Captain Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo and his men had been sailing in uncharted waters for nearly three months, exploring the coast of what Hernán Cortés initially believed was a large island off the northwest coast of Mexico. In 1539, three years before Cabrillo’s voyage, the infamous conqueror of the Aztecs had sent an underling, the hapless Francisco de Ulloa, to explore the body of water he would duly name the Sea of Cortés. Ulloa sent back reports confirming that the island wasn’t an island but in fact a peninsula. Then his ship disappeared without a trace. Cabrillo was then commissioned by Don Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy of New Spain, to follow the western coast of Baja California northward in hopes of finding the Pacific end of the fabled Strait of Anián, thought to connect the two great oceans, thus shortening the distance between the riches of Asia and the coffers of Sevilla. On August 20, 1542, Cabrillo’s ships reached Punta Baja, the northern limit of Ulloa’s expedition; by mid-November they were sailing back south near present-day San Francisco, having explored as far north as the Russian River, near Bodega Bay. Cabrillo had broken his arm, and the autumn waves pounded his tiny, poorly-built vessels. He sought shelter in Carmel Bay on the night of November 18. The ship’s diary for that day reads:
All the coast run this day is very bold; the sea has a heavy swell, and the coast is very high. There are mountains which reach the sky, and the sea beats upon them. When sailing along near the land, it seems as if the mountains would fall upon the ships. They are covered with snow to the summit, and [the crew] named them the Sierras Nevadas.
The “snow-capped mountains” would become a blanket term for the interior mountain ranges of California, and later for just the chain running down the eastern side of the state. When the western part of Utah Territory broke away at the start of the Civil War, the new territory named itself after the mountains on its western border; Nevada became the 36th state on October 31, 1864.
Any Nevadan — any native, Anglo Nevadan — will readily tell you how to mispronounce her state’s name: the first A is pronounced like the A in apple. It’s Ne-VAD-duh, duh! Governor Sandoval, a Mexican American, went so far as to text John Kasich a caveat about the pronunciation issue ahead of the Ohio governor’s visit with Clark County Republicans last year. “He just texted me today to say it’s Ne-VAD-duh, not Nev-AH-da,” Kasich told reporters. First Lady Michelle Obama and former President George W. Bush have both used the Spanish pronunciation at their peril. When brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida, opened a campaign speech in Reno in May 2015 using the original pronounciation, the crowd was quick to correct him. The fallen former anchor of NBC Nightly News, Brian Williams, dedicated a short segment to issue an apology to Nevadans for mistakenly using the original pronunciation instead of the newer one.
Now Donald Trump, the fascist faux-billionaire bigot running for president on the Republican ticket, has added his name to the long list of people who can’t correctly whitewash a state’s history.
Discussing the rising number of drug overdoses in the state, Trump repeatedly used the Ne-VAH-da pronunciation in front of Reno audience last week and even insisted he had it right. “Ne-VAH-da. And you know what I said? I said, when I came out here, I said, nobody says it the other way. It has to be Ne-VAH-da, right?” Trump told the crowd, which quickly shouted back the correct mispronunciation, but to no avail. “And if you don’t say it correctly — and it didn’t happen to me, happened to a friend of mine, he was killed.” Harry Reid, the outgoing senior senator from Ne-VAD-duh and Democratic minority leader, fired off a tweet blasting the Republican nominee for not knowing enough Anglo-Spanish. “If Trump wants to come down from the penthouse his daddy bought him to lecture us on Nevada, he could at least pronounce it correctly,” Reid tweeted.
For the record, Trump did pronounce the state’s name correctly, but when Nevadans mispronounce the name for over a century, the mispronunciation becomes the correct pronunciation. Trump, thinking he had it right, actually had it wrong, but turned out to be right in his wrongness. It’s pronounced Ne-VAH-da, as the Spaniards who first gave it that name would’ve pronounced it. And how do we know they would’ve pronounced it that way? Because, lucky for us, there are still tens of millions of people walking the earth who speak that dead language the Anglos know as “Spanish.” In fact, three-quarters of a million Latinos live in the state of Nevada itself, comprising a full 28 percent of the state’s population, making Ne-VAH-da the fifth most Latino state in the country percentage-wise.
I accept that Mexico will never regain the other half of its land which was stolen by the United States in 1848 to make way for a continental empire. Tejas, Nuevo México, Arizonac, California, Nevada, Yuta and Colorado won’t be returned any sooner than Guantánamo Bay is returned to Cuba or Puerto Rico is granted independence. But I’m not going to sit idly by while Anglo Americans lecture everybody on the proper pronunciation of Spanish words. No way, Joseph. Especially not during Latino Heritage Month. They’ve kept the land, kept the names, and stripped the Latinos who lived there of their rights and dignity. Now they want to pretend as though Nevada was never Spanish, never Mexican. The push to make the Anglicized names the only official ones is merely an effort to deny a theft occurred. If Nevadans have to start saying Ne-VAH-da, then they might have to start accepting that the land they’re so proud of once belonged to Mexicans who were just as proud of it. (And the Mexicans stole it from the Paiute, the Washoe and the Shoshone, who were even prouder.)
White America, the brown peoples of this great continent have given you their lands; leave them their names!
Featured image: Sierra Nevada mountains (Public Domain)