- Californios, Anglos, and the Performance of Oligarchy in the U.S. West: How the First Generation of Mexican Americans Fashioned a New Nation by Andrew Gibb
In Californios, Anglos, and the Performance of Oligarchy in the U.S. West, Andrew Gibb illuminates the history of California, primarily from the 1830s to the 1850s, through a provocative and well-researched narrative of social, economic, and political performances that structured Mexican society. Oligarchies, chiefly comprised of powerful landowning families, provided order and sustainability for a territory distant from the center of power in Mexico City, and inevitably influenced the foundations of later US political control in the region. Gibb focuses on California's transitional period, from Mexican independence from Spain in 1821 through the Mexican-American War that made California a territory of the United States in 1846. He argues that cultural idiosyncrasies, personal relationships, and oligarchy—visible in performance rather than policy—had greater impact in the development of modern California than did conflict, conquest, and exploitation, as traditional histories would suggest. Relationships between Mexicans and Anglos began long before 1846 and were strengthened by the conversion of mission lands into privately held ranches. Anglo merchants and traders conducted business directly with the new owners, adapted to Mexican social practices, and in some cases deepened relationships through marriage. The book's broader themes are documented by stories about specific historical figures, social occasions, and political events that performed and bolstered the stratified oligarchical societies of Alta California.
Gibb teases out localized histories of oligarchies in Monterey, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other California locales through extensive research into firsthand accounts penned in memoirs, letters, and news journals, or dictated to historians via testimonios. The book's chapters are cleverly identified as elements of theatrical productions. Chapter 1, "The Angels," provides a look at important families and practices, including the rise of dependent labor relations with Indigenous peoples, relations that (per)formed and reinforced their oligarchies; "Collaborations" (chapter 2) describes the growing engagements with Anglo merchants; and the third chapter, "A Question of Casting," complicates these relationships with movements for independence such as the Bear Flag rebellion, as well as the introduction to US racism through minstrel shows.
"Dress Rehearsal," the fourth chapter, describes a key meeting held from June to October 1849 that brought all of these relationships into one conversation with competing performances. This convention of district representatives in Monterey, which included Mexican leaders, Anglo merchants, and members of the military, sought to formalize the terms and conditions of the transition from Mexican to US control. The need to create a civil government was provoked by a combination of factors, including the population surge resulting from the 1848 gold rush. The US Congress had failed to settle the legal status of the lands ceded by the Treaty of [End Page 244] Guadalupe before it adjourned in recess, and California continued to be governed by Mexican law. Concerns included the Mexican right for women to own land, a mechanism by which oligarchic families could retain the monopolization of agricultural land following the deaths of fathers and husbands. The United States objected to this unfamiliar practice. Also in question were the roles of the Indigenous and Afro-descendants, which the Mexican oligarchies protected in a combination of noblesse oblige and economic self-interest. Working within a trading economy, laborers received shelter, food, and clothing instead of wages, and they participated in grand social functions hosted by the landowners. In return for their work and loyalty, they were also incorporated in the social and interpersonal community of the ranchos on which they worked. Many of the most influential oligarchic family heads were descendants of Indigenous and African ancestors themselves. However, when the question of voting emerged during the 1849 convention, the United States wished to limit that right to whites only. Oligarchic leaders argued that Mexican heritage was multiracial, and that their numerous laborers, who were predominantly Native Californians...