Back in the 80’s, I had a long-term per-diem assignment in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The company provided us a rental car with unlimited mileage, so we made good use of it, frequently exploring New Mexico, driving up to Santa Fe and even Taos. Albuquerque is unique geographically. Like Denver, it’s a mile high, but with very different experiences depending on which direction you head out of town. To the east is the Sandia Mountains with their ski slopes, rising yet another several thousand feet above town. That causes sunrise to be really late in Albuquerque. Further east, behind the Sandias, is the little town of Madrid that still looks like a 19th century western town, and has had several films as well as the old episodes of The Lone Ranger, filmed there.
To the southeast is a perfectly flat plateau that reminded me of Kansas with farms everywhere, and, at the edges, 4th of July Canyon, named after the brilliant colors of its autumn leaves, rivaling New Hampshire.
To the south is nothing but empty space including what is probably the largest bird sanctuary in the US at Socorro, where the whooping cranes come for the summer to play in the marshes. It’s so big you have to drive through it on a large dirt road. And further south is the famous White Sands and, eventually, El Paso in the farthest, lonely southwest corner of Texas.
To the west is more desert, and to the north is the even taller Sangre de Christo (Blood of Christ) mountain range with Santa Fe with its artist colony and Taos with its ski resort and famous orthopedic surgeons (to fix up all the skiers after their accidents on the slopes).
That finally brings me to the point of this post about what even native SoCal residents may not know about place names in the Southwest. My wife and I, of course, were used to Spanish names for places like our own San Pascual Valley. We had no idea who the St. Fay was that Santa Fe was named after, but in the park, there was a statue of St. Francis de Assisi, the patron saint of Santa Fe. That didn’t compute, especially because “Fe” could in no way be an abbreviated version of Francis, especially with its feminine designator, so we looked it up. It turns out that the Spanish (or Mexicans) indulged themselves in very long names for the cities they founded. Our English-speaking ancestors tended to massively abbreviate those names to fit them on the maps. Santa Fe’s real name is La Ciudad de Santa Fe de San Francisco de Assisi or The City of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi. We started to look at other familiar names that turned out to be anything but familiar in their original forms. Sacramento for instance is really La Ciudad de Santísimo Sacramento del Cuerpo y Sangre de Cristo, The City of the Most Holly Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. Los Angeles is not exactly the City of Angels, rather it is La Ciudad de la Santa Maria de la Reina de Los Angeles or The City of St. Mary, Queen of the Angels.
San Diego itself may not have such a long name, but it is named after St. Didacus. How do you get San Diego from St. Didacus when Diego after all is James? That’s yet another convoluted story that that follows.
How San Diego Got Its Name
San Diego is not one of those places that has a very long Spanish name, but that isn’t its original Spanish name either. In 1542 Juan Cabrillo sailed into San Diego Bay from Mexico, docked at Ballast Point in Pt. Loma, and proclaimed the bay San Miguel because it was the feast of Michael the Archangel, one of the traditional ways for the Spanish to name places. Actually Cabrillo was Portuguese, but was sailing under the Spanish Crown. That’s why the San Diego Portuguese community celebrates him each year. Cabrillo died on the voyage, but he and his crew sailed all the way up to Oregon (probably) and left journals about what they had found.
It wasn’t until 1579, almost 40 years later, when Francis Drake, sailing for the English went up and down the California coast (somehow missing San Diego), that Spain started to send more expeditions. A number of other ships over the years thereafter sailed north to California, but all seemed to glide right past Cabrillo’s San Miguel–maybe it was dark? By 1602 the Spanish had gotten serious about claiming California and outfitted Sebastian Vizcaino with a well-stocked expedition of 3 ships and a mission to accurately chart all bays, coves, and points of land, and name those that hadn’t already been named. Whether he knew much about Cabrillo’s earlier voyage is not clear, but, 60 years after Cabrillo, he (re)discovered a bay “which ought to be the finest in the entire South Sea…” Impressed with the availability of fresh water, abundant fish, and small game, he went about sounding the depths of the bay and even had a small structure constructed. Since his flagship was named San Diego, and the next feast day was that of San Diego de Alcala, he so named the bay.
Of course that raises the question, “Who was this San Diego de Alcala?” I did hear you ask that, right? Now Diego is usually translated as James, so you might assume he’s St. James the Apostle who is actually the patron saint of Spain. Yes, even countries have patron saints. It’s a Catholic thing. You would be wrong, however. San Diego de Alcala was a Franciscan lay brother who was renowned for being able to cure the sick. He died in 1463, but was not buried. His body never went into rigor mortis and never decayed, and yes, they really say this, continued to emit a pleasant odor. Apparently that was one of his things in life. When he cured the sick, they reported smelling good! Given the bathing habits of the day, that was probably almost as much a miracle as curing someone. So the local Franciscans built a little chapel in his hometown where they left his body on display.
Wait, it gets better. King Henry IV of Castille broke his arm on a hunting trip nearby and went to pray to the dead but saintly friar for a cure. The obliging monks took the saint out of his casket and placed Henry’s arm on the body. Henry was immediately healed (and apparently smelled good).
Many years later in 1562, the wayward son of King Phillip II was wandering back in the dark from some debauchery nearby and fell down a flight of stairs, landing on his head, causing paralysis, a literal swollen head, and eventually a coma. The monks came to the rescue of course and threw the saint’s body in bed with the heir apparent, and he was cured (and smelled good). That seemed enough for Pope Sixtus V, who canonized the saint in 1588. However, the Pope seemingly didn’t want to confuse anybody since there was already a St. James, so he canonized him as St. Didacus. Whoever came up with the name made the dubious claim it was an obscure Latin version of James. You gonna’ argue with the Pope? Didn’t think so.
So now if you visit the Mission de Alcala in Mission Valley, and someone tells you it’s named after St. Didacus, the patron saint of San Diego, you don’t have to look at him crosswise. Just smile (and smell good).
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