- "An Eloquent and Impassioned Plea":The Rhetoric of Ruiz de Burton's The Squatter and the Don
Since Rosaura Sánchez and Beatrice Pita's publication of a new edition of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's The Squatter and the Don in 1992, a steadily growing body of work on Ruiz de Burton and her novels has emerged. The critical corpus on her is still not large enough, though, to match her significance in California history and in the literary tradition of Latina writers in California. As the first narrative about the state's Mexican landowners published in English by a Mexican American woman and from the perspective of the conquered Mexican culture, The Squatter and the Don (1885) is remarkable for the ways it complicates nineteenth-century stereotypes of Latin Americans, particularly Latin American women, as several critics have successfully argued. But what is often overlooked is the novel's pervasive rhetorical appeal. The narrator of this "novel with a purpose," as more than one reviewer called it, is constantly aware of her readers and seeks to educate them about the plight of the Californios and to persuade them to take action against the injustices the Californios suffered at the hands of the US government, which promised them the full protection of the law due any citizen of the United States (Ruiz de Burton, Conflicts 568).
While the novel did not attract the national audience Ruiz de Burton might have hoped for, contemporaneous reviews uniformly praise it for its stylistic control, "well drawn" characters, "sprightly, natural" dialogue, "entertaining style," and "dramatic power" (Ruiz de Burton, Conflicts 566, 566, 566, 569). The review from the Daily Examiner notes, "people with grievances are not usually popular, as frequently they are wearisome. But this failing cannot be laid to the charge of the author of 'Squatter and the Don.' … The author has managed to combine instances of all these sins of omission and commission in a very pleasant and readable tale" (Ruiz de Burton, Conflicts 565). A large part of Ruiz de Burton's success in creating a "pleasant" tale that also manages to persuade is due in large part to her skillful adaptations of literary forms her audience would have been familiar with. Like The Grapes of Wrath (1939), perhaps the best-known California social protest novel, The Squatter and the Don borrows from [End Page 5] several different genres that are well suited to social protest, including verbatim legislation, the jeremiad, sentimental romance, and naturalism. Such combinations illustrate perfectly Mikhail Bahktin's theory of heteroglossia, which allows for a dialogic interplay of different voices that have not previously been heard. The novel is not merely a lament for a past way of life; as most reviews emphasize, it succeeded in showing that the problems faced by the Californios affected all Californians. In presenting her case, Ruiz de Burton works against popular portrayals of Californios, and she does so brilliantly, dismantling stereotypes and prejudice.
The title page of Squatter describes it as "a novel descriptive of contemporary occurrences in California." The book depicts the Alamar family's struggles against a group of "ruffianly" squatters who settle on their land, kill Don Mariano's cattle with impunity, and eventually force the family to retreat from its ranch to San Francisco. In the second half of the novel, the Alamars join forces with other San Diegans to advocate for a much-needed railroad terminus in their city. They find their hopes for the wealth a terminus could bring dashed by government corruption and prejudice. Ruiz de Burton's own life attests to the currency of the Alamars' struggles: while she was writing the novel, she, like the Alamars, was entangled in legal battles over the title of her Jamul, California, ranch. Mariano Vallejo and numerous old Californio families were also struggling to retain their estates and wealth, and many died considerably poorer than they once were. This issue was not a fait accompli. While critics today often classify The Squatter and the Don as historical romance, to do so tacitly acknowledges that the question was already moot at the time of the novel's publication and robs it...