If you should know anything about me, please know that I am a Californian.
If there is any song to sing, any song of myself, I sing California.
Here is California. Everywhere else is there. Please understand and follow along.
I am the first official Californian in my family. I was conceived and created here. The first thing that became of me, at the most basic cellular level, that dramatic dance of sperm meeting egg, all happened here. That magical spark igniting the fire that delicately prepared me for my existence. That happened here.
My two older siblings cannot claim this. My sister was born in Egypt and though my brother was conveniently born in the state of California, my mother was pregnant with him when the family immigrated from Egypt. I have given myself the freedom to use this detail to declassify my brother as not being “officially” Californian. I win.
When I speak about California, I tend towards the dramatic. I get caught up in the romance of it all. The stakes always feel so heightened here. This makes complete sense when one takes the time to learn the origin story of its name. “California” was first conceived in a Spanish romance novel from the 16th century. In Las sergas de Esplandián by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, written in 1510, a mythical island of California was described. It was a paradise filled with gold, run by strong and beautiful black women with a great ruler named Queen Calafia. Read more about this here.
Let’s put our critical consciousness caps on and put this narrative in perspective with a little cultural context.
In the 16th century, Spain was reimagining and reinventing itself. It was coming off of nearly 800 years of strong Islamic rule and it was now investing in its own expansion with colonial voyages to the New World. Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortés, the man who led the expedition that led to the fall of the Aztec empire and placed large portions of mainland Mexico under Spanish colonial rule, was determined to find the fabled island of California. Cortés sent three ships in the 1530’s exploring the west coast of New Spain. They were all lost. Explorer Francisco de Ulloa came upon a strip of land in 1539 and named it Las Californias. Today, this is the Baja California Peninsula and is part of Mexico. It is a long strip of land that runs along the mainland of Mexico with the Gulf of California lying in between. Ulloa originally named the gulf the Sea of Cortés. Despite it being discovered that California was not an island at all, maps in Europe depicted it as an island for over a century.
Quick basic Spanish lesson: “baja” means “below” and “alta” means “above.” The northern edge of the Sea of Cortés — the modern Gulf of California — marked the boundary between Alta California and Baja California.
Let’s go back to the origin of the word. With the strong presence of Islam in Spain from the 8th to the 15th centuries, it is assumed that the word California comes from the Arabic word “khalifa” which means “successor” or “leader.” Islam spread quickly from the Middle East into Africa and Asia by a long succession of “khalifas.” As Islamic rule expanded, the land was governed by what was called “caliphates.” Under the Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates in the 7th and 8th centuries, Islam spread across all of North Africa, as far west as Morocco and up into the Iberian Peninsula, or what we know as Spain and Portugal today. Montalvo’s novel is set against the backdrop of the Reconquista — “reconquest” in Spanish — a series of battles when Christians were victorious over Muslims throughout the eight centuries there was Islamic rule in the region.
Let’s break this down. The novel is about Christians and Muslims battling each other and features a beautiful black queen named Calafia who is the leader of Amazon-like black women on a mythical island full of gold where the women ride tamed beasts and kill all the men and eat them and feed them to their young. Hmm. I can’t tell for sure without reading the novel myself but this doesn’t seem like a super positive depiction of black people to me. Then I remind myself that the novelist is a Spaniard coming out of a long period of dominance by Moors — what Muslims were called in that region — many of which were from North Africa. It makes sense why the depiction of black people may be less than positive. The trauma of colonization runs deep.
Did you catch that the name California was inspired by Arabs and Muslims and North Africans? Did you know that in addition to my being essentially a Californian, that I am also essentially a North African Arab Muslim? Is it merely a coincidence? If anything, it’s dramatic.
California trivia is like candy for me. I will talk anyone’s ear off about all the random cool facts that truly make this place the enchanting and dramatic place people have known it to be. Ever since it was first conceived 500 years ago in a Spanish novel by a possible racist.
Even the natural world operates with a heightened sense of drama in California. The earthquakes and wildfires are awe-striking in their utter rage and destructiveness. Every towering cliff and deep canyon has a secret it’s keeping. Each layer of rock and stone has stories that go back millions of years. When tectonic plates shifted and glaciers melted and left for us the magical beauty that is California’s landscape.
Last week, on a whim, I got in my car and drove 90 minutes north up to the Antelope Valley, to pay homage to the official flower of the 31st state of the union, the California Poppy. This native plant rises and shines every spring, draping the rolling hills in the richest orange the eye has ever seen. Strong winds sweep through the valley and make the flowers dance. They open up and sing to the sun every day and shut their eyes to rest every night. They sing California.
When I die, crush bouquets of these beautiful flowers and sprinkle golden orange dust all over my body. When they lay me down and lower me into the ground, sing for me a California song.
If you rip open my chest, you will see my heart is in the shape of California.
This is just the first of many love letters I will write about California. In my next essay, I will write more about where I live, the area the Spanish colonizers named Alta California. I will write about my city, El Pueblo do La Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles. I will write about the original inhabitants of this land and how many of us still use some native words locally without possibly recognizing it. I will write about my neighborhood of Studio City and where it gets its name. That story will take us to Hollywood’s origin and the first movie studios ever built and it will also take us to Broadway. I will most certainly be quoting some showtunes. Stay tuned.