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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Masculine Heroes Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton (c. 1832-1895)

[7359] Fanny F. Palmer, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1868), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-3757].

Maria Amparo Ruiz was born into an aristocratic Latino family on the Baja peninsula in Mexico. Her grandfather, Don Jose Manuel Ruiz, owned a vast tract of land around Ensenada and served as the governor of Baja. The family’s control of the area came to an end during the Mexican-American War (1845-48), when the American army occupied Baja and forced the surrender of its citizens. It was during this period that Maria Ruiz met Captain Henry S. Burton, an army officer from New England, and began a romantic relationship with him. At the close of the war, she took advantage of the terms of the Treaty of Guadelupe-Hidalgo to move to Alta California with her mother, where the two became American citizens. In 1849, Maria Ruiz married Henry Burton in Monterey, California. Embarking on a new life within a social circle made up of both native Latino Californio landholders and Anglos, she soon mastered the English language and gained a reputation for her beauty and her air of “true aristocracy,” as one admirer put it. In 1853, the Burtons purchased the Jamul Ranch, a large parcel of land near San Diego, solidifying their position within California society.

In 1859, Henry Burton received military orders to return east and the family moved to the Atlantic coast. He was soon promoted, first to major and then to brigadier-general in the Union Army. Her husband’s high-ranking position within the army enabled Ruiz de Burton to circulate in elite East Coast society and to see the inner workings of U.S. political and military life first-hand, experiences she would later draw upon in her novels. Henry Burton died of malarial fever in 1869, leaving Ruiz de Burton a thirty-seven-year-old widow with two children.

Ruiz de Burton returned to California after her husband’s death, undertaking a variety of land and business ventures in an attempt to secure her family’s financial situation. She started a cement plant, a commercial-scale castor bean factory, and a water reservoir on her Jamul property, but turned little profit through these enterprises. Ruiz de Burton also found herself involved in a number of complicated legal battles over land titles, attempting both to safeguard her legal right to the Jamul Ranch and to claim her grandfather’s Ensenada tract in Baja. When she died in Chicago, she was in the midst of raising political and financial support for her claim to the Mexican land.

Despite her financial and legal entanglements, Ruiz de Burton found time to begin a literary career in the 1870s, publishing two novels for an English-speaking audience. Both books critique the dominant Anglo society and express Ruiz de Burton’s resentment over the discrimination and racism experienced by many Latinos residing within the United States. Her first novel, Who Would Have Thought It? (1872), which denounces what she viewed as the hypocritical sanctimoniousness of New England culture, was published anonymously, probably because its biting satire of Congregationalist religion, of abolitionism, and even of President Lincoln made it controversial. In 1885, Ruiz de Burton turned her attention to the situation in California in The Squatter and the Don, a fictional account of the land struggles experienced by many Californio families after U.S. annexation. The book is a historical novel about the relationship between Mercedes Alamar, the beautiful daughter of an aristocratic Californio family, and Clarence Darrell, an American who is affiliated with the Anglo squatters trying to claim the Alamar family’s land. Chronicling the demise of the feudal Spanish rancho system in California, the novel questions whether the imposition of American monopoly capitalism (depicted in a scathing critique of the railroad industry) is an improvement over the old way of life. Because Ruiz de Burton writes from the perspective of the conquered Californio population, her work serves as an important corrective to Anglo writers’ often celebratory, imperialist narratives of western expansion. Although Ruiz de Burton’s work is not free from racist stereotypes–she portrays poor white squatters, Jews, African Americans, Indians, and the Chinese in racist terms–it does provide a unique perspective on crucial issues of race, class, gender, and power in nineteenth-century America.

Teaching Tips

  • The Squatter and the Don was originally published under the pseudonym “C. Loyal,” shorthand for the term “Cuidado Leal” (Loyal Citizen), a conventional closing used in official government correspondence in nineteenth-century Mexico. Ask students to think about why Ruiz de Burton might have adopted this pen name. How does it resonate with her novel’s critique of American political structures? Does this pseudonym suggest that she continued to see herself as a Mexican citizen even after her decision to become an American? Or was she reformulating the Mexican ideal of “loyal citizenship” within an American context?
  • Ruiz de Burton wrote and published both of her novels in English even though many of her central characters were Latino. Given this information, ask students to consider what kind of audience Ruiz de Burton envisioned for her novels. To whom was she addressing her critiques of American society? Why might she have chosen this audience? How did she work to make her stories and her political points appealing to English-speaking readers?

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: What is a “squatter”? What is a “Don”? Who is the novel’s hero and what qualities does he embody?
  2. Comprehension: What kinds of discrimination do the resident Californios face in The Squatter and the Don? How do the squatters jeopardize their claims to their ranches? What kinds of tactics do the Californios adopt in their efforts to maintain their land?
  3. Context: How does Ruiz de Burton portray the railroad industry in The Squatter and the Don? How do the railroad monopolies impact the San Diego community in the novel? What does the railroad come to symbolize in the novel?
  4. Context: Both Ruiz de Burton’s The Squatter and the Don and Helen Hunt Jackson’s Ramona are sentimental novels about ethnically diverse people living in the rapidly changing culture of nineteenth-century California. (See Unit 7 for an explanation and discussion of the sentimental novel.) How do these two texts share similar concerns? How are they different? How do their portraits of Native American characters compare? How does their treatment of interracial marriage compare?

Selected Archive Items

[1891] Rand McNally and Co., New and Enlarged Scale Railroad and County Map of California Showing Every Railroad Station and Post Office in the State (1883),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division [LC Railroad maps, 189].
The expansion of railroads plays a key role in the overturning of Californio culture in Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s novel The Squatter and the Don. Later maps like this one redefined territory through industrial transportation, political units, and government communications outposts, guiding investment and commerce.

[5240] Helen Hunt Jackson, Ramona manuscript page (c. 1883),
courtesy of Colorado College, Tutt Library Special Collections.
Jackson wrote Ramona hoping that the novel would call attention to the mistreatment of California’s Indians much as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin had to the plight of slaves.

[5761] N. Currier, The Battle of Sacramento (1847),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-1966].
Americans charge against Mexicans during the battle near Rancho Sacramento, just north of Chihuahua, Mexico, on February 28, 1847. The heroism of the American soldiers contrasts with the limpness of the Mexican forces and reflects American biases.

[6856] Oriana Day, Mission San Gabriel Arcangel [Oil on canvas 20 x 30 in.] (late 19th century),
courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; gift of Mrs. Eleanor Martin, 37556.
As Ruiz de Burton makes clear, Mexican society was well established in California before the era of the Gold Rush. Missions often maintained large herds of cattle to provide their residents with a reliable source of meat.

[7264] William S. Smith, The New Ship “Mechanic’s Own,” Built for the Mechanics’ Mining Association by Messrs. Bishop & Simonson, Sailed from New York, Augt. 14th, 1849, for California (1849),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-114923].
Ships like the Mechanic’s Own provided the crucial link between the United States and the western territories of California and Oregon. Writers such as Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, John Rollin Ridge, and Louise Amelia Smith Clappe wrote of the arrival of Euro-Americans in what had been Mexican American territory.

[7359] Fanny F. Palmer, Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (1868),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZC2-3757].
Less than two years after the Gold Rush began, San Francisco had become a sprawling boom town that drew people from all over the world. This illustration shows both a busy city and a very active harbor crowded with ships.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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