The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1985, Volume 31, Number 3
Thomas Scharf, Managing Editor

Book Notes

Chicanos in California: A History of Mexican Americans in California. By Albert Camarillo. San Francisco: Boyd and Fraser, 1984. Bibliographic Essay. Illustrations. Index. 128 Pages. $4.95 Paperback. 

Reviewed by Jeffrey M. Garcilazo, lecturer on Chicano History at the Department of Mexican American Studies, San Diego State University.

Few recent historical works on Chicanos can be found that are not prefaced with a reference to the projected increase in the number of California Chicanos by the turn of the century; Chicanos in California is no exception-nor should it be, Chicanos have played no small part in the social, economic, and political development of California. It is both fitting and timely that the Golden State Series include a sophisticated view of Chicanos in their histories of California.

In this brief but fairly thorough work, Professor Albert Camarillo offers a good understanding of the more important processes in Chicano history. At the outset, however, one is struck by the surprising absence of even a general discussion of the indigenous inhabitants of California prior to the Spanish arrival. This short monograph refers to the indigenous population after Spanish colonization and then only peripherally. For a work based largely on secondary materials, one might at least expect a cursory discussion of the pre-colonial period commonly dismissed among historians as prehistory.


Although the organization of this book is chronological, the allocation of space predictably reflects the author’s strength and weakness. For example, the first chapter “The Foundations of Mexican California: 1769-1848,” a period of roughly eighty years, is discussed only briefly within eleven pages. The following chapter covers only fifty years and is discussed at length in eighteen pages. Clearly the scant attention given to the precolonial, colonial, and Mexican eras is far outweighed by the scope and quality of attention offered to the half century following the Mexican American War. This weakness is perhaps redeemed by the quality of scholarship on the latter period. This period most closely reflects Professor Camarillo’s important previous work, Chicanos in a Changing Society.

The author provides noteworthy discussions of the lives of women and ex-neophytes, which is too often neglected in works dealing with Spanish and Mexican California. Moreover, while the myth of the “Fantasy Heritage” initially challenged by Carey McWilliams has long been exploded, the new history of the Chicano quantifiers, most notably by Professor Camarillo and Richard Griswold Del Castillo, has exposed an abundance of detailed information regarding the lives of those who make up the bulk of society. By utilizing quantitative methods in conjunction with more traditional methods of historical inquiry, these historians have contributed tremendously to our knowledge about peoples, lives between the years 1848 and 1900. This was a period of Chicano history once thought lost by many historians. Not unlike the landmark work of Stephen Thernstrom’s Poverty and Progress, these pioneers on Chicano history are redefining 19th century California history “from the bottom up.”

In the remaining chapters Camarillo carefully illustrates the important processes of change which have impacted the lives of California Chicanos from the turn of the century to the present. Particularly interesting is the analysis offered in the Epilogue on “Mexican Americans in the 1980’s.” Here he discusses demographic growth, immigration, education, employment, and upward mobility. Indeed one of the most important basic underlying issues addressed by Professor Camarillo in this short survey is Chicano social mobility and assimilation. While the author is cautious not to clearly align himself with any specific theory of social inequality, he does weakly recognize that “History seems to have set Chicanos’ trajectory in American society on a different course, certainly one more analogous to most blacks, Indians, and some Asians than to white Europeans.”

While this work tends to focus primarily on the Los Angeles area, there is important information included about other areas with lesser concentrations of Chicanos. Among some of the other more important areas discussed are San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and San Diego. Also, the brevity of the book and the lack of original research will undoubtedly frustrate the serious scholar. However, undergraduates and casual readers of both California and local history should find it useful and informative.