The first novel composed in English by a Mexican-American writer, The Squatter and the Don is to the Chicano/a literary movement a magisterial accomplishment, a must-read historical fiction about the blue-eyed Mexican aristocratic families who remained in the United States after — and were marginalized by the lackluster upholding of — the Guadalupe-Hidalgo Treaty that ended the war with Mexico.
The author, María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, sets her novel 30 or so years after the signing of the treaty in 1848, in the fledgling southern Californian town of San Diego (maybe you've heard of it?), home to the regal Mexican-American Alamar family. The Alamares are not the Mexicans you've encountered in western books and movies set at this time period: They are light-skinned, vigilantly polite and cosmopolitan. They hire French tutors for their children, and when they honeymoon in San Francisco, they attend operas in Italian. They sit in the box seats.
Don Mariano Alamar, the family's magnanimously open-minded patriarch, represents the last in a line of a family of Mexican aristocrats and the end of the now-forgotten era of dignified southern California rancho culture. It's no coincidence that "Alamar" sounds so much like "Alamo."
In their introduction, Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita invite us to read Ruiz de Burton's work on two levels, first as a piece of historical fiction, second as a traditional American romance. This is a smart move.
Here's why: The romance/adventure component of The Squatter and the Don is absolutely unmasterful. It is predictable, many of its (white) characters' motivations are unexplored, and — this is what had me retching — the anguished banter between the lovers is trite and maudlin. "Did you not say our wedding had better be postponed? And does that not mean that it may never, never be?" Clarence asks. His intended, the ravishing Mercedes, affirms her love, and he continues, "My own, my sweet wife. Oh! how dearly I love you! The strength of my love makes my heart ache."
Clarence's heart aches, and my stomach turns.
For all their talk about approaching this book "doubly," I suspect that Sánchez and Pita too are underwhelmed by Ruiz de Burton's invocation of American romantic conventions, although they do take advantage of the opportunity to compliment the author's use of an American literary tradition to not-so-favorably depict American cultural/political traditions — you know, you use the master's tools to dismantle the master's house, etc. Anyway, they devote 47 of the 48 pages in their introduction to The Squatter and the Don's utility as a history lesson and, in their words, an "acerbic critique" of the forces that solidified the Anglo-American foothold in southern California — at the expense of the "native" Spanish-speaking population.
Sánchez and Burton concoct several nifty charts which "schematize" the cultural and communal forces/tensions at play between the various characters in the novel. These tensions come to a head in the last third of the book, when Ruiz de Burton shifts focus from the Mexican-American/Anglo-American (don/squatter) dichotomy to the more nuanced struggle between the Mexican-American and Anglo-American San Diego residents, and the corrupt muckety-muck politicians who from their Washington, D.C., offices block the expansion of the railroad to San Diego, a development upon which both the dons and the squatters had depended.
That Ruiz de Burton intended her book to serve as a history lesson — or as a correction to history lessons that were already in the 1880s depicting as glorious the Anglo-American annexation of the savage California bush — is not debatable.
She subtitles the book A Novel Descriptive of Contemporary Occurrences in California and gives a few of the chapters overtly historical-political names like "Chapter II: The Don's View of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo," "Chapter XVI: Spanish Land Grants Viewed Retrospectively," "Chapter XXXII: A False Friend Sent to Deceive the Southerners" and, my personal favorite, "Chapter XXXIV: The Sins of Our Legislators!" I've read other postbellum novels with similar political projects (Margaret Mitchell's stellar Gone With the Wind comes to mind) but never have I encountered a fiction that so bluntly skewers the legislators who fueled or were complicit with the laws that crippled communities that had the misfortune to fall below the Mason-Dixon line.
The final chapters of the book, in which the narrator and her characters both summon Herbert Spencer's and Thomas Carlyle's arguments in support of acting morally rather than selfishly, read less and less like a novel, more and more like a manifesto.
The voices of the characters who have been wronged by unjust federal legislation merge with the voice of Ruiz de Burton's vastly omniscient narrator until, in the final chapter, which is titled only "Conclusion", there is no mention of Don Mariano, or of Clarence and Mercedes Darrell. There is only the author's political and ethical condemnation of an America that allowed a greedy powerful few to drag into muddy poverty the whole of the hard-working well-educated Spanish-American Californian many.
Despite its imperfect (I'm being generous) literary style, I find The Squatter and the Don easy to endorse, particularly for its treatment of the so-called Mexican-American experience. My recommendation: Pay close attention to the introduction, revel in the speeches to and about the politicians who were bribed into opposing the expansion of the Texas-Pacific Railroad, and keep the Pepto-Bismol handy whenever Clarence and Mercedes are alone in a room together.