Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor
Last of the Californios. Written and illustrated by Harry W. Crosby. Edited by Richard F. Pourade. Copley Books, 1981. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 196 pages. $22.50.
Reviewed by Ray Brandes, Ph.D., Dean, School of Graduate and Continuing Education, University of San Diego; author of San Diego: An Illustrated History, Rosebud Books (1981).
The Last of the Californios may have been intended as an historical work, but this third book by Harry Crosby emerges every bit as much as an ethnographic study. It is an intriguing work as the author, at his best, contrasts and compares – weaving the past and the present at the descriptive level.
Throughout the study, Crosby reminds the reader that the Indians of Lower California were in very large part supplanted by Hispanics and Mestizos, and that the makeup and character of Baja Californians in the mountain regions of which he writes, are entirely different from that of other peoples in urban areas or on the mainland today.
To set the scene, Crosby at times switches to the Spanish period and back to the present in flashbacks which are sometimes hard to follow, but the heart of the text is marvelous. His relationships with the mountain people are not those of the journalist who enters a region for a week, returns with his briefcase and is saluted as an authority. He prepared well for this study over a period of 15 years and the observations, the questions, and the photos are penetrating enough to reflect a very real understanding of this culture.
That the mountain people kept Hispanic traits is evident by Crosby’s method of tracking the families, for he followed the recruitment of men from Sinaloa, Tepic and Compostela to Lower California from generation to generation. He ascribes the customs of an earlier time as a result of the “older Jesuit militance and discipline,” and then traces how these people received land and burst out of the indentured servitude stage.
When the Jesuits were expelled by the orders of 1767, the Franciscans brought a “great wave of new faces” including soldiers and officials – the educated and experienced non-Californios who were Spanish and Creole.
Then the Dominicans arrived to replace the Franciscans in 1773, the latter moving into Alta California (reference to Peveril Meigs’ remarkable work on the Dominicans is missing) and José de Gálvez, the visitador-general, stirred aspirations for change in both the Californias.
But the introduction of diseases and a greater population struggling over the same amount of subsistence caused a decline in the Indian population. Then the “gente de razon” continued to come into the barren peninsula – the soldiers who retired there, or who returned to Lower California and received land grants.
By 1850 the patterns had emerged that would reflect today’s settlements, the settlers occupying the “better” areas which reflected the change and attitude of the government of Mexico. At the same time the distance from the central seat of government, the lack of local government, and the distances from the church changed attitudes and a dependency on outside influences brought to these rugged individualists dogged determination and independence.
While Crosby made good use of the primary documents to get from the past to the present, he is at his best when he describes the current way of life. All primitive society children learn early responsibility as a part of the survival process. Names are likened to the Jesuit past; marriages were kept within the near family since outsiders rarely came to the settlements. The relationship of the elderly to the young was significant and important. The settlers were not affected by television, radio or the exterior world. They have no fears. There is no traffic or noise and there is a great reflection of personal identity. In this region the persons are supportive of one another.
What emerges then is a people who are not largely Indian from Baja California, but persons from the mainland and foreigners. The mountain areas reflect a localized culture least affected by the outside world. There is an isolation which leads to self-reliance, a lifestyle in the landscape of a hard and desolate country.
The tragedy is what may be lost within the next decade or two. There has been independence in attitudes, a self-reliance, and a concern for reputation, personal identity, and a strong regard for the family.
The transpeninsular highway will affect these people in a variety of ways. More and more outsiders are encroaching on their lands to see the history and prehistory of Lower California. This contact cannot help but break down the self-image which these people now have. Will they begin to feel that they should compare themselves and their way of life to what the outsiders have? Will they begin to feel that they are poor and unworthy? By the turn of the century the answers to those questions should be sadly clear.