Finding America’s Conquistador Roots in San Leandro

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Last year, my husband and I were looking to buy a house in the small California city of San Leandro, on the edge of Oakland. Being a historian and a nerd (redundant, I know), I looked into the history of the town and its name. I was surprised, delighted, and eventually horrified to find it rooted in medieval history, and it showed me just how deep-seated America’s racism is in its visions of the Middle Ages.

San Leandro today is a large suburb of less than 90,000 people. Demographically, it is roughly 30% white, 30% Asian, 25% Latinx, 10% Black, and 1% Native American or Native Pacific Islander (the remaining 4% is some combination of unlisted “other” according to the 2010 census). As a town, it feels oddly forgotten. The main drag, East 14th Street, is full of empty storefronts and signs that look like they haven’t changed since the ’60s.

As it turns out, that sense of stagnation has a direct cause in the ’60s. San Leandro, like many other towns built up in California after WWII, had an exclusionary covenant, a local housing policy that prohibited certain racially-defined groups from owning property within the town. The 1948 Supreme Court case Shelley v. Kraemer declared that exclusionary covenants could not be enforced by the state under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection clause, even though individuals could abide by them. It wasn’t until the Great Migration, particularly in the ’60s, when a significant number of Blacks began to settle in California, that San Leandro’s exclusionary covenant was challenged. In 1963, California passed the Rumford Fair Housing Act to end racially discriminatory housing policies, although the act was not an immediate success and received pushback in the following year in the form of Proposition 14. By the 1980s, so-called “white flight” had finally diversified the town, at the expense of its prosperity. The formerly affluent town of the 1960s is now a lower-middle class area in which the biggest employers are the local school district and hospital.

The town’s policies shouldn’t be seen as merely a reflection of racist fervor in the century following the Civil War, though. They have always been a part of the town’s ideology, going back to 1842. Back then, San Leandro was the name of a ranch granted by the Spanish government in Mexico to Jose Joaquin Estudillo, a mid-level government official and soldier, who relocated to the East Bay after his term ended. In the late 1850s, Estudillo’s sons-in-law, John B. Ward and William Heath Davis, joined the ranch with the neighboring Rancho San Antonio, originally granted to Don Luis Maria Peralta in 1820, and laid out the beginnings of the town.

The name San Leandro is an odd reference, uncommon among Spanish toponyms in the US, which often refer to significant Latin saints. St. Leander of Seville was a 6th century Spanish bishop who was credited with converting the Visigothic kings Hermenegild and Reccared to Catholicism from the rival sect of Arian Christianity and participating in the Third Council of Toledo in which Hispania renounced Arianism. St. Leander’s legacy is explicitly as a champion of Catholicism, which puts him in good company as a patron of the Spanish conquest of the New World. As Amy Remensnyder wrote in her 2014 book La Conquistadora: The Virgin Mary at War and Peace in the Old and New Worlds, the Spanish conquest of the New World was a continuation of the Catholic Reconquista of Spain, which ended with the seizure of Muslim Granada and the Inquisition. Saints such as Mary were used as symbols of conquest and conversion, dominating New World Christianity, both in the worship practices of converts and in a landscape dotted with missions, cathedrals, and saintly toponyms. In that narrative, St. Leander is extremely on-the-nose, since he is not merely a Catholic saint, but a Spanish one famous for championing Catholicism among other Christian sects. Naming a ranch for him in the 19th century was symbolic of taming the wilds of California, an act that pushed out the native Ohlone people.

Today, early-medieval Spanish saints have renewed significance for white nationalists worldwide. They represent a period of triumph and martyrdom against uncivilized natives and invading Muslims. The shooter who perpetrated the Christchurch, NZ massacre of March 2019 is one example, as he had written on his gun the name of Charles Martel, eighth-century ruler of medieval Frankia who defeated the forces of the Umayyad Caliphate at the Battle of Tours in 732. Martel in particular has become a symbol of white Christendom standing in the face of an invading Islam, recently invoked by conservative pundits like Eric Zemmour in France and Conrad Black. Their hate may be opportunistically new, but their rhetoric is very old. Heroes and martyrs of early-medieval Spain have been shorthand for Christian ethno-nationalism since San Leandro was founded in the mid-19th century, since the Spanish invaded the New World in 1492, and since the Reconquista began. The longevity of these concepts can often make them seem compelling, but it is only the imagination of the hateful that keeps them alive.

As for modern-day San Leandro, it still has some growing to do. Its name is what it is, and hopefully it is obscure and benign enough that it doesn’t become an issue – there are bigger threats than a 1500- year old reference. Post- Spanish-American War, Spanish toponyms in California have a different significance, as reminders of the whom America stole the land from. Layers on layers of land theft here, marked by legacies of hateful names. For right now, it’s good to honor them by knowing their stories and recognizing when these names come up anew.