diversity protocol that the staff were doing,” Bell said.

Despite Bell’s proposal for equity action at the time, many community members still feel that the school has yet to deal with retention of the mascot’s name.

I think that there is an awareness that using the Don, as the actual visual human personification of the Don, was problematic because of so many stereotypes and racist tropes that came along with it …  I don’t think the issue that was being addressed was the idea of a Don itself, but rather the stereotypical personification that sometimes happened,” Acalanes AP Environmental Science teacher Jada Paniagua said.

Even though Acalanes retained its mascot, some Acalanes administrators currently phase out the word Dons from the school’s main catchphrases, instead replacing them with other Acalanes identifiers.

“Personally, I have phased Dons out of my lexicon for the most part. I prefer “Go ACA” or “go blue” but our official mascot is still the Don so you will still hear the phrase around campus and in our community,” Acalanes Associate Principal Mike Plant said.

Despite all of this, members of the community express discontent with the lack of a unifying and unproblematic mascot to identify with.

“If we’re not using “Go Dons,” we don’t really have a mascot. And so we’re in kind of this place where we’re like, “Go Acalanes” and that’s wonderful because I love the Acalanes community always and everything, but I’m not a super fan of the Don mascot,” Voellm said.

Acalanes students share a similar dissatisfaction with the amount of education surrounding the Don, with many not even understanding what a Don is.

“I have no clue why it became named the Dons. I would just assume that there is some Spanish influence on our school somewhere, and that is where the name came from,” Acalanes senior Connor Wollman said.

Latine students call for further education and transparency on this topic, as the Dons offer a colonized depiction of Latine history that most Acalanes students do not know the full story about.

“No one seems to know [that] it’s weird to see this [Don] that’s … received as a conquistador. So that’s a thing that we have accepted from our history and yet we don’t acknowledge it in any way, shape or form. It’s the only thing that we like to take credit for. For the Spanish people that used to live here is a weird, sort of fake representation,” Acalanes junior Olivia Banks said.

Supporters of the Latine community say they will continue to advocate for greater dialogue on the Don’s stereotypical and colonial history and call for a mascot more indicative of the school’s values.

“But, I think that if one of the markers of our identity is something that excludes members of our community, and is something that in its nature excludes the identity of most people in our community, then I think it’s problematic. Beyond race, the fact that we are the Dons, and that is who we are, but there are also the Lady Dons and the doñas already excluding women, is not who we are,” Paniagua said.