Classic American literature can sometimes feel as distant in time as it does in style from our 21st century moment. But just as our histories continue to echo into our present, so too do classic texts have a great deal to do with society and culture today. Indeed, many such texts offer vital lessons for thorny contemporary issues and debates. No American book illustrates that point better than María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s historical novel of California in the decades after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, The Squatter and the Don (1885). María Amparo Ruiz was born in 1832 in Baja California, the Mexican region of which her grandfather Jose Manuel Ruiz had previously served as governor. The 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican American War divided California between the two nations. As a result, Burton and her family moved north to Alta, California, settling in Monterey and becoming U.S. citizens (an opportunity the Treaty had granted all Mexicans in the region). Less than a year later, the 17 year old María married prominent U.S. General Henry S. Burton and settled with him in San Diego.
With her debut novel Who Would Have Thought It? (1872), the story of a Mexican American girl raised in Native American captivity, Ruiz de Burton became the first Mexican American author published in English. Who offers a unique take on the collision of cultures and communities that was the American West throughout its history. But it is Ruiz de Burton’s second novel, The Squatter and the Don (1885), published anonymously under the pseudonym “C. Loyal” (short for Ciuadadano Leal/Loyal Citizen) that is truly a must-read for anyone hoping to understand — or govern based on — the history, community, and politics of that region and our nation.
Though Burton and her family had moved to Alta due to the promises of the Treaty, in the subsequent decades she witnessed and experienced the discriminatory and oppressive realities instead. Through laws such as the Land Act of 1851, corporate influences such as powerful railroad monopolies, and most of the illegal but officially supported activities such as settler squatting, Mexican American landowners were consistently forced off of their land. Many had often lived for 100 years or more on this family land. In Squatter, Ruiz de Burton portrays these histories with complexity and nuance, creating Mexican and Anglo families in parallel —led by the two title characters, Mr. William Darrell and Don Mariano Alamar. She creates portraits of the human perspectives and identities on both sides, as well as both the conflicts and the opportunities presented when these communities came together after the treaty.
Yet if her book’s historical romance compellingly plays on those human complexities, her narrator and novel also consistently make a case for social reform, for policies and laws that can recognize the oppressive history of post-treaty Mexican American life and begin to make amends for those wrongs. As with so many American histories, the stories of longstanding Mexican American communities, of the Mexican American war and its aftermaths, and of the relationship of both the Anglo settlement and the U.S. government to those issues are multi-layered and challenging to understand. We can’t even begin to talk legibly or productively about Mexico and the United States, or about Mexican American immigrants and communities in the 21st century, until we include those Mexican American histories in our collective memories and narratives far more fully than we do today. Cultural works such as novels offer a compelling way to connect us with those histories and issues. Ruiz de Burton’s novel was and remains unique as a lens into 19th century Mexican American and American history and identity. As the last election season has proved, those subjects could not be more relevant in our 21st century moment—and thus The Squatter and the Don is a book all 21st century Americans should read.