For Aztlán Reads: Gazing East: Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It?

Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton

[This text was written for the new blog, Aztlán Reads, to which I’m excited to have been asked to contribute. The blog post is here. Go ahead, leave a comment.]

Just as there is a presumption that United States history begins in the east and moves to the west against a savage frontier, so is there a presumption that this expansion was an inevitable and ultimate good. Even now, to connect western expansion with race slavery and Native American genocide is to write against the “official” versions of Californian and southwestern history. María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s nineteenth century novel Who Would Have Thought It? writes against these assumptions and makes the connection between United States imperialism and issues of race clear, as her novel’s trajectory connects the U.S. west to the east, and the north to the south.

Published in Philadelphia in 1872, Ruiz de Burton’s work is the first known novel by a Mexican American. Yet the claiming of Who Would Have Thought It? as an early Chicana/o novel lays bare more than one history of racism and resistance to the existing United States black / white binary. Writing this satirical novel, Ruiz de Burton attempts to reclaim whiteness for her own class of Californios by exposing the racist hypocrisy of the northeastern white elite. In doing so, she expresses sympathy with southern slave holding, seems to agree with the stereotypes of crudeness and vulgarity expressed about the Irish in the northeast, reinforces racist stereotypes about African and Native Americans and ridicules the position of abolitionists as little more than hypocrites. Spanish colonial Mexico becomes, in the process, a utopian space of cosmopolitan civility set against the provincialism of the northeastern bourgeois capitalism.

In her novel Who Would Have Thought It?, as well as her later work The Squatter and the Don, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton writes against this presumed east to west historical trajectory, locating the home space in the southwest (and, in The Squatter and the Don, specifically in California) rather than the New England east. She also names as a cultural point of origin the Mexican south rather than the New England north. Similar to Ruiz de Burton’s own life, the history of the novel’s heroine, the idealized Lola Medina, begins in Mexico at the time of the United States / Mexican War, then migrates to the the United States’ western frontier — first outside then inside of the “civilized” United States — before she finally moves to the supposedly tolerant and civilized northeast. Read as early Chicana novels,6 Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s works offer an insight into nineteenth century perspectives of Anglo Northerners by the early California Chicanos / Mexican Americans.

Ruiz de Burton was in a rare — if not unique — position as a Californio novelist who had spent a significant amount of time as an adult in the eastern United States, to give this largely unheard and unknown viewpoint. Ruiz de Burton’s life, like that of her character Lola, seems itself a study of movement between margins as she negotiated the positions of Mexican, U.S. citizen, Californio and the wife then widow of a Union officer. Though her life was obviously not fiction, it can be fit in with that of a group of fictional characters from the West. Shelley Streeby writes that these characters are the

…sensational representations of the cross-dressed Mexican female soldiers [which] similarly helped to move Mexicans as a group into that magic circle, for the cross-dresser usually crossed back into her feminine role and sometimes even married a U.S. soldier. This may suggest that Mexicans as a group were ‘distinctive but assimilable’ white ethnics rather than racialized non-whites, an idea that is supported by the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which offered citizenship to former Mexican nationals who remained in lands claimed by the United States after the war.

María Amparo Ruiz de Burton was a Mexicana born in 1832 in Baja California where she and her relatives would continue to own property. She moved with her family to Alta California in 1847 when she was a young teenager. Thus, at a young age, María Amparo became a U.S. citizen in 1848 under the provisions of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo when the United States border was moved to make Alta California part of United States territory. The following year, 1849, at the age of seventeen, María Amparo Ruiz further strengthened her ties to the United States by becoming ‘María Ruiz de Burton,’ marrying Colonel Henry S. Burton, whom she had met in 1847 when she was fifteen. Colonel (later General) Burton was a United States Union army officer.9 Because of their marriage, Ruiz de Burton lived in the northeastern U.S. for a number of years during her husband’s Civil War stationing, getting to meet and socialize with both U.S. President Lincoln and Confederate President Jefferson-Davis. In 1869, General Burton died while stationed in Florida. Three years later, in 1872, perhaps in a bid for financial security as she struggled to care for her two children and to re-claim her family’s lands in both Baja and Alta California, Ruiz de Burton then wrote and published her first novel, the satire Who Would Have Thought It?.

Ruiz de Burton’s later novel, the sentimental romance, The Squatter and the Don, published in 1885, is set in California and is more famous in its layered narrative about the –at least in the author’s view– tragic displacement of the aristocratic Spanish land-grant Californios by the newly-wealthy, upstart American settlers from the East, expressing her dismay at the social change brought on by the migration

weight of gold carries the day […] Henceforth, money shall be the sole requisite upon which to base social claims. High culture, talents, good antecedents, accomplishments, all of which are now the veriest trash. Money and nothing but money, became the order of the day.

These “Yankees” who take land and wealth from the Californios by literally “squatting” on it are seen to be vulgar and opportunistic. Similar themes are brought out in Ruiz de Burton’s earlier novel, Who Would Have Thought It? which is set mainly in the northeast, but looks southwest toward Mexico and the western territories as both places of wealth and outposts of gracious civilization. It is a parody constructed with elements of several different nineteenth century popular fiction genres — and ironically mocking of each of them — while it also points out and ridicules the ignorance of the “educated” Northeast about the racial diversity of Mexicans and, by association, the Californios.

María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s novel, Who Would Have Thought It? (her first of two) was first published anonymously in 1872 by J.B. Lipincott Press. Though published anonymously, the text’s copyright was always held by “Mrs. Henry Burton.” Letters written at the time indicate Ruiz de Burton was apparently concerned that were her identity as a non-native English speaker known, it would make readers more critical of her text.11 The novel covers a span of close to fifty years, between the early and late- middle nineteenth century. It opens in 1857, as pre-Civil War tensions are rising, but flashes back almost immediately to 1846,12 as the character of Dr. Norval recounts how Doña Therese Medina, the mother of Lola, the protagonist, was kidnapped by Indians from her home in Sonora, Mexico. The novel concludes in the late 1860s, at a moment almost contemporary with its publication. The book’s narrative follows the events of the Civil War and ends in the historical present, following what were, at the time, contemporary political and social events surrounding reconstruction.

By opening her novel in the supposedly civilized and sophisticated northeast on the eve of of the Civil War, but then flashing back to the U.S. / Mexican war, she highlights the shadow created by the decades of conflict and chaos in the west and southwest. This was a period of cultural and social disorder in the United States. The social disorder was caused not only by conflict over slavery, but also by the upheaval created by the imperialism of the United States as it absorbed western lands, wealth and (far more reluctantly) peoples. As the novel’s characters attitudes toward Lola reflect, the United States at this time was struggling with how, or indeed whether, to incorporate former Mexicans citizens — those supposedly now to be considered Mexican Americans or Chicanos — into its body, and trying to determine what their status as “citizens” would be. What Ruiz de Burton’s text reveals is the degree to which it was easy to see the land and wealth claimed under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo, while erasing the people.

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