Calafia: Re-appropriating the Amazon Queen

Well-known Latin American folklore/saints have been presented through the eyes of the colonizer for centuries now. Stories of La Llorona (the bad mother), La Malinche (the traitor) and Santa Maria de Guadalupe (the good mother) have been labeled this way since the time of colonization. However, many Chicana/Xicana academics have reclaimed these images by revealing the complexities of their stories and ridding them of their colonized representation of women. As Gloria Anzaldua put it in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza,

All three are mediators: Guadalupe, the virgin mother who has not abandoned us, la Chingada (Malinche), the raped mother who we have abandoned, and la Llorona, the mother who seeks her lost children and is a combination of the other two. … In part, the true identity of all three has been subverted—Guadalupe to make us docile and enduring, la Chingada to make us ashamed of our Indian side and la Llorona to make us long- suffering people.

Similarly, Alma Lopez’ Our Lady artwork has reclaimed Maria de Guadalupe as a strong mestiza woman with a muscular body and a confident stare.

I’d like to do a similar reclamation of Queen Calafia (or Califia), whose legend is told by Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo’s in his novel Segas de Esplandián (The Exploits of Esplandián)

Written in the early 1500s, at a time when colonization in the Americas was still in its infancy, Segas de Esplandián aimed to “correct” its autonomous and independent women characters, such as the amazon queen, Calafia. In the book, Calafia represents the 16th century European men’s fear of the “other” in the New World.

Calafia was a strong, beautiful Black queen who ruled a society without men. She and her people lived on an island called California (or Califerne in its original text); it was off the coast of what is now known as southern California and Baja California, Mexico.

Californian women were skilled warriors who wore gold armor and tamed wild griffins to serve as their military defense force. They were successful in conquering many neighboring territories and known for their courage, physical strength and ardent hearts (458). Montalvo describes Calafia as a zealous queen who convinced the women of California to join the fight in the war against Christians. In a motivational speech to her people, she explained the repercussions of staying home:

It would be like being buried alive like the living dead and living out the rest of their days like animals … (460).

Once Calafia and her army arrive as allies to the “pagans,” or non-Christian believers, she is appointed commander of all the soldiers—a position of power that would have been inconceivable for Montalvo’s 16th century audience of men. Knowing his readers may be uncomfortable with Calafia’s daunting power, however, Montalvo ultimately has her defeated by the Christians and converted to the religion. Yet it is clear that her only intent on becoming Christian was to marry a man she had fallen in love with. Once she realizes he has been betrothed to another, she marries Talanque, a son of a king. The union between Calafia and Talanque is unrealistic because she did not love him—and besides, it wasn’t customary in Californian culture for women to marry men: Romantic partnerships were mainly between women on the island.

Faced with such powerful women characters, Montalvo then tries to “tame and conquer” Calafia throughout the rest of the novel. He includes many characteristics of colonization that mirror the experience of indigenous people in the Americas. For example, Calafia converts to Christianity, adopts heterosexuality and rejects century-old traditions. It is portrayed as her “choice” to adopt European faith, culture and norms, but as modern-day readers, we know better. Such things were normally violently forced upon various groups of people in America and met with great resistance, yet Montalvo makes Calafia a willing participant.

After Calafia marries, she passes her title as queen to her bodyguard, Liota. She advises Liota that the women of California need to change their ways and accept men back into their society:

You [Liota] shall be my señor, and you shall rule over my state … On account of you, the island will change the style of living … Whereas the island has been isolated form men for many ages, henceforth it will adopt the practice of natural generation of men and women (504).

Prior to this, the relationship between men and women on California Island was virtually non-existent. During battle, Californian warriors would often take men as their prisoners and kill them. Occasionally, the warriors would spare the men’s lives and socialize with them, sometimes resulting in pregnancy. If the warrior bore a girl, she would keep her. Boys were killed. Montalvo explained that California women did this to remain powerful over the minority of men on their island.

The sacrifice of California boys reflects Montalvo’s xenophobia concerning indigenous culture and matriarchy. It’s the epitome of 16th century European misconceptions of various indigenous peoples who were commonly portrayed as being “pagan” or animalistic. His story warns his readers that women’s rule can lead to the eradication of men (almost entirely)—something that certainly made many Spanish men quiver in their boots.

Montalvo also exoctized Calafia’s body and romanticized her characteristics. He describes her as beautiful and strong more than once, “ … in the flower of her youth who was bigger and more beautiful than the other women on the island?” (458). Her beauty was supposed to be like no other found in Europe, therefore making her exotic. During the 16th century, women of color were told that they were “other” and different. Even when a European man such as Montalvo describes Calafia’s dark features as beautiful and uncommon, he justifies her beauty by reminding the reader that prejudice and racism in those days were simply not around. Montalvo wrote,

She was not short, nor white, nor had golden hair. She was huge and black, same as the ace of clubs. But on those days the prejudice of the color of the skin was nonexistent.

Calafia and her people are said to have Muurish ancestry, one maintained by trade with Muurs from Africa. Calafia’s mixed ancestry makes her a perfect figure for the Latina women everywhere: due to colonization and the racism in which it bred, we Mexicans/Chican@s sometimes forget about our African roots. But African ancestry is evident in practically all aspects of Mexican culture: religion, food, music, dance and physical appearance. Calafia reminds us that our histories are intersected, for she is not divided into neat little categories of race. She is Indigenous (Californian or native to the Americas), African (murrish) and Latina/Chicana.

Queen Calafia is a representation of all California women, women of color and women of the LGBTQ community. By recognizing and valuing the original aspects of Calafia’s character: intelligent, thick bodied, lesbian, biracial, a leader, strong and beautiful, her re-appropriation can reverse the colonized gaze of Montalvo. As a result, Calafia becomes a positive image of women, and we reclaim her as the mother of California.

Photo courtesy of Calafia’s Facebook.


Abeni Moreno graduated from Cal State Long Beach with a BA in Women Gender Sexuality Studies in 2013. She is a volunteer radio co-host at KPFK, Kbeach and is a Ms. intern. Follow her on Twitter @abenimoreno8.