María Amparo Ruiz de Burton and the Conquered Californios: An Interview With Meagan Meylor

Meagan Meylor, “California Nerves: Health, Disability, and Whiteness in The Squatter and the Don,” Texas Studies in Literature and Language 62.3 (2020): 297-317. Interview conducted by Megan Marshall and Laura Franco

The Sierra de San Francisco mountain range in Baja California, Mexico, 2013

María Amparo Ruiz de Burton (1832-1895) has been deemed the first Mexican-American author. How might her status as a bilingual woman have affected the way she wrote The Squatter and the Don?

While we might group Squatter with other nineteenth-century California novels (e.g. John Rolland Ridge’s Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murrieta and Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona), Ruiz de Burton’s status as a bilingual female author stood out to literary scholars in the 1990s. Re-positioning the novel as an early Chicana text, this “recovery effort” influenced critics to consider the author “the first Latina to claim a name for herself in the literary world” (Ilan Stavans).

María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, 1895

More recently, critics have troubled the novel’s reputation as progressive. While fictionalizing her own experiences as a Mexican-American woman living during this period, we should keep in mind her position as an aristocratic Californio writing to garner sympathy from a particular audience: genteel, English-speaking Americans. For that reason, I see her as a vexed transnational figure.

How should we understand her decision to publish both of her novels anonymously, using the respective aliases of H.S. Burton and C. Loyal?

During a graduate seminar, I learned that her pseudonym C. Loyal stood for “Loyal Citizen.” Although typical of nineteenth-century Mexican correspondence, the signature still raised the question: loyal to which country? Although Ruiz de Burton was born into a landed family in Baja California, she met her husband, Henry S. Burton, during the U.S. capture of La Paz. When the Mexican-American War ended, she encouraged Californios to move to Alta California to obtain citizenship via the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.

After these attempts and her scandalous marriage, she was widely viewed as a traitor by Mexico. As an aristocrat herself and wife to a well-connected military figure, Ruiz de Burton remained “loyal” to the U.S. while also advocating for her community. Today, we can easily speculate about what motivated her to substitute her gender/ethnic identity for an anonymous one.

Frontispiece of The Squatter and The Don (1885 Edition)

With the death of her husband, Ruiz de Burton was widowed for 37 years, a period that included extended legal battles. What was the relationship between her personal hardships and her decision to write about Mexican-American struggles?

As “Spanish land grants” were being re-distributed to Anglo settlers through legal loopholes, Californios like herself desperately hoped to draw attention to their bleak situation. As a fictionalized autobiography, Ruiz de Burton used the popular genres of historical romance and literary naturalism to vocalize her perceived discrimination as a “conquered Californian.” 

However, the novel is not simply a document of her personal hardships. The text also serves to make a broader statement about the status of Californios as white Americans deserving more attention and support from the American government.

Lands ceded to the U.S. through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

She grew up in a Catholic family. Could you trace the role religion played in her life and writing?

I haven’t researched the role religion played in her day-to-day life following her scandalous marriage to a Yankee Protestant and their subsequent move to Monterey. However, I have spent time thinking about how her novel enlarges the booster narrative historian Carey McWilliams once called the “Spanish fantasy past.”

During the novel’s more sentimental moments, Ruiz de Burton describes a mythic landscape: idyll rancho lifestyles in a curative, citrus-scented Meditteranean climate. Without any overt religious messages, the novel urges her audience to fight for what’s left of this particular California, a myth with origins in the Mission period.

Catholic temple, El Señor de Tila, Mexico, 2020

While emphasizing identity politics and property rights, Ruiz de Burton also emphasizes romance. What would this narrative be like without its romantic plotline?

The romantic plotline follows two symbolic lovers: Clarence (Anglo) and Mercedes (Mexican-American). The inter-marriage between the two land-owning families resolves any racial conflict between the two groups. In other words, Ruiz de Burton subordinates the racial issues of the period in order to highlight the “real” problem: Congress’s unfair application of laws, allowing railroad companies to expand rapidly at the cost of Californio disenfranchisement.

Without its sentimental storyline, The Squatter would be overwhelmed by the shifting racial landscape mentioned above. Furthermore, the political message alone would have been too didactic for her readers. At the time, Ruiz de Burton hoped her love story would emotionally move her audience to action. 

A scene from the Battle of Monterrey, led by General Zachary Taylor and General William J. Worth, during the Mexican-American War, 1855

Say you’re recommending The Squatter and the Don to those interested in or studying Latin American literature: how do you sell it?

Unless you are a lover of romance novels, you may not instantly reach for this 400-page book. And, I have to admit, some of the legal chapters are pretty dull. However, as a student of California literature, I became interested in how the novel offers us a rare glimpse into a watershed historical moment, a transitional period writer D.J. Waldie has helped me understand: “The substitutions underway in the Americanization of Southern California…included fixed categories of ethnic and racial identity in place of the more fluid identities possible in pre-American California” (Becoming Los Angeles 32).

Squatter takes its readers on a strange but illuminating ride through this often-forgotten moment in our regional history. While I’ve critiqued the novel for its assimilationist narrative, I don’t mean to suggest we shouldn’t read it. On the contrary, I believe it is essential reading, helping us understand the racial tropes, fictions, and scripts (both white and non-white) underpinning popular narratives about California and the U.S. more broadly.

Relatives and friends wave goodbye to a train of people being expelled back to Mexico, California, 1931

It has been over a century since Ruiz de Burton passed, and racialized argumentation continues to be part of nationalistic discourse. Were she to compare the Mexican-American experience of her time to today, how might she respond?

Because of her assimilationist tendencies, it’s difficult to assume she would be sensitive to the needs of the entire Mexican-American community. However, it’s impossible to deny her passionate political spirit. I’d hope that, if she were alive today, she would broaden her activism to advocate for working-class Mexicans and other communities of color – not just the privileged or elite.

Mexican train to San Antonio, Texas, 1872-1876

In The Squatter and the Don, Ruiz de Burton marginalizes Native Americans and working-class Mexicans. Given that the struggles of many 19th century Mexican-Americans had undeniable parallels with the struggles of Native Americans (including displacement, stolen land, and assimilation), what should we make of this occlusion?

In my article, I suggest that Ruiz de Burton disarticulates Californios from working-class Mexicans and Native Americans throughout the novel. Unfortunately, she relies on racist stereotypes (or “racial scripts”) about these groups in order to position her Californio characters as white. When reading the novel through a “relational lens,” we can notice how the Californio characters are “made white” via the racialization of other ethnic groups.

Put simply: Ruiz de Burton’s novel privileges property rights over human rights, making one final attempt to slide Californios into the quickly congealing category of whiteness.

Celebración después del partido de México vs Alemania del mundial de futbol, 2018

You argue that Ruiz de Burton had to choose between two identities and that she ultimately left behind her “mixed race, indigenous heritage” in favor of “assimilationist policies that grant them the property of whiteness.” How is this decision reflected in her writing?

To make this substitution legible, Ruiz de Burton transposes popular rhetoric about the Civil War onto the Mexican-American War, as if to say: “Hey, don’t forget this war and what it has done to potentially honorable citizens, like the Californios!” In other words, she draws comparisons between the disabled and/or injured white Southerners and her marginalized Californios. As I trace in my article, she attempts to render them white via physical disability, illness, and/or a vague sense of fragility.

Effacing any racial distinctions, Ruiz de Burton presents both groups as white citizens in need of federal support and rehabilitation. In the process, the novel relies upon the racist stereotyping of ethnic Mexicans and Native Americans.

Original Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, from the Library of Congress; last page of Treaty, with signatures and seals

How do the identity and political struggles of Mexican-Americans today differ from the struggles of Mexican-Americans presented by Ruiz de Burton? And in what way or ways are they the same?

As Latinx studies scholar Natalia Molina explains in her seminal book How Race is Made in America, “Mexicans have been considered legally white and eligible for naturalization since the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848” (23). Nevertheless, while upper-class Mexicans like Ruiz de Burton tried to protect their land via claims to whiteness and citizenship, mixed-race and working-class Mexicans were still culturally marginalized and exposed to racial violence. Thus, Squatter offers insight into the early years of Mexican-American racialization.

In the decades following Ruiz de Burton’s death, these “racial scripts” surrounding Mexican-Americans as “other” were solidified through discursive and legal practices. As Molina puts it, Mexicans entered an “immigration regime” during the 1920s-1960s in which they were racialized, excluded from citizenship, and pushed into a “state of being deportable” (How Race is Made 108). In our contemporary moment, we are witnessing a “new immigration regime” in which the specter of deportability and (il)legality has forced thousands into a state of precarity.

Mexican-American cantaloupe pickers in the field, California, 1935

The Squatter and the Don is often presented as a historical romance. Given what you’ve discovered in your research, and discussed in this interview, how might we extend or clarify that description?

While most scholars consider Burton a sentimental romancer, much of the rhetoric of illness and injury that we see in The Squatter resembles that of literary naturalism. Thus, we can think of her novel as not simply escapist or nostalgic. Her use of literary naturalist devices, including fated/determined events – and illness and infirmity affecting an entire population – provides her with space to critique the “real” yet indifferent social environment her characters struggle against.

Mexicans entering the United States at an immigration station, El Paso, Texas, 1938

What are you currently working on?

As a Ph.D. candidate in the English department at the University of Southern California (USC), I’m currently working on my dissertation, which explores the literary history of nature in Los Angeles. Writing at the intersection of creative non-fiction and literary criticism, I consider how we have metaphorized the climate – and how these metaphors are fracturing in the face of climate change. I’m also teaching an undergraduate class called “Elemental L.A.,” encouraging my students to spend more time walking, witnessing, and thinking about “nature” in Los Angeles.

Smog and air pollution in downtown Los Angeles, 2007