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Queen Califia: California Namesake or Legend?




Detail of ‘Calafia’ mural at the Mark Hopkins Hotel, San Francisco. Public domain photo.

Some poets and professors of medieval literature recognize Queen Califia as a part of California’s early history; a woman who ruled an island nation where gold was the only metal.

She’s been romanticized in the prose of great writers such as Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo, who, in 1500, wrote about a mythical island named California, populated by Black women with “beautiful and robust bodies … without a single man among them” in his novel “Las Sergas de Esplandián” (The Adventures of Esplandián).

Montalvo’s island is named for its queen, Califia. In it, she is described as a Moor and a pagan. Califia’s mission is to develop an army of women warriors. Together, riding on griffins, they join a Muslim battle against Christians defending Constantinople. But the army only meets defeat.

Despite the Amazonian army’s inability to conquer, Queen Califia remains a true legend in the hearts of many. In time, Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés, a fan of romance novels, would name the state of California for the Amazon queen.

According to historian John William Templeton, “Califia is a part of California history, and she also reinforces the fact that when Cortes named this place California, he had 300 Black people with him.”

Templeton served as curator of the Queen Califia exhibit assembled by the African American Historical and Cultural Society Museum in San Francisco in 2004. He described the exhibit as a “part of a larger story that Africans were seen by Europeans as being culturally advanced in the 15th century. Even Columbus had a Black navigator.”

Yet, there are still some who subscribe to the theory claimed in historical documents that California was named for the Latin word Calida Fornax, meaning “hot furnace” or kali forno, an indigenous phrase meaning “high mountains.” The origin of the state’s name being tied to Queen Califia, a Moor, for them is no more than a rumor.

Researchers, however, discovered that “California” was printed in Montalvo’s book prior to Spanish explorers speaking with the indigenous people. Thus the true origin of “California” remains a subject of great debate.

The myth of Queen Califia was once a secret held by poets and some rebels. But this changed during Disneyland’s 2001 renovation. In its California Adventure Park, a mural depicting Califia was painted. Inside the park’s theater, “Golden Dreams,” a brief wide-screen film, presents actress Whoopi Goldberg’s voice as Califia, the queen of California. After this exposure, Queen Califia, for many, became a symbol to the new multicultural California.

Despite the debate over the origin of the name “California,” Queen Califia remains important as a symbol, her spirit echoing in modern-day paintings, sculptures and films.

A seven-foot-high panel of Califia with her Amazons stands at the Mark Hopkins Intercontinental Hotel in San Francisco. A depiction of Califia, “The Naming of California,” graces the fourth floor in the Senate Rules Committee Hearing Chamber in Sacramento.

Califia’s influence remains and cannot be denied.




East Oakland Organizer Needed

The East Oakland Stadium Alliance (EOSA) is seeking an Oakland-based grassroots organizer for a short-term engagement to help grow and mobilize our coalition! Comprised of local businesses, workers, labor organizations, and community members, we are deeply concerned about the Oakland A’s proposal to leave the Coliseum site in East Oakland and build a new stadium at the port. An ideal candidate has on-the-ground campaign field experience, a strong awareness of Oakland and Alameda County political figures, and deep ties to East and West Oakland communities. Being a local resident of Oakland is a plus.

Employment with EOSA is a part-time role and will last for a minimum of four months with an opportunity to extend longer. Transportation and cell phone use would be reimbursed and candidates of color are strongly encouraged to apply.

If interested, please send a cover letter and resume to Emily Penrod, For more info about EOSA, visit our website and check us out on Twitter @AllianceOakland.


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