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An Alhambran's tales of The Alhambra

The earth outside the window is the color of a leather sandal. Endless rolling hills sprouting potatoes and peppers crawl into the distance, and the faint smell of livestock fills the bus. I am on my way to The Alhambra — not Alhambra, the San Gabriel Valley community that so shaped my adolescence, but its namesake — the sacred Arab palace built in 1237, which sits atop the city of Granada in southern Spain.

La Alhambra in Granada, Spain. Photos by Max Katz.

After five hours of staring at the foreign countryside, I finally realize how far I am from home — 6,000 miles and the sun is beginning to sink behind the brown hills. Before I took this trip in June, I had never stopped to think where Alhambra, our Alhambra, got its name. If there was another part of the world Alhambra echoed, it surely didn’t seem to belong to Europe. The Alhambra I knew was a place of phó, boba, and Chinese elders practicing tai chi.

As a 2011 graduate of Mark Keppel High School, I have been exploring the modern Alhambra for most of my life. I am both Jewish and Nicaraguan, a mix that at first made me an outsider with friends and in school. Alhambra forced me to absorb new cultures, and adjusting helped me find a way into the community. 

On a walk in Downtown Alhambra.

Eventually, I was as much a stitch in the fabric of the city as anybody else I knew: indulging in Valley Boulevard noodle houses, practicing basketball at Almansor Park, and having my first date at the Alhambra Renaissance Theaters. I spent 14 years of my childhood making discoveries. Now I was setting off to make one more in the mountains of Spain.                         The morning after the bus ride I shuffle through the maze of white stucco houses blanketed with red tile roofs, until at last I spot The Alhambra — Arabic for “the red fortress.” I feel the tingle of discovery and thrill of conquest in my stomach, just as I imagine Muhammad I Al-Ahmar, emir of the Moorish Nasrid Dynasty, must have felt after taking power from a Jewish Granada in the early 1200s. (Or maybe it’s all the salted cod I’d eaten).

I walk through a meticulously detailed arch, which resembles hanging rock structures in ancient caves. The palace, with its watchtowers and stone temples, is breathtaking. I marvel at the cobblestone paths and chiseled façades, but I see little resemblance to the San Gabriel Valley city where I spent my youth.

As legend has it, a 10-year-old girl named Ruth is the reason our city shares the name with the one in Spain. It was the late 1800s, and Ruth was entranced by Tales of the Alhambra, Washington Irving's idyllic account of his stay at the Moorish castle earlier in the century. The daughter of wealthy San Gabriel Valley landowner Benjamin D. Wilson, Ruth was struck by similarities between the landscape surrounding the immortal palace and that of the San Gabriel Mountains. She recommended that her father name their land Alhambra — “because it was so romantic.”

Don Benito (as Benjamin's Mexican compadres dubbed him), followed his daughter's advice. In 1874, the land between the Arroyo and Old Mill Wash was named after The Alhambra. One street became Almansor (a powerful Arabic military leader), and another Granada. Main Street was christened Boabdil (the last Arab King before the Catholics claimed The Alhambra in 1492), but was changed in 1902 because people couldn’t pronounce it.

At The Alhambra, I feel the tension of being the outsider again. I don’t look like the people of Granada, nor do I share their cultural traditions and history. But as I stare out from the watchtower into Granada, I think about how both Alhambras have evolved, how they have developed layers of meaning beyond what their founders could have imagined. I remember that I know how to adjust, to integrate. I feel a surge of tranquility; I’m really not that far from home.

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