- Juana Briones of Nineteenth-Century California
Independent scholars have written some of the finest biographies of our day. Unfortunately, this book is not among them. Jeanne Farr McDonnell clearly respects her subject, Californiana Juana Briones, but fails to do her justice in this overly speculative account of her life. Born in 1802 in the town of Branciforte, not far from what is currently the University of California's Santa Cruz campus, Briones died in Mayfield in 1889 in what is now Stanford University's backyard. Her long lifespan makes her an excellent choice for a biography that seeks at once to throw light on one woman's personal trajectory and to illuminate Northern California's complex history of conflict and settlement. But the sepia-colored filter with which McDonnell approaches regional and individual pasts offers little of real usefulness to students and scholars of Mexican California and a great deal of misinformation to readers new to this subject.
McDonnell celebrates Juana Briones as a proto-feminist, in one instance hypothesizing that the "egalitarian nature of Indian society" might have provided Briones with a model for her "later refusal to bow under patriarchal directives" (43). She also romanticizes her as a pioneer, beginning one chapter with what she admits is an "overblown" claim: [End Page 88] "Juana Briones created the city of San Francisco" (77). Citing Shakespeare critic Stephen Greenblatt's imaginative biography Will in the World (2004) as her own ideal, McDonnell suggests that her study of Juana Briones will likewise project a portrait gleaned from "small clues" (4). Here lies the problem. Speculative history is useful when predicated upon credible sources, but while McDonnell's bibliography is ample, much of it is ethnocentric, out of date, and highly colored. (Some of the fault, it must be said, lies with the University of Arizona Press itself, since first readings of the manuscript and a good editor could have helped indicate if not resolve some of these problems.)
There are valuable resources here (Douglas Monroy's Thrown among Strangers  and Lisbeth Haas's excellent Conquests and Historical Identities in California  come to mind), but credible histories and literary accounts such as these are the exception, not the rule. I cannot imagine taking on a project of this kind without first consulting Leonard Pitt's early but foundational book The Decline of the Californios (1966), Genaro M. Padilla's groundbreaking assessment of nineteenth-century Mexican American autobiography, My History, Not Yours (1993), or Rosaura Sánchez's Telling Identities (1995), a study of the Bancroft testimonios. Nor has McDonnell listed the published and easily accessible work of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton, a formidable Mexican California writer and landowner who might have afforded the author a useful perspective on the Mayfield resident's situation. Most crucially, though McDonnell clearly did archival work in the Bancroft, she does not list a single one of the testimonios housed there, preferring to consult, for instance, a 1910 book by George James (In and Out of the Old Missions) for information on Briones's contemporary Eulalia Pérez rather than Pérez's own first-person oral history ("Una vieja y sus recuerdos" ), which is housed in the Bancroft and readily available for reading. [End Page 89]