Luther Burbank is embedded into the right side of the mural. He's the man down on his knees inspecting a plant. In Frida's portrait of the same man, which I discussed in a previous blog, Burbank is front and center. Frida's portrait places Luther Burbank out in nature with no clear connection to industry. Instead, the artist pays homage to a man whose grafting experiments led to more varieties of fruits, vegetables, and trees. In Diego's mural, Burbank is one of many who have had an impact on California's economy.
It's interesting to reflect on what each artist chooses to emphasize about California. Life and death are expressed in both, but in very different ways, both visually and metaphorically. Also, only Diego's mural references Calafia, a black woman warrior who ruled over a Queendom of black women on the mythic island of California. Apparently, Diego was familiar with this queen, yet he made his allegorical female figure white. Not only would Diego have read about the origins of California, but he would have seen Maynard Dixon and Frank Von Sloan's 1926 seven foot mural at The Mark Hopkins Hotel in San Francisco (seen above). Dixon and Von Sloan's mural depicts the Queen and two of her warriors as dark-skinned women. The question remains: why did Diego Rivera paint California's queen as white? Do you think he changed her skin color to appease the predominantly white stock traders who would have seen her on their way to the luncheon room?
How many Californians know the origin of the word California? It is believed to come from Garci Rodriguez de Montalvo's book The Adventures of Esplandian, c. 1500. This fictionalized account of Queen Calafia describes her as a courageous and strong queen who wore armour made out of gold. This pagan queen commands a fleet of ships and she uses griffins, fantastical winged creatures, as aerial weaponry. When she meets Radiaro, a Moslem warrior, he convinces her to join him in retaking Constantinople from the Christian armies. In the end, they lose this battle and Calafia is imprisoned. She eventually converts to Christianity and marries Talanque, a Christian knight. They return to the island of California and establish a new dynasty comprised of Christian men and women. The word Calafia is thought to derive from both the Arabic word Khalifa, translated as "Religious/State leader," and the Spanish word Califa, translated as leader or successor. The word is either spelled Calafia or Califia.
The Spanish conquistador, Hernan Cortés, read Montalvo's book. When landing in Baja, Cortes exclaimed to his crew that they had arrived in Califia's land. Three-hundred crew members were of African descent, including Juan Garrido, the second-in-command. From this point on, Califia and California were used to describe this area along the entire Pacific Coast. Since it was controlled by Spain, the Spanish-speaking people were referred to as Californios. By 1770, the area was officially known as California.
© Celia S. Stahr 2014
For more information on the origin of California, refer to: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymology_of_California