The Americas 59.1 (2002) 148-149
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Virgina Bouvier provides us with a wealth of information on the role of women and the importance of the female image in the Spanish exploration and conquest of the area now known as California. Her goal has not simply been to write women into the story, but to overturn the long-held fiction that the settlement and conquest of Spain's territories was the work of men alone. Although her emphasis on the importance of the Virgin Mary as the central icon of conquest seemed to me to be stretching the "role of women" (Does Mary count as an on-the-scenes woman in this case?), Bouvier quickly lays to rest any fear that this book will rely on women only as symbols. She settles into a detailed, carefully documented, engendered account of the various religious and secular expeditions to Alta California.
Bouvier concentrates on the interrelationship between Spanish subjects and Christianized Indians who made up the gente de razon (so-called people of reason) and the non-Christian Indians who were being enticed and forced into the mission settlements. The process was often brutal and the indigenous people resisted. Bouvier shows that the ideology of male dominance resulted in aggressive subjugation, punishment and torture of mission Indians. At the same time the author does not try to equate the colonizers' racial prejudice against the Indians with male dominance of women. She does, however, show that racial and sexual oppression intersected and drew its sustenance from a single gender ideology that saw women and Indians as inferior.
The author uses a wide range of sources and does a masterful job of filling in as best she can the conquest narrative from the perspective of the indigenous people. [End Page 148] Her strong command of Spanish allows her to understand the nuanced language of the diaries, letters, expedition logs, mission reports, and oral histories, including the few from native informants, that make up the historical record of the settlement and conquest of Alta California. From these many sources, she has pieced together the story as it has been written as well as the between-the-lines interpretations of personalities and events recorded by early observers. This careful reading of documents allows Bouvier to correct past histories of California's original settlement process.
The book succeeds in several ways. In the first place, Bouvier uncovers new sources that add to the record of women's roles. Most history books have completely ignored female leaders in the indigenous societies, or failed to mention the role of women in the Spanish expeditions. For example, Hubert Howe Bancroft listed no females in his record of those on the ship Santiago that arrived in Monterey bay in 1774. Antonia Castañeda corrected Bancroft's account with the names of the women on board. Bouvier adds even more names drawn from the archives in Mexico City. Secondly, she presents evidence that the friars and colonial authorities understood the value of women in promoting the settlement of the northern territories. Captain Juan Bautista de Anza's 1775 expedition has been the subject of several histories but none made any mention of what the trip meant for the women on it. Bouvier shows that Anza wrote frequently of women giving birth and explained the slowness of the journey to the fact that women could not mount horses for four or five days after giving birth. Apparently, this happened often.
A particularly rich contribution to California history is made in the chapter on resistance. Bouvier shows the many ways native women refused to surrender to the mission priests' dictates. They stubbornly tilled the land in their customary manner, rejected clothing habits the priests forced upon them, and clung to traditional daily routines. Drawing on various anthropological studies, Bouvier shows the power of female subversion in the most basic...