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Opinion: Exploring the Transformation of a Moroccan Pirate Queen into the ‘Spirit of California’

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From a Diego Rivera mural hidden within the City Club of San Francisco emerges a powerful figure known as the ‘Spirit of California’. This depiction, titled “The Allegory of California”, showcases a woman surrounded by working men and symbols of progress, offering a glimpse into California’s past beyond the Gold Rush.

The central character in the mural draws inspiration from “The Adventures of Esplandián”, a 16th-century novel by Castilian author Garci Rodríguez de Montalvo. The protagonist, Queen Calafia, is a fierce Muslim queen from a land of bounty called California, who leads an army of women against the Spanish forces.

Scholars believe that Queen Calafia was based on a real historical figure, Sayyida al Hurra, a Moroccan pirate queen who sought revenge against the Spanish for displacing her family. Al Hurra rose to power in Tétouan, Morocco, becoming a privateer who raided Spanish territories in the Mediterranean alongside figures like Barbarossa.

The parallels between Queen Calafia and Sayyida al Hurra are striking. Both were strong Muslim women who defied Spanish forces on land and sea, only to eventually lose power to external forces. Montalvo’s fictional tale and Al Hurra’s true story intertwine in a narrative of resistance and vengeance.

The story of California’s origin is rooted in European colonization and displacement. Spanish conquerors forcibly Christianized and subjugated indigenous tribes along the West Coast, erasing their histories in favor of a narrative of discovery and progress. The echoes of this violent past are reflected in the mythologies surrounding the state’s name.

The recent resurgence of interest in the figure of Calafia reflects a growing awareness of marginalized histories in American society. Rivera’s portrayal of the Spirit of California, where the once-powerful queen is reduced to a symbol of beauty and progress, resonates with the erasure of feminine and Indigenous power in history.

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Valorie Castellanos Clark, a writer and historian from Los Angeles, delves into the complex narrative of California’s ‘Spirit’ in her forthcoming book “Unruly Figures: Twenty Tales of Rebels, Rulebreakers, and Revolutionaries You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of”. Through her research, she sheds light on the untold stories of resistance and empowerment woven into the fabric of California’s history.

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Many California parents are unaware of the identity of their children’s killer.

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As a parent, the pain of losing a child is unimaginable. The sorrow of not knowing who took away your precious loved one adds another layer of anguish. Unfortunately, this is the reality for many California parents who have lost children to senseless violence.

For me, the memory of my son George, who was tragically shot and killed in 1996, is a constant presence in my life. The unanswered question of who took his life haunts me every day. I am not alone in this heartache; many families in California are left with unresolved cases of homicide, never knowing who was responsible for their child’s death.

The statistics are grim. California’s clearance rate for homicides has been consistently low, hovering near or below 65% for the past decade. This means that more than a third of murders in the state go unsolved, leaving families in a state of limbo, unable to find closure or justice for their loved ones.

As the president of Brady California, an anti-gun violence organization, I have dedicated my life to advocating for justice for victims and their families. But the lack of resolution in so many cases is a stark reality that we must confront.

When a murder goes unsolved, it not only leaves families in a state of turmoil but also perpetuates a cycle of fear and violence in communities. The lack of trust in law enforcement to solve these crimes can lead to further harm as some individuals may feel compelled to take their safety into their own hands, risking further tragedy.

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The impact of unsolved murders is particularly acute in Black and brown communities, where the rates of gun violence are disproportionately high. Research shows that cases involving Black victims are even less likely to be solved, exacerbating the pain and trauma experienced by families in these communities.

Thankfully, there are efforts being made to address this crisis. Governor Gavin Newsom’s announcement of rewards for unsolved murders is a step in the right direction. However, more can and should be done to ensure that families do not have to endure the agony of not knowing who took their loved one’s life.

One such initiative is Assembly Bill 2913, proposed by Assemblymember Mike Gipson, which aims to provide more transparency and justice for families of homicide victims. The bill would create a process for families to request reviews of unsolved cases, offering hope for some closure and accountability.

By solving more homicide cases, we can not only bring justice to victims and their families but also work towards preventing future tragedies. By holding accountable those responsible for illegal firearm sales and addressing the root causes of gun violence, we can create safer communities for all.

As a mother, grandmother, and advocate for gun violence prevention, I carry the weight of my son’s unresolved case with me every day. But I remain hopeful that with continued advocacy and legislative action, we can bring about the change needed to ensure that no parent has to endure the pain of not knowing who took their child’s life.

Together, we can work towards a future free from senseless violence, where every family can find the peace and closure they deserve.

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Mattie Scott is the president of Brady California and the founder of Healing 4 Our Families & Our Nation.

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