Queen Calafia and her entourage arrive at Dunphy Park in Sausalito, in a theatrical production performed on Oct. 3, 2021. (Herman Privette of Photography By Privette)
Editor's Note: The audio version of this piece incorrectly identified Sankofa as a Swahili word. Its origins are with the Akan tribe in Ghana.
Earlier this month, a modest crowd gathered at Dunphy Park in Sausalito to witness the return of a mythical head of state. Dressed in yellow and gold and covered in jewels, Queen Calafia stepped off her boat and onto California soil for the first time in hundreds of years.
The production, staged on Oct. 3 by the Antenna Theater of San Rafael, sought to showcase the rich story that answers a basic question: Where does California get its name?
If you’ve never heard of Queen Calafia, you’re not alone. She was a character in "Las Sergas de Esplandián," an early 16th-century romantic adventure novel written by Spanish author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. In Las Sergas, Calafia was described as a Black warrior queen who ruled the mythical island of California. The island was inhabited only by Black women who lived like amazon warriors. Calafia wore armor made of fish bones, used weapons made of gold and commanded an army of griffins.
Fantastical as that might seem, the novel was so popular in Spain that when conquistadors reached the tip of the Baja Peninsula, they thought they’d found the fabled island of California, and named it accordingly.
The name stuck, but the memory of Calafia largely faded. She has only appeared in popular culture in fits and starts: in a Diego Rivera fresco at the City Club of San Francisco, in a mural at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco hotel and in a Disney California Adventure Park movie, in which she was played by Whoopi Goldberg.
Raylene Gorum, who attended the gathering, lives on a houseboat in Sausalito and said she only found out about Calafia a couple of months ago.
“I found it really intriguing and I really would like to celebrate this part of California history. I think it's the right time.” Gorum said.
During a moment of racial reckoning in the United States, as racist statues are being removed and schools renamed, many here consider Calafia’s story part of a nationwide movement to re-examine and re-tell our nation's history. Among them is Dee Nathaniel, the actress playing the queen herself.
“In the past, women of color, especially Black women, haven't always had the best representation,” she said. “So I think corrective representation is really important because we're looking at the new generation of Black girls and women of color coming up, and it's really important for them to see positive role models.”
Calafia may be a particularly charismatic role model because there just isn’t anyone like her, says Stacey Triplette, a Spanish professor at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg.
“Positive representations of Black people in early modern literature are incredibly rare," she said. "Things like Othello, where it's a very negative, very stereotyped representation, are so much more common. So this Black, beautiful woman is really unique.”
And that’s part of why Nathaniel finds it so exciting to embody Calafia in this production.
“We have an issue with erasure, and when something doesn't fit into the dominant cultural narrative it's erased. I know that history is written by the winners, but if we want a more inclusive society, we need to reach back into history and restore some of what has been lost,” she said.
Calafia also doesn't conform to the normalized gender roles of her time, Triplette added.
“There's not that sort of intellectual framework to talk about what being LGBTQ would be in the medieval and Renaissance period, but you can find a literary character like Calafia who doesn't conform to what their society's notion of femininity or masculinity should be,” Triplette said, alluding to Calafia's profile as a strong leader and warrior.
Regardless of what she represents, the Calafia story is essential knowledge for every Californian, argues Chris Hardman, the Antenna Theater's artistic director.
“It's our origin story. It's like if you've decided not to read Genesis and you were a Christian,” Hardman said.
And he thinks that theater is the right medium to bring that story to life.
“That's what the potential of the theater trick is. It brings the history in and puts it right in front of you, and says, ‘It's live. Deal with it. Get in there, understand this.’ ”
Hardman plans to host more theatrical events that raise awareness about Calafia, including a fantastical archaeological dig for California griffin bones and creating a redesigned California state seal featuring the queen.
All these efforts have one goal: to make Queen Calafia a household name in her own kingdom.
Thanks to Professor Ignacio Navarrete of the UC Berkeley Department of Spanish and Portuguese for reading Las Sergas de Esplandián in this story.