Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Defending Eden: New Mexican Pioneers in Southern California 1830-1890. By Joyce Carter Vickery. Riverside: Department of History, University of California, Riverside and the Riverside Museum Press, 1977. Bibliography. Illustrations. Maps. Appendices. 130 pages.
Reviewed by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Assistant Professor of Mexican American Studies, San Diego State University.
In 1843 José Antonio Martínez de la Rosa and Lorenzo Trujillo led a colonizing expedition of 18 families from Abiquiu, New Mexico to the San Bernardino Valley, California. The new settlers were Genízaros, Hispanicized and detribalized Indians, long accustomed to a precarious and combative life on the desert frontiers. Near the present day city of Riverside, on opposite sides of the Santa Ana River, they founded the two villages of La Placita and Agua Mansa. Together they were known as the San Salvador pueblo. Defending Eden is about the 19th century history of this Mexican community. Based on material gathered in conjunction with a Riverside Municipal Museum exhibition, the book tells of the struggles of these hardy pioneers as they confronted Indians, outlaws, land speculators and Anglo American farmers.
Vickery has succeeded in integrating the local history of this small settlement with a broader social history of California and the Southwest. There is a detailed discussion of how San Salvador was affected by the Mexican War, Anglo American immigration, and the economic transformation of the San Bernardino Valley. After 1880 the residents of Agua Mansa and La Placita were forced to give up stock raising and became wage laborers. Younger families left the village because of a lack of employment. Eventually the suburbs and farms of nearby Riverside swallowed up the community. Although San Salvador no longer exists, Vickery finds that their culture has continued in the values of the present day population. Individual responsibility, family loyalty and personal courage are still important to San Bernardino Mexican Americans.
Giving more attention to the conflicts between the Mexican American settlers and the Anglo American community, especially in the years after 1860, would have made this book a more realistic history. Local newspapers frequently reported lynchings of Mexican Americans by Anglos. The last ones in the San Bernardino area were of Francisco Torres and Jesus Cuen in the 1890’s but these were not mentioned in the book. It is hard to believe that the San Salvador settlers were unaware of what was happening to the Spanish speaking in Southern California and the Southwest during this period. A discussion of the relations of the pobladores with outlying Mexican immigrant communities would have strengthened the author’s discussion of the persistence of the Hispanic culture. But these are more problems of emphasis than of basic scholarship. Vickery admits that the research field is open and relatively untilled. Scholars will find the appendices and bibliography useful in enlarging the topic.
Defending Eden is written in a lively style and well illustrated with maps, photographs and sketches. Overall it is a solid contribution to the social history of the Mexican American.