The Squatter and the Don I

The title page of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s first novel, Who Would Have Thought It? (1872), omits mention of any author, though Rosaura Sánchez and Beatriz Pita tell us that in the Library of Congress it is listed under Ruiz de Burton’s married name, “H. S. Burton” or “Mrs Henry S. Burton.” No doubt there are good reasons why the first Mexican-American novelist to publish in English–a woman, what is more–should wish to be coy about her identity, not least (Sánchez and Pita point out) because “the novel is a bitingly satirical novel, a caustic parody of the United States during the period of the Civil War” (12). It may have seemed wise to hide behind the protection of anonymity, or at least to stress the author’s association with her husband Burton, an officer in the US Army who had led a detachment of volunteers during the Mexican-American War, and later served as commander of the military garrison at San Diego, just north of the new border drawn between the USA and Mexico in the war’s aftermath.

ruiz-de-burton_squatterThirteen years later, for her second novel, The Squatter and the Don, Ruiz de Burton employs a pseudonym that both occludes and hints at her identity: the book was published, in San Francisco, under the name “C Loyal.” As Sánchez and Pita explain, “The ‘C.’ stood for Ciudadano or ‘Citizen,’ and ‘Loyal’ for Leal, i.e. Ciudadano Leal, a ‘Loyal Citizen,” a common letter-closing practice used in official government correspondence in Mexico during the nineteenth century” (13). So here, while the author’s gender is hidden (or left ambiguous), the fact that the initial “C” stands in for a Spanish word, and that the phrase as a whole alludes to a Mexican practice, suggests–at least to the reader already somewhat in the know–that the author may not be so straightforwardedly an American citizen. Indeed, for all the protestations of loyalty, the hybrid formulation, half-English and half-Spanish, is perhaps better read as a double betrayal, or at least as indicating a position that straddles the line that newly demarcated the divide between Mexico and the swathes of territory (including all of what is now California) that, under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, it ceded to the United States.

The Squatter and the Don is all about the consequences of that treaty, and the ways in which (in Ruiz de Burton’s view) the USA subsequently reneged on the guarantees it gave to the former Mexican citizens who stayed put while the border crossed them. Specifically, the novel is concerned with the property rights of the Californio landowners, represented here by the “Don” of the title, one Don Mariano Alamar, who has a large ranch outside of San Diego. The problem is (as Ruiz de Burton details at length) that post-war legislation determined that all existent property claims in California should be subject to lengthy legal investigation. While this investigation (and any appeals that it might generate) is under way, other potential claimants are permitted to establish themselves on the land, marking out their own territory, building a house and ploughing fields etc. These squatters (who may well see themselves as legitimate “settlers,” simply carrying out the US state’s expansionist drive) wreak havoc on the economy of the ranches they take over, legally corralling or illegally but with impunity killing any of the ranchers’ cattle that are drawn to their growing crops. As the legal limbo drags on, even if they ultimately are able to prove their rights, the original landowners gradually lose the basis of their livelihood while they hemorrhage funds on taxes and legal fees. This is the fate facing Don Mariano, who when the novel opens has still, almost quarter of a century after the signing of the treaty that supposedly guaranteed his rights, not finally established definitive legal proof of the status of the property on which his family has been living since long before the border moved south.

By the novel’s midpoint, Don Mariano’s legal suit is finally (it seems) at an end. But there is no guarantee that the gang of squatters who have taken residence on his land will be in any mood to respect the judgment. Meanwhile, a new figure has entered the scene and increasingly taken center-stage: one of the squatters’ sons, a Mr Clarence Darrell, has fallen for and become engaged to one of Mariano’s daughters, Mercedes. Moreover, unlike his father (and the other squatters), Darrell not only is prepared to socialize and even inter-marry with the Californios, he also indicates that in any case there are other ways to make money than either ranching or small-holding. He has invested in mining, and now is minded to found a bank in San Diego, to take advantage of the economic activity that will arise when the railroad arrives and an East-West axis replaces North-South tensions. He suggests, in short, that the semi-feudal ways of a Don such as Mariano are inevitably doomed, not simply because of unjust laws or avaricious carpet-baggers, but because of the industrial modernization that is always the ace in the United States’s hand. In the meantime, or for the time being, Ruiz de Burton’s novelistic sympathies are interestingly balanced between the virtues of “Spano-American” tradition and manners, and the generative possibilities of honest entrepreneurship incarnated in Clarence, a fantasy of the American Dream if ever there was one.

and

Rodríguez book coverCarmen Rodríguez’s and a body to remember with is a collection of short stories about tears and loss, but finally also laughter and love. Though clearly autobiographical in many ways, the story it tells of an activist who has to flee Chile for Canada in the wake of Pinochet’s coup is narrated through fragments, glimpses of a life marked by resistance and exile. Hence the protagonist’s name (when it is provided) is variously Estela de Ramírez (19), Silvia (112), Yolanda Cárcamo (129), and Laura Arzola (154): there are continuities between these figures, but also displacements and differences. The book’s Spanish translation, De cuerpo entero (“With the Whole Body”), suggests fullness and plenitude, but the stories themselves resist such a sense of completion.

To put this another way: there’s a tension here between a narrative of lack and a narrative of excess.

Clearly, the coup and the exile that follows are deeply traumatic. In the final story, “a balanced diet,” the narrator tells of how she heard that her partner had been killed by the Chilean military. Her reaction is immediately visceral: “The vomit came out of my body in the same instant that I realized that Mario was one of the executed ones. Everything became an immense black stain sprinkled with coloured lights” (156). Years later, she would like to think that she is no longer affected in the same way, but her body betrays her: “What’s it like to be dead Mario [. . .] I can talk to you without crying [. . .] oh well yes I still cry and probably I will cry for the rest of my life. . . .” (162).

Perhaps the most somber story is one that features another woman, Gloria. Its narrative progresses like a short film, tracking slowly around the room of a house in Vancouver: the camera eye passes over a desk, a dresser, a bed, posters on the wall, until it finally comes to rest on the body of a young woman and her suicide note.

Elsewhere, however, the book’s stress is on the ways in which exile and resistance also make for accretion, even multiplication, and a liveliness that laughs in the face of dictatorship. As Rodríguez puts it in her Foreword, “My heart trespasses over borders and stretches over a whole continent to find its home at the two extremes of the Americas: in Chile and in Canada” (14). Or, to return to the collection’s concluding story in which two friends meet up once more after “twenty years of absences, a whole life of absences,” the stress is not on what has been lost but on the joy that results from the re-encounter: “obviously the military did not count on this good memory, this love: they did not count on this immense desire to live, this propensity to laughter” (165).

Throughout, then, the movement that Rodríguez describes is from loss to excess. Canada itself is, at first, nothing but a black (or white!) hole, a country that Chilean characters cannot even envisage: they can imagine Argentina, they can imagine England, the USA, even Switzerland, but Canada induces no connotations at all. Gradually, however, this “hole called Canada began to take possession of Estela de Ramírez’s stomach, chest, throat, head, ears, and mouth” (21). It becomes embodied, and she becomes embodied in turn. When finally the opportunity arises to return to Chile, she hesitates. She is now attached to Canada, part of Canada, too: both legally (as a newly-minted citizen) and, more importantly, affectively. In the crisis that ensues, in which “she realized that her body was the hole and the whole was her” (35), I think the point is not so much that she has identified with nothingness, and so with absence; rather that what was previously absence has now been given substance.

So, finally, this is a book marked by the conjunction “and” that is precisely the sign of addition: Chile and Canada; loss and discovery; death and life; the past and the present; “a mind and a body to remember with” (159; my emphasis).

live

The irony of “Woman Hollering Creek,” the titular story in Sandra Cisneros’s collection Woman Hollering Creek and Other Stories, is that its central character’s tragedy is to have fulfilled her dreams without realizing it, having misunderstood or misinterpreted the object of her own desire.

Cleófilas is a young Mexican woman who crosses multiple frontiers: in marrying one Juan Pedro Martínez Sánchez she is taken not only across “her father’s threshold” but also “over one border and beyond to a town en el otro lado–on the other side” and so to a new life in the United States (43). But she hopes for still greater transformations: “What Cleófilas has been waiting for, has been whispering and sighing and giggling for, has been anticipating since she was old enough to lean against the window displays of gauze and butterflies and lace, is passion” (44).

Hence the frontier that she most keenly feels is the translucent but stubbornly real distinction between her life and the world depicted in the commercial culture framed by the shop window. She desires above all the emotional intensity that she senses lies on the other side of her television screen, “the kind the books and songs and telenovelas describe when one finds, finally, the great love of one’s life” (44).

Sadly, it seems, Juan Pedro is not the man to provide this soap opera exhilaration. Though Cleófilas likes the sound of her new hometown, Seguín, Texas, which resonates with “the tinkle of money” and inspires in her the notion that “she would get to wear outfits like the women on the tele” (45), the reality is that life in Texas is marked by “dust, despair” without even the compensation of a “leafy zócalo” or “huddled whispering on the church steps each Sunday” (50). This is a privatized despair, particularly claustrophobic for women, who have to learn “to depend on husbands” (51). But the menfolk can offer no salvation: they too are ground down, and they take out their own disappointment on their women. Juan Pedro starts slapping his wife around; Cleófilas comes to realize that “he doesn’t look like the men on the telenovelas” (49).

Beset by her husband’s violence and indifference (he doesn’t even “music or telenovelas or romance or roses” [49]), and fearful of an even darker undercurrent of murder and death, Cleófilas turns to the creek that borders her world: named perhaps Woman Hollering or Woman Weeping (La Gritona or La Llorona), it seems to articulate what she herself can still barely make out. For she has found passion and emotional intensity, but in the form of passivity and suffering. And she is indeed living the life of a telenovela, “only now the episodes got sadder and sadder. And there were no commercials in between for comic relief. And no happy ending in sight” (52-53).

Pregnant (for a second time), Cleófilas goes for an ante-natal check-up, where her bruises are all too evident. The doctor examining her calls a friend with a plan to spirit the battered woman away from her husband, back to the rather different despair incarnated by life back home with her father and brothers again. As the two would-be rescuers chat about the situation, they inadvertently confirm the souring of Cleófilas’s dream: “Yeah, you got it. A regular soap opera sometimes. Qué vida, comadre. Bueno bye” (55).

We live the scripts that popular culture provides for us, Cisneros suggests both here and throughout this entire collection, if not necessarily in the ways we might originally hope or anticipate. Sometimes we can adapt them to our own ends; after all, Cleófilas’s putative saviors feel that they too are part of the same soap opera. That goes as much for the confident and aptly-named Felice who, in her own car, drives her hesitant charge out of town and over the creek, hollering in resonance with its unusual name and ceaseless flow.

Cisneros neither celebrates nor damns either telenovelas or Barbie, Marlboro Man or Flash Gordon, or the litany of popular singers that thread their way through these stories. She understands the seduction of this commercial culture and also the way in which it provides a sort of common set of feelings that unsettles geographic or linguistic borders. And in the end, even the cheesiest of soap operas or the tackiest of song lyrics remind us indeed of the utopian injunction to affect and be affected that Cisneros, too, appears to embrace:

One way or another. Even if it’s only the lyrics to a stupid pop hit. We’re going to right the world and live. I mean live our lives the way lives were meant to be lived. With the throat and wrists. With rage and desire, and joy and grief, and love till it hurts, maybe. But goddamn, girl. Live. (163)

imps

María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It? (the first Mexican-American novel in English) is centrally concerned with the notion of “good government”–and its absence from the nineteenth-century USA. Indeed, at some points the problems facing the country seem to be the fault of government per se “If we were to trace our troubles to their veritable source,” the novel’s narrator declares at one point, “we would often reach, more or less directly, their origin in our lawgivers. Not only the dwellers of the frontiers, not only the victims of lawsuits, not only–“ (201).

Here, however, the train of thought is interrupted. The narrator breaks off to declare “But I am no political philosopher. I am wandering away from my humble path” (201). And that path is, ostensibly, a romantic comedy of domesticity and manners.

The narrative opens as the life of the Norvals of New England is transformed when Dr. Norval returns to his family from an expedition to the American Southwest with a young Mexican girl named Lola he has helped to rescue from a band of border Indians. The doughty and upright Mrs Norval is shocked and upset, but the unwelcome arrival is rather sweetened by the fact that the girl brings with her a million dollars’ worth of gold ore and precious stones. Much of this loot has to be kept in trust until Lola comes of age and/or is reunited with her missing father. In the meantime, however, there is plenty that can be appropriated by the family, whose daughters are soon arrayed in the latest fashion and riding out from a New York mansion in the finest carriages. There is even enough money to be spread around family friends and acquaintances, and to outfit entire companies for the Union side when the Civil War breaks out.

The bulk of the novel then charts the ways in which money and warfare expose the frailties and hypocrisies of WASP respectability. The story’s greatest rogue is a lawyer turned preacher turned military man by the name of Mr. Hackwell, who circles the Norvals, their womenfolk, and their money, like a hyena who has sniffed out the stench of moral corruption and is anxious to reap the profits. Hackwell contrives to seduce Mrs Norval into a clandestine marriage once her husband takes off on yet another voyage, while trying to engineer nuptials between her son, Julian, and Hackwell’s own sister, Emma. All the while he lusts after the young Lola, who develops into a striking beauty as she matures, made all the more desirable by the potential dowry that she bears with her.

Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita point out that money and machinations thereby lead to “the fall of Republican motherhood” (“Introduction” xxviii) and “the violation of the marriage contract” (xxxi). But this is also an allegory of broader social disturbances, just as the arrival of Lola and her wealth points to the US acquisition of over half of Mexico’s mineral-rich territory following the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. As Sánchez and Pita observe, the novel exposes “the degeneration of democratic values and the faltering of the republican ideal” as a whole (xlv). Democracy is a myth, rights are proclaimed only to be abused and ignored, and there is “no informed consent of the governed [. . .] but rather corruption and influence peddling everywhere, even in the highest circles of government” (xlv).

The novel is indeed scathing about the state of the American res publica. Mrs Norval’s sister, Lavinia, travels to Washington to enquire about her brother, Isaac, a prisoner of war in a Southern camp. She discovers, however, that her government is happy to let its citizens languish if it should mean increasing pressure upon the Confederacy’s capacity to feed even its own people. Moreover, Isaac in particular has been removed from any list of prisoners to be exchanged because he once had a run-in with a powerful politician. Private pride (as well as ambition and indifference) is allowed to over-rule any sense of compassion or responsibility.

Lavinia had previously “believed all she had read in printed political speeches” (106); soon, however, she reluctantly comes to share in the cynicism expressed eventually by almost all the novel’s admirable characters. Julian too, for instance, who is threatened with dismissal from the army despite his heroic record, and then studiously ignored when he tries to press his case before the President, soon finds himself learning a “bitter philosophy [. . .] from the leading men of his country” (215).

In short, precisely at the moment at which the United States is forging some of its most potent discourses of self-justification and exceptionalism, from Manifest Destiny to the Empancipation Declaration, Ruiz de Burton reveals their bankruptcy and hypocrisy. Figures such as Mrs Norval may continue to declare that theirs is “the best government on Earth” (67), and to rail against both foreigners and popery; but she is insulated by wealth and blinded by the return of long repressed desires that dance around her, Ruiz de Burton suggests, like “unbottled imps” that have particular and “abundant fun” in Washington (148). As the social contract is revealed to be a sham, any putative hegemony is replaced by the new habits of wealth and the impish antics of misguided desire.