Think you know where California is? Think again, says a Mexican activist

Mexico City-based foreign correspondent for Los Angeles Times Kate Linthicum, has a new story about a journalist on an unlikely crusade. He wants his home state of Baja California Sur to lop off the Baja, lose the Sur and return to its original name: simply “California,” with no qualifiers.

The exact origin of the name California is long disputed. As Linthicum writes, academic consensus pins the source of our state’s name to a fantastical island in a largely forgotten 16th century Castilian romance novel; another theory posits that the name was derived from the Latin term for hot oven. (The fictional island is described as being “very near to the Terrestrial Paradise” in the book, and the Latin phrase in question is Calida Fornax.)

But one thing is clear: The Mexican state was California before the American state was California.

The entire history of what was called what and when is interesting, and you should read all of it in Linthicum’s story. But the very short, oversimplified version is that Spanish conquistadors with a taste for then-contemporary fiction probably first used the name for the peninsula around 1535, a few decades after the book was published. The whole region was then referred to as California for a long while, before the northern part became Alta California and the southern peninsula Baja California. And then later, just California above the border and Baja California and Baja California Sur below the border.

For Cuauhtemoc Morgan Hernandez, the Mexican journalist behind the longshot campaign, it feels like a historic injustice that the name of California alone is now claimed by the 31st U.S. state.

“It is by no means a mass movement, but Morgan’s idea is gaining traction. That is because the battle, it turns out, is about much more than just a name,” Linthicum writes.

“It’s a fight to recuperate our identity,” Morgan told her. “If we lose the name California, we lose our history.”

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