- The Political Economy of Early Chicano Historiography:The Case of Hubert H. Bancroft and Mariano G. Vallejo
In 1973, the eminent Chicano literary critic Juan Bruce-Novoa wrote, "Chicano literature is in danger of being shackled to superficial characteristics" (14). He was lamenting the tendency of critics and publishers to insist on easily identifiable traits such as language and the barrio experience in order to consider literature 'Chicano'. Although our arguments have become more nuanced, the essential conditions Bruce-Novoa decried have not changed much since 1973. Chicano literary criticism still tends toward an ideological parochialism, defining Chicano literature in terms of its expressions of oppression and opposition. Nowhere is this more clear than in discussions of nineteenth-century Californio writer Mariano Vallejo's 1875 memoir Recuerdos Historicos y Personales Tocante á la Alta California (Historical and Personal Recollections Touching upon Alta California). Troubled by Vallejo's position as a wealthy, pro-US Mexican ranchero, scholars have focused solely on his critique of the US and his articulations of what they view as proto-Chicano politics. Such treatment, however, glosses his enthusiastic endorsement of the free market and disregards his literary and philosophical contributions to nationalist debates in late nineteenth-century California. Reading Vallejo's memoir as an extended meditation on historical narrative and international law, rather than as an elegy for his disappearing community, highlights the complex interpretive processes that enable ethnic identity. Such an approach also offers a model for Chicano critical strategies that [End Page 874] allow for Chicano literature to craft its own world of meaning, rather than responding to and fitting itself within the confines of Anglo-American oppression.
Vallejo, former Mexican military commander of Alta California, wrote his Recuerdos at the request of San Francisco-based, Anglo-American historian Hubert H. Bancroft. In his own memoir, Literary Industries (1915), Bancroft describes his relationship with Vallejo, and how he convinced Vallejo to contribute to his project of chronicling the history of the western US, Central America, and South America. In this article I consider Vallejo's Recuerdos in relation to Bancroft's Works, investigating the intersections of historical narrative with nationalist sentiment in the seven volumes dedicated to California. The two men's respective histories of California reveal complex processes of national identification at work, and suggest wealthy rancheros play a constitutive role in Chicana/o literary history.
Vallejo's narrative is part of the collection of oral narratives gathered by Bancroft's staff, regarded as comprising one of the foundational genres of Chicana/o literature. These testimonios, which document the lives of Mexican Californians in the wake of the Mexican–American War of 1846–48, have been examined extensively by scholars such as Rosaura Sánchez, in Telling Identities: The Californio Testimonios (1995), and Genaro Padilla, in My History Not Yours: The Formation of Mexican American Autobiography (1993). Vallejo's text figures prominently in both studies, and part of my project here is to challenge these scholars' portrayals of his narrative. Although Vallejo and his text share some of the characteristics of the testimonio and its presumed narrator, the generic differences in the Recuerdos are crucial to understanding the new order of class and race consciousness emerging in late nineteenth-century California. Vallejo's place in the Chicana/o literary tradition arises out of this nexus.
Sánchez's reading of Vallejo relies on her assertion that he narrates a collective identity forged out of loss. However, Vallejo's public assertion that he avoided mentioning personal details in the service of historical truth, which Sánchez cites (9), speaks less to a burgeoning collective identity and more to Vallejo's own history as a public servant frequently accused of self-aggrandizing and self-serving motives.1 I take issue with the notion that Vallejo imagined himself to be narrating a collectivity. Interpretations such as Sánchez's and Padilla's—who reads Vallejo's and Bancroft's printed disputes over historical documentation as analogous to the US's conquest of Mexico—emphasize notions of self, identity, and dispossession, all of which converge to form the grounding of a proletarianized and racialized Chicana/o community that emerges [End Page 875] in the...