The Squatter and the Don.
By María Amparo Ruiz de Burton. Eds. Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita. Houston: Arte Publico Press, 1992. 381 pages. Paperback $14.00. Buy this book.
Reviewed by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Professor of Mexican American Studies, San Diego State University and author of The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict, 1990, The Los Angeles Barrio, 1980, and Familia: Chicano Urban Families in the Southwest 1848-present, 1984.
The republication of this 1885 historical novel inaugurates the Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, an effort to locate and publish forgotten literary works produced by Hispanics. The University of Houston along with the Rockefeller Foundation are assembling a team of scholars to make U.S. Hispanic literary history accessible to the general reader.
With a scholarly introduction, this nineteenth century romance is an excellent example of the richness of this heritage. This novel was written by María Amparo Ruiz de Burton who was born in Baja California and married to an American military officer. She lived in San Diego prior to the Civil War and purchased Jamul Rancho from Pío Pico. After her husband’s death in 1969 she fought to keep her land despite litigation by squatters. She won her law suits only after a long struggle.
The novel is based on her own experience as well as that of her Californio friends, most of whom lost their lands to squatters. The plot is that of a Victorian romance. The family of Don Mariano Alamar are faced with the same kinds of problems as María knew in real life: the labyrinth of litigation in the courts, the lawlessness of the squatters, the rapaciousness of the lawyers and legislators, the cultural conflicts between Anglos and Mexicans. The real villains in the book are the unprincipled maneuvers of the big businesses to acquire land, much in the way portrayed by Frank Norris in his book The Octopus. Indeed this novel might well be compared to another written by a nineteenth-century woman: Ramona, by Helen Hunt Jackson. Like Ramona, The Squatter and the Don tells of the tragic passage of the old order in the face of the new. What is different is that María Amparo Ruiz de Burton narrates with the authentic voice of a Mexican land owner. Similar to the Ramona novel, Ruiz de Burton complicates the stereotypes of ethnicites by giving different cultural groups personalities, moral ambiguities, and romantic attachments to each other.
The Squatter and the Don was one of two novels written by this remarkable woman. It was probably the first novel written by a women in San Diego; it was most certainly the first novel written in English by a Mexican American. For this reason it is a singular document of San Diego’s and California’s literary history.
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