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Writing against Wilderness: María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Elite Environmental Justice

From: Western American Literature
Volume 47, Number 4, Winter 2013
pp. 360-385 | 10.1353/wal.2013.0010

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General view of Rancho de los Peñasquitos, a drawing from History of San Diego County, California, published in 1883. Courtesy the Library of Congress. [inline-graphic 01] This rancho of more than 8,000 acres belonged to Ruiz de Burton’s great-uncle, Francisco Ruiz. It was the first Mexican land grant in California.

“The water is in the sea now, for there we let it go every year; but if we were sensible, judicious men, we would not let it go to waste—we would save it” (54). Negotiating with the uncivilized squatters determined to usurp his land and kill his cattle, Don Mariano Alamar, the eponymous hero of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s novel The Squatter and the Don (1885), addresses readers as a model citizen: forward-thinking, generous, and—unlike his interlocutors—judicious. The author, I will argue, deploys Don Mariano as a paradigmatic, “civilized” figure in an argument for environmental justice for Mexican Americans in early California, simultaneously attempting, via her avatar’s virtuoso rhetorical appeals to logic, emotion, and ethics, to enlist to her cause readers constructed as progressive and elite. At the same time, the hero’s class-inflected politics demonstrate her project’s internal contradictions, which epitomize for today’s readers some central challenges facing projects for social and environmental amelioration.

In America’s earlier “Wests,” which included both Appalachian slopes and Michigan forests, indigenous nations resisted US federal forces advancing white settlers’ colonial incursions. Removal itself, because of whites’ land appropriation and Native Americans’ placement on land construed as worthless or waste, represents a form of environmental injustice. Such removal was enabled by continuing conceptions of Indians as savage, connected with both animals and nature, in contrast to Euroamericans’ supposedly civilized culture (Pearce 200ff.; 229ff.). From Bret Harte and Joaquin Miller to Sarah Winnemucca and Ora Eddleman Reed, writers of the Far West proposed further permutations of those concepts, variously celebrating and correcting eastern representations of their region, its “nature,” and its “natives.” As Ian Frederick Finseth emphasizes in another context, “In talking about race or nature, … we are always talking, at some level, about the other” (2). Ruiz de Burton’s account of civilized Mexican Americans’ conflicts with federal and state governments, and their displacement from traditional lands, parallels and diverges from prior clashes between Native Americans and federal forces. At the heart of those conflicts were radically different understandings of individuals’ and communities’ relationships to land. In the West, Native Americans’ and Euroamericans’ views not only diverged from each other, they split from those of Mexican Americans; and even internal class disparities within each group shaped the region’s resource wars for grass, minerals, and water.1

Through a case study of The Squatter and the Don and some of its concrete contexts, this essay extends backward and complicates our understanding of environmental justice.2 The contemporary environmental justice movement represents a complex “confluence of three of America’s greatest challenges: the struggle against racism and poverty; the effort to preserve and improve the environment; and the compelling need to shift social institutions from class division and environmental depletion to social unity and global sustainability.”3 In the last decade, there has been significant progress for communities “most negatively impacted by interrelated dynamics of institutionalized racism, the commodification of land, water, energy and air, unresponsive and unaccountable governmental policies and regulation, and the lack of resources and power to engage in decision-making about issues that most impact them” (Matsuoka 1).4 Reading Ruiz de Burton’s novel The Squatter and the Don suggests that we need to think about environmental justice more expansively.5 In particular, we need to assess internal fractures in “communities,” which can themselves encompass conflicting constituencies. The author’s appeals to elite readers offer unique opportunities for assessing such fractures, partly because of the disjunctions between her imagined readers and twenty-first-century audiences.

In addressing this subject, I am attempting to bridge the gap that Charles Waugh has identified between “ecocritics who pull apart representations of nature in literature and popular culture to see how they work, and … environmental justice critics who examine public environmental policy.” Waugh...

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