- Archives of Dispossession: Recovering the Testimonios of Mexican American Herederas, 1848–1960 by Karen R. Roybal
In Archives of Dispossession, Karen R. Roybal reframes the legacy of Mexican American women, who are not unfamiliar to scholars of U.S. women’s history. Whereas their archives have served to tell their story through the craft of the historian, Roybal positions the women as intentional creators of their own political and economic narratives. In publicly telling their stories through testimonios, they laid claim to their herencia, their inheritance, resisting new U.S. laws designed to write them out of their rightful claim to land and wealth.
Roybal begins by laying the framework for repositioning her “lens of inquiry” and follows with three chapters that delve into the narratives of María Amparo Ruiz de Burton in California, Jovita González in Texas, and Fabiola Cabeza de Baca in New Mexico. As noted by Roybal in chapter two, literary studies have extensively analyzed the writings of Ruiz de Burton. Roybal draws an interesting parallel to Texas’s Américo Paredes, naming Ruiz de Burton as the person who “seized” the moment and resisted with a “pen in her hand,” as did Paredes, with the literary shot he fired in With His Pistol in His Hand (68).
Chapter three brings to light the history of dispossession and reclamation [End Page 125] of gendered and racial herencias along the Texas borderlands. Through González’s writings we witness the nineteenth-century struggles of landed families and their heirs in the twentieth century whose proximity to the border made them subjects of racist comments to “return to Mexico,” as evidenced in González’s notes. An early twentieth century author, noted scholar, and civic activist in Texas, González emphasized the political consciousness that was part of her herencia, for which she took responsibility to make visible. In chapter four, Roybal turns her attention to New Mexico and the writings of Fabiola Cabeza de Baca, who pushes the boundaries of an archival presence by blending family stories into her historical narratives where she sought to preserve heritage, land, and legacy. Roybal positions Cabeza de Baca’s style as the archetype for Chicana writers of the late twentieth century.
The conclusion is the central strength of the book, as it weaves together the stories of Ruiz de Burton, González, and Cabeza de Baca, connecting the past and the future, from the archives to new activism. Roybal makes the case that the work of these three women remains unfinished in the twenty-first century, as women continue to resist the patriarchal engendering of spaces. Ruiz de Burton, González, and Cabeza de Baca experienced similar struggles, though over different time periods, and responded to their marginalization by writing their own narratives and resisting the notion that they passively accepted their second-class citizenship and loss of herencia. Roybal makes an intriguing case for looking at their testimonies together as intentional positions of resistance.
Through her lens of cultural studies, Roybal reminds us that archives are much more than simply untold stories. They are an avenue by which the women in Archives of Dispossession, through their testimonios, bravely, brazenly and purposefully “crafted alternative archives” (49) meant to defend their herencia and resist patriarchal laws, setting their protests in writing long before Mexican American women were allowed to have a voice. Pulling together writings of more than a century ago, the Archives of Dispossession illustrates the longstanding struggles of women—especially women of color—inspiring new generations to continue the fight against patriarchal constraints.