The name — to echo our politicians for a moment — of the Great State of California was invented in the early 1500’s by a Spanish author named García Ordóñez de Montalvo. This fictional California was an island off the coast of Asia; the setting for his popular “gentlemen’s novel” Las Sergas de Esplandián (pub. 1510). As in modern-day rap videos, Montalvo’s California was populated exclusively by nubile black women possessed of “beautiful and robust bodies” who wield lots of gold weapons and accessories. It’s name combined the exotic concept of a middle eastern caliphate (خلافة) with, rather unsubtly, sexual gratification (-fornia). “En toda la isla,” he wrote, “no había otro metal que el oro!” (“On all the island there was no other metal than gold!”).
The Island of California (1638)
It was such fabulous rumors of gold — and of similarly inclined women — that drove Spanish explorers Hernán Cortés and Francisco de Ulloa to sail the western edge of the American continent in 1530. The Viceroyalty of New Spain planned to find (and loot) what it hoped would be the Seven Cities of Cibola. In a PR move equal to modern venture capital, the Viceroyalty optimistically named the land it found after the island in Montalvo’s then-familiar book. California, now our “Golden State,” is the only US state whose name derives from fiction.
And so it began: California as the provider of fables and fictions for the Western world. Westward migrations came in waves: gold rushes, a great drought, and so many individual dreams. Each changed the complexion of the state. Through it all, the usual folks managed to hold power, and Hollywood told their stories. Those tales rendered each decade mostly in white, and always in English. But California’s future, like the fantasy that gave it birth, promises, finally, to be a fabulous tale told in Spanish.
Today, on the streets of the Mission District in San Francisco (the epicenter, if you will, of America’s food culture, and an export factory for hipster trends), the State name has evolved. Various neologisms, each rich with meaning, and with factional adherents, challenge the past and predict the future of the state: “Mexifornia”, “Calexico”, “Amexica”, and, above all, a celebrated new meta-region emblazoned on t-shirts, graffiti-muraled walls, and flung, often, like a challenge: “Califaztlán.”
Califaztlán is a portmanteau in the literal sense, packed with meanings and syllables. The idea is that a pre-Colombian Aztec(ish) empire had encompassed what is now California, Arizona, Texas, and México. Tlán is the Aztec-language word for “place of,” and the usual suffix of Aztec city names. “Califaztlán” packs in the idea that present-day northward migration of Mexican culture, itself a mix of the Spanish and pre-Columbian, is accomplishing a re-colonization the United States.
The far — and it has been alleged, race-baiting — political right originally came up with the words “Mexifornia” and “Amexica” in an attempt to entrance listeners, in the way Nancy Grace might with stories of an innocent girl’s kidnap and murder. But Californians have made carne asada out of red talk-radio meat, embracing the x-words and featuring them on menus, clothing, cocktails, and in everyday conversation. (As earlier gay activists did to defuse terms like “queer”) The newfound banality of, say, “Mexifornia,” is encouraging the more fabulous constructions like Califaztlán and the handier “Aztlán” — both too high-concept a mouthful to rile the God-and-guns set. So right-wing pundits have fallen back, of late, to another odd-sounding name that also packages immediacy, geography, and listener-fear in a few neat syllables: NAFTA.
It is this inexorability of free movement that scares (or delights). Imbalances no longer hold up the way they used to. The mechanisms of information have become too accessible, fluid, transparent. And so into the controlled vacuum of the North, a delicious chaos rushes in. The social internet reveals much, and informs the otherwise excluded. It offers alternatives to the tropes that have flowed from media formula-factories. Real people appear on YouTube and Facebook, living real lives. They now appear on the other and long-curated screens: coupled, well-adjusted gays; unaccented latinos; blacks that do not so oddly live in Brooklyn Heights or Bel-Air. (And, the downside: exploitative scripted-“reality” shows that conflate new transparency and old stereotypes.)
The fact is that the energy of California that is now, to be charitable to its traditional custodians, at least bi-lingual, radiates in every color. The transparency we have achieved (technologically, socially) has made that impossible to hide, and so, difficult to misrepresent. The team that won this years World Series is as much Los Gigantes as The San Francisco Giants, Los Niners (as they are known here) seem poised to win the nation’s Super Bowl. The state’s nearly $2 trillion annual economy accounts for about 13 percent of US the economic activity. And 75% of California’s infants are non-white.
As anyone with a catalytic converter might realize, there is, by now, some acknowledgement that what happens in California is inevitable for the rest of the nation. And so we see the national rush to include those who, in California, are already included. The elite who plan to thrive in the new United States are leading the charge. In other groups, we see the resolve to entrench, to resist: the ex-New Yorker McMansion retirement communities of Arizona; the patrician networks of Boston; Wall Street; those for whom aspirational and racial are linked. There is, of course, no future in such isolationism. But these groups don’t care. They hope to preserve wealth and privilege for their expected life, and they underestimate the speed of change.
In the meantime, the West roars ahead with advances in culture, technology, automotives, music, medicine, politics, film, cuisine, and, above all, social structure. The Califaztlán, if you will, of the future is not multicultural — that old saw of a term that meant static groups co-existing in harmony — but rather a single fast-moving culture-liquid into which various traditions flow. African-American Oaklanders may not speak Spanish (yet), but they unconsciously roll the ‘r’ in taquería as, well, everyone will. Asian mayors have become common. Gay shibboleths are out of closet and on late-night comedy shows.
The fluidity of this cultural recombination amounts to real intellectual capital, and it contributes the the quirky innovations that characterize the west coast: internet startups, self-driving electric cars, a dazzling culinary scene.
The traditional economy used to be dictated by financial capital. It took lots of money to get a random idea built into a product/service/movie, and then lots more marketing money to bombard people with ads to get them to buy the often lousy result. (This is the system that gave us the processed food of the 1990s, AOL, and Donald Trump.)
Financial centers in New York and Boston pushed this scheme to ever more exotic abstractions, products became utterly divorced from utility, until finally, the finance system itself imploded in 2008. Today, product launches are modest, sales and social media say yay-or-nay, and failures are caught early. The West Coast is used to this model — they’ve been producing software for decades. And people here are poised to create products and set the trends for a changing American demographic. They are living in the place where demography already changed. Ideas spring from a culture with less bias and more meritocracy. Yes, some initial money is necessary, so crowdsourced alternatives like Kickstarter are steping in, kicking the traditional moneymen out of the innovation temple.
For all the marvelous glitter of the West, much of it also turns out to be gold. There is an energy and and magic to life out here, as perhaps there always has been. It seems obvious, as it did to Cortés and Ulloa, that the future, the treasure, and the best of life will be here — whatever you call the land. And it is, at last, spreading East.