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  • Property and the Ideology of Improvement in María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's The Squatter and the Don and California Travel Narratives
  • Valerie Sirenko (bio)

In María Amparo Ruiz de Burton's The Squatter and the Don (1885), Don Mariano Alamar, a California rancher of Mexican heritage, or Californio, finds himself stuck in legal limbo while the US courts decide whether to confirm the title to his lands. In the meantime, white settlers have begun to stake claims to his land under the authority of the Homestead Act of 1862, which allowed heads of households to claim 160 acres of public land after five years of cultivating or "improving" it. Although the Homestead Act only permitted homesteading on public land, the settlers in Squatter are betting that Don Mariano's title will be denied by the courts and his private land will become part of the public domain. Ruiz de Burton's novel unpacks how legislation like the Homestead Act, the California Land Act of 1851, and the No Fence Law created a legal climate in which property disputes—regardless of the actual outcome in the courts—led to the dispossession of Californios because an uncertain title put this marginalized and racialized group in the disadvantageous position of depending on the Anglo American legal system. Even those whose titles were ultimately confirmed often lost their lands because decades of expensive litigation left many ranches heavily mortgaged.1 Ruiz de Burton's novel dramatizes how the US legal system cast Mexican American titles into question and facilitated Anglo American discursive and ideological interventions that altered the terms through which property would be legally understood. This essay examines the way Ruiz de Burton and other writers used late nineteenth-century print culture to fight for control over the terms through which [End Page 345] one could articulate a property claim within the competing US and Mexican legal traditions.

Ruiz de Burton criticizes US legislation for deliberately designing the process of legal limbo as a strategy to dispossess the Californios. She suggests that the California Land Act caused "all the private land titles [to become] unsettled" because the law's true purpose was to "upset the rights of the Spanish population of the State of California" (84). In the meantime, Anglo American farmers are able to kill Don Mariano's cattle with legal impunity. Mariano argues that the laws protect one type of property—wheat crops—at the expense of another: cattle. According to Mariano, nefarious lawmakers use agriculture as a "pretext" while intending "in reality to destroy cattle and ruin the native Californians" (65). While Don Mariano makes plain his understanding of the racialized intent behind these laws, his argument primarily emphasizes the inefficiency and waste of a legal system that protects small amounts of grain at the expense of valuable cattle and capital: "By those laws any man can come to my land, for instance, plant ten acres of grain, without any fence, and then catch my cattle … until for such little fields of grain I may be obliged to pay thousands of dollars" (64). In contrast, as we will see, Anglo American narratives about California depict wheat farming as a more productive way to use the land, a rhetorical strategy that implicitly justifies stifling the cattle industry.

The key operating term used to depict wheat farming as worthier of legal protection than cattle ranching was "improvement," a term that carried a long history in the Anglo American legal tradition as creating a property claim. During the rapid expansion of white settlers into California following the US–Mexican War, the ideology of "improvement" pitted white settlers, who intended to establish their title to the land through the labor of making the land more productive, against the Mexican American landholders whose titles derived from land grants. Ruiz de Burton's novel engages with the term "improvement" and its surrounding terms—"waste" and "vacancy"—by aligning her characters with the cultural logic that land belongs to those who make it productive. When one squatter proposes that "all we have to do is take their lands, and finish their [End Page 346] cattle," the honest but misguided squatter William Darrell disapproves of...


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pp. 345-380
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