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The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Fifth Edition
Paul Lauter, General Editor

Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton

The life and writings of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton—the first known Mexican American to write two novels in English—demonstrate the historical contradictions of Mexican American identity. Born in 1832 to an elite, land-holding family in Loreto, Baja California, Mexico, she died destitute in Chicago in 1895. She witnessed the 1846 U.S. invasion of La Paz, Baja California, at the start of the Mexican War; and three years later she married the captain of the invading army, Henry S. Burton, a West Point graduate from Connecticut. She attended the 1861 inauguration of President Lincoln and successfully petitioned him to promote Burton to the rank of colonel; but after the Civil War she had private talks with Varina Davis, wife of the Confederacy's ex-president, and the two women denounced the Yankees. Fluent in English and Spanish, she penned copious letters, wrote a play based on the Spanish classic Don Quixote and two novels that openly critiqued northeastern materialism and portrayed California's land-holding Mexicans as a genteel, white population wrongfully displaced in the United States by racism and corrupt politics. No wonder it took over one hundred years for her life and novels to emerge from obscurity—they challenge traditional American and Mexican American literary histories.

When the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) ended the Mexican War, the United States gained upper California, along with extensive southwestern territory, but left lower (Baja) California to Mexico. Captain Burton arranged to have over four hundred friendly Mexicans transported north to Monterey, California, granting them full rights of U.S. citizenship as guaranteed by the treaty. María was one of those who made the trip. By most accounts, she and the captain were in love. She was Catholic and he Protestant, and their marriage seemed to signal a happy union between California's Mexican land-holding gentry, known as californios, and the upstart Yankee invaders. In 1852, the Burtons moved to San Diego. Henry took command of the army post there and purchased property on Rancho Jamul, a large Mexican land grant that would figure heavily in María's later misfortunes. While she raised their daughter Nellie and two years later gave birth to son Henry Halleck, she and her husband enjoyed an aristocratic way of life.

The Civil War brought an end to the Burtons' California romance. The family moved east in 1859, living in Rhode Island, New York, Washington, D.C., and Virginia. While Burton's war heroics were winning him a promotion to the rank of brigadier general, she was taking in Yankee culture with a skeptical eye. "And it is also necessary that you come for a visit, to stay a winter in Washington and see what a great humbug is this Yankie [sic] nation," she wrote to her friend and fellow californio, Mariano G. Vallejo; "A humbug so methodical and well supported that they even almost believe it." Her stay in the East lasted a decade; in 1869 she returned to California a widowed mother of two after General Burton died of malarial fever. The "Maid of Monterey," as she was once remembered in a romantic California ballad, spent the rest of her life fighting the realities of economic hardship, unscrupulous land litigation, and the social dislocation that had already devastated many californios.

She returned to find parts of her Rancho Jamul property sold off to pay her husband's debts; she also found fifteen American squatters, each claiming a 160-acre homestead on the Jamul property. In 1851, Congress had passed the California Land Act, which, contrary to the 1848 treaty, considered all Mexican land grants public domain and available for resettlement until a federal Land Commission could verify the legitimacy of land titles. Verification required long legal battles that forced Ruiz de Burton and other californios to mortgage their land to lawyers and judges to pay the legal fees needed to confirm their titles. At one point, Ruiz de Burton wrote her own legal briefs because she could not afford a lawyer. An enterprising woman, she planted castor beans on the rancho, considered using it for a water reservoir, and started a short-lived cement company, all to generate income beyond the meager widow's pension she was receiving from the U.S. government. Rival claimants to Jamul kept the title tied up in court long after Ruiz de Burton's death. She never regained the Jamul property and even discovered she never had rights to a tract in Ensenada that she had inherited from her grandfather.

Her personal experiences, legal frustrations, and financial straihts led her to a literary career. In 1872, she published Who Would Have Thought It?, a biting satire of northeastern culture based in part on her ten-year stay on the east coast. Set during the Civil War and Reconstruction but including significant events in the Southwest during the Mexican War, the novel—published in Philadelphia—exposes Yankee hypocrisy and the shortcomings of liberal democracy. While Lola Medina, a wealthy Mexican American born in Indian captivity, faces the overt racism of her adopted New England family, the novel's narrator provides a critique of unprincipled Yankee politics. Yet Who Would Have Thought It? challenges the Northeast's anglocentrism, not by disputing it but by insisting that upper-class Mexicans should be recognized as white. "[I]t happens that this child has no more Indian or Negro blood than you or I have," Lola's adoptive father explains to his family; she is white.

Ruiz de Burton's second novel, The Squatter and the Don (1885), turns on the same challenge. In the selection reprinted in the book, the aristocratic Don Mariano proposes a plan that rests on cheap Indian labor to benefit himself and the Anglo squatters who have settled on his ranch. The scene exhibits the novel's reliance on racial and ethnic caricature. It features genteel white Mexicans; vulgar and myopic Anglo squatters; sympathetic, business-minded Yankees; a younger generation of settlers whose attraction to the Don's daughters provides the novel's hope for social reconciliation, and nameless Indian laborers whose presence reminds us that a colonial hierarchy existed in California long before the arrival of American squatters. Although the novel reflects Ruiz de Burton's legal troubles with squatters on Rancho Jamul, its strongest critique is directed at the corruption of the U.S. government, which it traces to the confluence of capitalism and democracy. Squatters and californios alike fall victim to railroad barons who bribe state legislators for control of California property. Even the romance between Mercedes Alamar, the Don's daughter, and Clarence Darrell, a squatter's son, cannot prevent both families from being displaced from their homesteads. Their marriage signals a happy ending for the lovers but does not stop the railroad magnates—Stanford, Huntington, Crocker, and Hopkins—from profiting from California land at the expense of both Anglos and californios.

Ruiz de Burton works within many established literary traditions. She follows the historical romance tradition set by contemporary British, French, Spanish, and Mexican writers, but she also incorporates American modes of realism and naturalism later made popular by writers such as Theodore Dreiser and Frank Norris. As a Mexican American female novelist, however, her identity remained marginal. She published her first novel as "Mrs. Henry S. Burton" and her second one anonymously as "C. Loyal," an abbreviated form of Ciudadano Leal, "Loyal Citizen," a conventional method of closing official letters in nineteenth-century Mexico that Ruiz de Burton uses ironically to demonstrate her Mexican loyalties and signal her criticism of the corruption of American political ideals. She covers themes central to Mexican American history—Anglo-Mexican cultural clashes, disputes over land, and problems of racial identity—but values aristocratic californios, who have more in common with their Anglo counterparts than with working-class Mexican Americans. Her novels thus complicate history by leveling scathing critiques of U.S. colonialism not because it excludes californios, dispossessing them of their land and livelihood, but because it does not view them as white and extend class mobility to them.

Jesse Alemán
University of New Mexico

In the Heath Anthology
from The Squatter and the Don
      Chapter 5: "The Don in His Broad Acres" (1885)

Other Works

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A Brief Overview of Mexican-American History
Chronology of Mexican-American history, including Ruiz de Burton's contribution therein.

Secondary Sources

Jesse Alemán, "Novelizing National Discourses: History, Romance, and the Law in The Squatter and the Don," Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, eds. María Herrera-Sobek and Virginia Sanchez Korrel, 2000

José F. Aranda Jr., "Contradictory Impulses: María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Resistance Theory, and the Politics of Chicano/a Studies," American Literature 70 (1998):551-79

Kathleen Crawford, "María Amparo Ruiz de Burton: The General's Wife," Journal of San Diego History 30.3 (1984):198-211

John M. González, "Romancing Hegemony: Constructing Racialized Citizenship in María Amparo Ruiz de Buron's The Squatter and the Don," Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage, eds. Erlinda Gonzáles-Berry and Chuck Tatum, 1996

Amelia María de la Luz Montes, " María Amparo Ruiz de Burton Negotiates American Literary Politics and Culture," Challenging Boundaries: Gender and Periodization, eds. Joyce W. Warren and Margaret Dickie, 2000

Frederick Bryant Oden, "The Maid of Monterey, The Life of María Amaparo Ruiz de Burton, 1832-1895," MA Thesis, University of California, San Diego, 1992