The Squatter and The Don

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María Amparo Ruiz de Burton (1832–1895) was the first female Mexican American writer to publish two novels in English in the United States, and while they both feature romances between Mexicans and Americans, her narratives denounce U.S. colonialism and Anglo-American racism. Her writings, which include a play based on Don Quixote, copious letters, and legal briefs written to protect her California land claims, debunk nineteenth-century representations of Mexican Americans as monolingual Spanish speakers at best and illiterate at worst. Yet her genteel historical romances trouble Mexican American literary history, which maintains that folktales and corridos (ballads) mark Chicano/Chicana literature's working-class origins. Ruiz de Burton's critique of racism in the United States prefigures contemporary Chicano/Chicana writings, but her novels also emphasize the whiteness of upper-class Mexican Americans to distinguish them from mestizos and Native or African Americans. With The Squatter and the Don (1885) in particular, Ruiz de Burton narrates the historical and cultural contradictions of becoming Mexican American in the United States.


Born in 1832 in Loreto, Baja California, Mexico, to an elite family, María Amparo Ruiz witnessed the 1847 U.S. invasion of La Paz, Baja California, during the Mexican-American War (1846–1848). Annexation into the Union appealed to Alta and Baja California's landed Mexican gentry, who created a regional identity as "Californios." After several skirmishes, the Baja Californians generally welcomed the occupying army, and in turn the captain of the invading New York Volunteers, Henry Stanton Burton of Connecticut, promised the Mexicans annexation and U.S. citizenship after the war.

When the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ended the war, however, the United States decided to annex Alta California, along with the rest of the present-day Southwest, but leave Baja California to Mexico. So Captain Burton transported over four hundred Mexicans to Monterey, California, and sixteen-year-old María was one of the travelers. She and the captain were in love. Theirs was a romance that embodied the times. He was an invading Yankee officer, a Protestant, and a leading American figure in California; she was a member of a prominent Mexican family, a Catholic, and claimed a large Mexican land grant. Their 1849 marriage symbolized the war's end and promised a happy merger between Yankees and Californios. They moved to San Diego in 1852, where Burton commanded the army post while María raised Nellie, their newborn daughter, and two years later gave birth to Henry Halleck. Burton also bought Rancho Jamul, a large land grant tract granted to California's former Mexican governor, Pío Pico, in 1831. The land grant would figure heavily in Ruiz de Burton's future misfortunes.

With the Civil War looming, the Burtons headed east in 1859 and lived at various times in Rhode Island, New York, Washington, D.C., and Virginia. While Burton earned a promotion to brevet brigadier general in the Union army, María grew skeptical of Yankee culture. On one occasion, she met privately with Varina Davis, the wife of the Confederate president, Jefferson Davis, and they bad-mouthed the Yankees. In 1869 Burton died of malarial fever, and after a decade's absence, María returned to California a widowed mother of two. Far from her halcyon days of the early 1850s, she spent the rest of her life fighting economic hardship, land litigation, and the social displacement that turned many Californios into paupers. She died in 1895, destitute and largely unsuccessful in her legal battles.


Besides the 1848 treaty, several other events fuel Squatter's historical critique. The 1849 California constitution, for instance, recognized Mexican men as white citizens, a marker of racial privilege that recurs throughout the novel. Even before the convention, Californios emphasized their sangre azul, their pure Spanish blood, to distinguish themselves from mestizos, Indians, and blacks. With California's annexation, it seemed Californios would maintain the power they enjoyed under the Mexican rancho system. The 1850 Indenture Act, which many Californios supported, mimicked the rancho system by arresting vagrant mestizos and Indians and hiring them out as indentured servants. That same year, though, Californios felt the sting of the Foreign Miners Tax, which forced a $20 tax on all noncitizens—defined as Mexican, Mexican American, Latin American miners—prospecting in California. It was not long before the 1851 Land Act targeted the tenuous citizenship status of Californios, and by 1855 their dispossession is evident by the passage of the Vagrancy Act, the so-called Greaser Act, which, like the previous Indenture Act, charged a vagrancy fine on displaced Californios that could be paid in cash or through indentured labor.

As power relations shifted during California's annexation, property ownership likewise became contentious, especially with the 1851 Land Law. Contrary to the 1848 treaty, the California Land Act considered all Spanish and Mexican land grants as public domain until the Board of Land Commission validated the title. The act devastated many Californios, for it put the burden of proof on them, opened their land to squatters, and made the titleholder in question responsible for paying property taxes and compensating squatters for improvements they made to the land. If the title was verified, attorneys or squatters appealed it to the Supreme Court in a legal maneuver that allowed squatters to remain on the disputed territory until the issue was settled. The land commission eventually upheld many Mexican land grants in California, but after an average of seventeen years of litigation, Californios mortgaged their property to American businesspeople and lawyers to pay legal fees.

In 1858 the land commission rejected Pío Pico's original claim to Rancho Jamul and ruled that the Mexican land grant was public domain, even though members of Ruiz de Burton's family were living on the property. So when Ruiz de Burton returned to California, she found fifteen squatters on Rancho Jamul, and each of them claimed a 160-acre homestead. She proceeded with the legal battle to remove the squatters, and to raise money she harvested castor beans, started a short-lived cement company, and made plans to build a water reservoir. She even penned a few of her legal briefs to save on lawyer's fees. All to no avail—even after securing a homestead on Jamul, Ruiz de Burton's property claim remained caught in a legal and financial quagmire that was unresolved at the time of her death. It is not surprising, then, that as she turned to a literary career for income, her first novel is a caustic critique of Yankees, and after nearly thirty years of legal battles, her second novel takes on the laws and people bent on displacing and dispossessing Californios.


Ruiz de Burton's first novel, Who Would Have Thought It? (1872) proved too bitter for Yankee tastes. Set during the Civil War, the narrative targets racist abolitionists, materialistic Anglo-Americans, corrupt politicians, and the despotism of the United States' socalled democratic process. Lola Medina, a wealthy Mexican girl born in Indian captivity, encounters Yankee hypocrisy firsthand when Dr. Norval rescues her in the Southwest and brings her to live with his northeastern family. There she experiences their hatred of blacks, Mexicans, and Indians; she withstands the jealousy and greed of Mrs. Norval and her daughters; and she falls victim to a clergyman's seduction plot. The narrative extends the Norval duplicity to the rest of Union: Dr. Norval must leave the country for opposing the Civil War; scheming politicians profit from the war; and government policy, rather than representing the best interest of the people, is dictated by self-interest. In the end, the avarice, trickery, dishonesty, and racism of the United States proves too much for Lola, who reunites with her wealthy family in Mexico, where Julian Norval, her Yankee lover, follows her after the war.

The Squatter and the Don, published under the pen name C. Loyal in 1885, uses the same satirical edge to expose the lie behind the 1851 Land Act. The novel contends that the act violates the 1848 treaty in an attempt to convert California from a largely Mexican agrarian culture to an Anglo-American industrial state. As the narrator sarcastically explains:

"No. 189. An Act to ascertain and settle the private land claims in the State of California," says the book. And by a sad subversion of purposes, all the private land titles became unsettled. It ought to have been said, "An Act to unsettle land titles, and to upset the rights of the Spanish population of the State of California." (P. 84)

The land act is a duplicitous piece of legislation designed to profit Anglo-Americans at the expense of landed Mexican Americans. Eventually, the novel warns, the law will also work against Anglos, and indeed Gasbang and Roper, two unscrupulous squatters, use the law to displace the Mechlins, a Yankee family that purchases a grant from Don Mariano Alamar. Similarly, railroad barons and crooked politicians use the law to displace squatters and Californios from their property. The laws of the land, the novel concludes, represent the best interest of monopoly capitalists and a system of governance dictated more by profit than commonwealth representation. The people of California, Anglos and Mexicans, will forever remain "white slaves" if they do not throw off the shackles of the nation's corporate greed and congressional corruption (p. 344).


Following in the tradition of European, American, and Latin American narratives, however, Squatter masks its historical content through the veneer of romance. The marriage between Clarence Darrell, son of the eponymous squatter, and Mercedes Alamar, daughter of Don Mariano, functions as an imaginary solution to the historical conflict between squatters and Californios. Indeed, internecine romances abound in the narrative as a way of emphasizing the social, economic, racial, and sexual compatibility of Anglos and genteel Mexicans. While Mr. Mechlin merges his northern banking interests with the Don's cultural capital, George Mechlin marries the Don's daughter, Elivra Alamar, and Gabriel Alamar weds Elizabeth Mechlin. In a similar matrimonial double loop, Victoriano Alamar and Alice Darrell enjoy a promising romance against the backdrop of Clarence and Mercedes's courtship.

As Ruiz de Burton's life indicates, marriages between Anglo men and landed Mexican women during the war years merged Yankee and Californio economic and cultural interests. They were marriages of mutual convenience, for the unions gave Anglos access into California's Mexican cultural system while it provided Californios a place in the state's emerging market economy. They were also marriages of colonial compatibility. Before the United States invaded California, Spanish and Mexican colonialisms structured the region's social, economic, and cultural interactions; with California's annexation, the Mexican ruling class worked to make itself compatible with, rather than a victim of, the Yankee invasion. With the squatters symbolic of Anglos, and the Alamares representative of Californios, Ruiz de Burton's novel resolves the historical problem of property rights in California by imagining a happy union between the two competing classes. The narrative is careful to make distinctions, however. Not all Anglo-Americans are alike. The Mechlins, Clarence Darrell, and Darrell's southern mother respect the claims of Californios. Mr. Darrell and his motley crew of squatters are uncouth, openly racist advocates of their so-called squatter's rights. Meanwhile, the Alamares welcome the new social order in California as long as it includes them in the state's new economy. Indeed, even as the novel attacks monopoly capitalism, it clearly advocates class stratification based on laissez-faire capitalism that grants cultured Anglos and Californios equal access to each other and the market.


As an 1885 novel that takes place near the end of Reconstruction, Squatter connects the South and the Southwest to denounce the federal government and monopoly capitalism. While the residual effects of the United States–Mexico War determine the strained relations between squatters and dons, the emergence of corporate capitalism at the end of Reconstruction pits railroad companies and their bribed politicians against squatters, dons, and any other individual who espouses the United States' republican ideals. Thus the reference to "white slaves" at the end of the novel: Ruiz de Burton views the dispossession of Californios after the 1848 treaty as a violation of white rights as iniquitous as the displacement of southern whites after the Civil War.

The proposed Texas-Pacific railroad in the novel, for instance, would link the South to southern California and open markets for both regions devastated by war. Railroad barons and their politicians, however, block the southern railway in favor of the Central Pacific track, one that connects northeastern financial interest with northern California's San Francisco Bay, leaving the South and southern California to face economic disaster and exclusion from transcontinental commerce. The collapse of the Texas-Pacific also highlights how northern economic, political, and cultural power consolidates across the country after the Civil War. The South and the Southwest, two largely agrarian regions that respectively employed black slavery and Indian servitude not only as a mode of economy but also as a measure of white privilege, find themselves equally excluded from the North's control of the nation's governance and economy.

This is the crux of the book's critique and also the irony of its place in American and Mexican American literary history. The novel condemns the dispossession of California's Mexican gentry, yet it also narrates the displacement of Anglo-Americans at the hands of monopoly capitalism and corrupt governance. What begins as a novel about Californio rights ends as a narrative about violated white rights. Californio whiteness thus becomes a way for the novel to include Californios alongside southerners and individual Anglos as victimized white citizens of the federal government and its complicity with capitalism. Squatter challenges U.S. colonialism not because it excludes Californios but because it does not include them in the privileged category of whiteness. Of course, the novel must forget that Indians, blacks, and mestizos stand at the margins of white privilege, as Tish, the Darrell's black servant, and the nameless Indians laborers in the novel indicate.


Squatter performs an indictment of monopoly capitalism, decries the historical displacement of landed Mexican Americans, and through the narrator's ironic tone, undermines American ideals that still circulate. It seemingly espouses the politics of contemporary Chicano/Chicana literary production, which might explain why it was republished before Who Would Have Thought It? under the auspices of the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage project. As Ruiz de Burton's editors, Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita, put it, the book provides a "counter-history of the subaltern, the conquered Californio population" (p. 7). Yet her writings are more complex than contemporary Chicano/Chicana studies allows. Following José F. Aranda's argument in "Contradictory Impulses," Ruiz de Burton is no subaltern, but she obviously challenges American ideology. Even the construction of whiteness in her novels, which is the focus of Ruiz de Burton scholarship, dislodges the usual Anglo-black binary that characterizes American studies while it simultaneously encourages Chicano/Chicana studies to consider how historical context determines the construction of racial and ethnic difference. Ruiz de Burton's writings thus establish an ambivalent pattern of critique and complicity in Mexican American literature that characterizes other recovered texts, such as Adina de Zavala's History and Legends of the Alamo (1917), Miguel Otero's The Real Billy the Kid (1936), and Fabiola Cabeza de Baca Gilbert's We Fed Them Cactus (1954). As with these early Hispanic narratives, Ruiz de Burton's life and work highlight the varied, complex, and multiple experiences of Mexican Americans. Indeed, Ruiz de Burton's writings create a new paradigm for Chicano/Chicana literary scholarship, one that recognizes how history determines the color of ethnic critique.

See alsoMexican Revolution


Primary Works

Ruiz de Burton, María Amparo. 1885. The Squatter and the Don. Edited and with an introduction by Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita. 2nd ed. Houston: Arte Público, 1997.

Ruiz de Burton, María Amparo. 1872. Who Would Have Thought It? Edited by Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita. Houston: Arte Público, 1995.

Secondary Works

Alemán, Jesse. "Historical Amnesia and the Vanishing Mestiza: The Problem of Race in The Squatter and the Don and Ramona." Aztlán 27, no. 1 (2002): 59–93. Compares the construction of race in the two California historical romances.

Aranda, José F., Jr. "Contradictory Impulses: María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Resistance Theory, and the Politics of Chicano/a Studies." American Literature 70, no. 3 (1998): 551–579. Ruiz de Burton's life and work challenge readings of her as a proto-Chicana writer.

Crawford, Kathleen. "María Amparo Ruiz de Burton: The General's Wife." Journal of San Diego History 30, no. 3 (1984): 198–211. A brief, informative biography of Ruiz de Burton.

Goldman, Anne E. Continental Divides: Revisioning American Literature. New York: Palgrave, 2000. Discusses Ruiz de Burton's novels as regional and transnational literature.

Haas, Lisbeth. Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769–1936. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995. History of the shifting ethnic identities in California.

Montes, Amelia María de la Luz, and Anne Elizabeth Goldman, eds. María Amparo Ruiz de Burton: Critical and Pedagogical Perspectives. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. A collection of essays on Ruiz de Burton's life and writings.

Jesse Alemán

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