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."