By Aya Elamroussi, Special to the AFRO
When you hear or read about California, do you think of a Black woman ruling one of America’s largest states? You probably don’t since every governor of the Golden State has been a White man.
The name “California” has ancient Spanish roots that can be traced back to the 1500s, well before America’s founding. The name first appeared in a Spanish fictional chivalric romance novel titled Las sergas de Esplandián, or The Adventures of Esplandián, by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo published in 1510.
“It is known that to the right of the Indies there exists an island called California very near the terrestrial paradise; and peopled by Black women among whom there was not a single man since they lived in the way of the Amazons. They had beautiful robust bodies, spirited courage and great strength,” a translation of Montalvo’s work describes.
At that time, people thought California was an island, not a peninsula. Hernan Cortes, a Spanish conquistador, was fascinated by the novel and set out to find the land Montalvo wrote about. When he arrived to what is known today as Baja California, he believed he arrived in Califia’s land and called it California.
Montalvo also wrote that California was ruled by Queen Califia, who was “a queen of majestic proportions, more beautiful than all others, and in the very vigor of her womanhood. She was not petite, nor blond, nor golden-haired. She was large, and black as the ace of clubs.”
Instead of a beautiful Black queen, California’s current seal features a classical Roman mythology figure, Minerva– who was believed to be the goddess of wisdom. Tamra L. Dicus is fighting to change that.
“This Virginia confederate soldier basically decided to create this great seal in the state of California, and then he erased and whitewashed it (the seal),” Dicus told The AFRO.
Even though “California” is Queen Califia’s namesake, there is no representation of that on the state’s seal or flag. “You don’t see anything that pertains to Black women at all,” Dicus said.
Gen. Robert S. Garnet, a Confederate leader, designed the seal, the Los Angeles Herald reported in October 1910. But the seal wasn’t submitted for approval under his name. Garnet didn’t want to be known as the seal designer, according to the LA Herald. He submitted the seal under the name Caleb Lyon, who was a northerner politician at that time, the LA Herald wrote.
“To right a wrong,” Dicus founded the online project Cali Is Me, to educate people about the origin California’s name and the seal. She even designed her version of what a “historically accurate” California seal should look like. “I’ve been using it as my political mark,” she said.