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¡§When the Okies left Oklahoma and moved to California, it raised the I

Changing Identities                                                Alan Luong


Lisbeth Haas is the Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Haas is a specialist on the U.S. Mexico borderlands, Chicano history, Indigenous history and visual arts, the U.S. west, and historical memory. In 2006, she received two research grants from the University of Houston and UC MEXUS for her upcoming book Across Borders: Transnational Economies and Regional Histories in the Americas.



The rural area around San Juan Capistrano was conquered twice: first by Spain, and again by the United States. Each conquest completely transformed the landscape. In Conquests and Historical Identities in California, Lisbeth Haas defines conquest as a ¡§process that extends the social, economic, and political dominion of one society or nation over another¡¨1. Haas argues that these conquests caused the population of California to develop distinct national identities.

In the beginning of the book, Haas describes the conquests of Indians by the Spanish. In 1775, Spanish missionaries said the Catholic mass at Acagchemem, the site that would later become San Juan Capistrano. Through the process of superimposition, the missionaries attempted to replace the old indigenous structures of authority. The site chosen for the Catholic mass held historical significance to the native people; it was where they declared independence from the surrounding Indians. To coerce the natives into adopting Spanish customs and behavior, the mission seized land from the people. The land was returned once the natives converted and adopted Spanish behavior. In addition, Indian children were taken away from their parents placed in mission dormitories. At the time, the Spanish territories adopted the casta system, a system that categorized people based on heritage. People of Spanish descent had the greatest privileges. To raise their status, people would adopt Spanish customs and marry into lighter skinned families. Indians who converted had greater authority than those who did not. Some became alcaldes, who acted as middle-men between the Spanish and the Indians. Rather than appointing white supervisor, the town council employed alcades because they believed that they would be less aggravating to the Indians. Haas argues that the Spanish ¡§identity changed as part of the ongoing negotiation of racial and social status that defined colonial society.¡¨15 Eventually, the term ¡§Spaniard¡¨ also included people of mixed blood.

When Mexico gained independence in 1821, the mission system was abolished.  Indians were made full and equal citizens under the law. However, Indians were still disadvantaged under the new government. The Mexican government refused to recognize all pre-colonial landholdings. As a result, many Indians were displaced from their homes. The federal government encouraged colonization and redistributed mission lands. It also gave land grants to foreigners once they became Mexican citizens. In California, Mexican citizens disagreed with the federal government¡¦s land policies. California law allowed only Indians rather than settlers to receive mission lands and goods. To distinguish themselves from people from the Mexican interior, the people of California called themselves Californios. Indians were required to work undistributed land as public service. Haas observes that the new government ¡§continued to bind the former neophytes to many of the same conditions of coercive labor that had characterized their previous state¡¨.2 When granting ranchos, the governor often ignored the Indians who already inhabited the land. The government gave Indians the right to inhabit their homes once it was located inside a rancho. However, the land belonged to the rancho owner. After the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed in 1848, the American conquest brought rapid changes in law and business. Although Mexican citizens had acknowledged rights, Indians lacked civil and property rights in the United States. In 1851, the California Land Act was passed. The act established a land court that required all land owners to provide titles to their land. On average, the process took seventeen years. The few Indians who did possess land titles were often rejected by the land commission. In response to Indian resistance, the Act for the Relief of Mission Indians was passed. The act set aside reservation land which included ¡§as far as practical, the lands and villages that have been in the actual occupation and possession of said Indians¡¨.3 Haas interprets the land laws as ¡§a process that amounted to legalized territorial conquest¡¨.16 Challenging the rulings required lawyers and cash. For most Californios, this was impractical because they had most of their money invested in property. The new market economy favored migrants who profited from land speculation. Without capital, Californios suffered from high interest rates and bad harvests. In 1860, Californios held seventy two percent of the wealth in Santa Ana and San Juan. In 1870, they held only held nine percent of the total wealth.4 Anglo-Americans benefited the most from the rise in land value. At the end of the second chapter, Haas devotes a section to women in California. Spanish and Mexican law classified women as either ¡§decent¡¨ or ¡§vile¡¨. ¡§Vile¡¨ women could lose custody of their children and had fewer rights. Haas observes that ¡§Spanish-Mexican women acted under the surveillance of others, and if they acted outside the prescribed morality they could not exercise the full range of rights or be granted respect.¡¨5 Nevertheless, Californian women viewed themselves as an important part of society. Haas believes that their knowledge of history and oral tradition instilled pride.

In the second half of the book, Haas discusses the transformation of village society. Landownership represented status and identity to the Californios. Between 1875 and 1889, large amounts of mission lands were being sold. Newcomers with capital began to displace long-established local owners as Californios and Mexicans sold their land to pay off debts. Mexican Americans continued pre-industrial economic practices. Many Californio workers labored in exchange for goods instead of wages. Instead of growing cash crops, Mexican-American farmers used land mainly for subsistence. Catholicism had incorporated aspects of local beliefs and practices. For example, Indians and Californios consulted healers in addition to praying in church. The missions promoted a sense of community through inherited responsibilities; jobs were passed down to family members. Oral tradition was important in the late nineteenth century. Haas asserts that the people of San Juan told stories that ¡§were meant to shape morality and to define proper social relations.¡¨6 While writing was individualized, oral culture promoted communal relations and unity in groups.  It promoted verbal ability, a sense of collectivity, and appreciation for history. Rather than signing legal documents, businessman relied on a person¡¦s word to make deals. However, Haas states that ¡§literacy allowed greater access to power.¡¨7 Literacy gave settlers more commercial opportunities. It also allowed them to participate in politics. As land values rose, Californios who owned unimproved land did not have the income to pay the high taxes. Investors and farmers with capital became a larger presence. In the early 1900s, California missions were monumentalized as part of an American effort to create a romanticized Spanish past. This was part of defining an American national identity. Ethnic groups who were called ¡§white¡¨ were considered American. By the 1920s, Spanish-speaking people of many different ethnic and racial backgrounds were called ¡§Spanish Californian¡¨. At this time, some Indians opposed the term and asserted their own Indian identities. In 1982, The California Indians Jurisdiction Act offered California Indians compensation for land they lost to the United States. Instead of registering as Indians to receive benefits, some families denied their Indian heritage to avoid discrimination.

In the end, Haas details the formation of a collective identity in the Southwest. When discussing the Spanish-language culture, Haas states that theater and cinema was a shared body of knowledge that connected people. Plays often incorporated themes from old stories and oral tradition. Unlike English-language theaters, people of all education levels and social classes attended Mexican theaters. Haas believes that these ¡§plays provide a sense of the collective historical, religious, and social imagination of a broad audience.¡¨8 Theater was an accurate representation of the collective identity and of how people viewed themselves. Production companies focused on wordplay and speech. Although performance style of Spanish theater shared elements with that of other theaters in the United States, the relationship between the theater and the audience was unique. Theaters were located near residential and shopping centers. The actors employed ¡§a personal voice, they gave the illusion, at least, that a personal relationship existed between company and audience¡¨.9 Usually telling a national story, plays were an important medium for establishing a national identity and promoting Mexican patriotism. Historical melodramas were the most common plays; the most popular ones were written by Spanish dramatists and were set in Spain. In large cities, Spanish-language cinemas were common. Although viewers were segregated by seating, cinema was still an important medium of mass culture. In 1910, many Mexicans immigrated to Santa Ana. Prejudice against dark-skinned people led to the creation of barrios. Even though Mexicans could not be legally segregated, society¡¦s prejudice severely restricted them. In 1918, the Lincoln Parent-Teacher Association protested against Mexican children in public schools. Separate schools for Mexican students were formed. Segregation laws were avoided by forming schools that accepted all ¡§sub-normal¡¨ students, not just Mexican students.

Haas states that her book is a ¡§multiethnic history that examines the politics of space and the construction of identities.¡¨10 Haas rejects the notion that Indians, Mexican, and Spanish culture died out after conquest. Instead, she shows how historical memories have shaped identities in California. Haas believes that the Spanish ¡§colonizers¡¦ use of force wounded the ethical and spiritual foundations of [the Indians].¡¨ 17 In response to Spanish pressure, the Indians of Acagchemem adopted Catholicism and Spanish practices that made sense to them. Consequently, they formed new, unique cultures. However, Haas insists that the Indians ¡§made possible a constant but quiet resistance to the colonial process.¡¨17 She shows this by telling of a young convert who was dying. When his priest, parents, and friends asked him to take the final sacraments, he refused and replied angrily ¡§having lived deceived, I do not want to die deceived.¡¨18 Haas concludes that the missionaries could not completely convert the natives.

As a historian of the New Left, Haas sympathizes with the Indians. Throughout the book, Haas emphasizes the existence of many different ethnic groups. She focuses on the conflicts that women and minorities faced after they were conquered. In her conclusion, Haas condemns ¡§scholars who write as if they were dissecting dead cultures and dead people¡¨.12 Haas maintains that Indian cultures continue to survive. Instead of portraying Indians and Mexicans as submissive victims, Haas shows that they actively resisted conversion. Haas criticizes the ¡§bipolar model of nation culture¡¨.9 She maintains that struggles between different social groups created national identities. Haas believes that when American invented stereotypes for Mexicans, they also created an American identity for themselves. The creation of stereotypes contributed to American nationalism. Haas admires the works of psychologists and social theorists of the 1940s who attempted to understand prejudice of WWII. Haas states that these scholars studied prejudice ¡§as the social malady that needed to be understood and changed.¡¨19 These scholars referred to ethnic groups rather than to race to describe groups of people.

Although Conquests and Historical Identities in California is generally praised, some reviewers disagree with Haas¡¦s interpretation of California history. In his review, Richard Dillon writes that ¡§with one interesting exception, a chapter on Mexican theater, Haas humanizes her story by skillfully mixing statistics with biographical material¡¨.17 Dillon refers to the lack of vignettes in the fourth chapter. Without these stories, the fourth chapter seems out of place with the rest of the book. Douglas Monroy acknowledges the numerous examples Haas uses to show the survival of Luiseno culture after the American conquest. However, Monroy questions Haas¡¦s definition of survival. He points out that the Luiseno culture was completely transformed; the Indians ¡§came to work in European ways, at European tasks, and to worship the European God¡¨.16 Monroy believes that Indian culture had been overcome by European culture.

Haas interestingly orders the book according to space. Instead of dividing the book chronologically, the book is divided into sections dealing with mission, rural, and village society. Haas organizes her book spatially to show the change in different social landscapes. Lisbeth Haas tries to focus on topics not covered by other historians. In her introduction, Haas argues that Chicano historians focus too much on the American conquest and not enough on the economic transition. Haas maintains that the American conquest did not occur immediately after the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo was signed. Instead, she believes that conquest came gradually after California transitioned to a capitalist economy. Throughout the book, Haas includes many short vignettes to illustrate different concepts. For example, in the introduction, Haas tells the story of Modesta Avila, a woman who obstructed the tracks of the Santa Fe railroad. Because the railroad ran through parts of her land, Avila demanded compensation from the railroad company. She was jailed for three years and later died in prison. Haas includes this vignette to show that some people actively resisted conquest. Haas¡¦s use of vignettes illustrates the institutionalized racism of California. In 1891, Francisco Torres was lynched after being accused of murdering his boss. Without any evidence, the media highlighted Torres¡¦s Indian blood, and described him as ¡§a low type of the Mexican race, evidently more Indian than white.¡¨11 One newspaper stated that ¡§the sooner the savages are exterminated, the better for decent civilizations.¡¨11 No effort was made to capture the people involved in Torres¡¦s murder. Torres¡¦s murder was an example of the racial tensions between whites and Mexicans. These vignettes give insightful views into the conflicts Mexican Americans faced.

Spanish-language culture in California was unique compared to cultures in the rest of the country. Unlike English theaters ,which were divided into ¡§high-brow¡¨ and ¡§low-brow¡¨ entertainment, Mexican theaters were open to people of all social classes and education levels. For migrants, theater introduced the audience to foreign ideas through humor.  In the Southwest, Californios, Indians, and Mexicans formed a strong community. The small barrios of Santa Ana were mainly populated by immigrants. Families lived in small communities and shared work and leisure. Haas defines the barrio as an ¡§overlay of seasonal work, religion, and family time.¡¨12 As California transitioned to a capitalist economy, Californios hung on to their old lifestyle. Unlike Indian and Mexican vaqueros who lived a nomadic lifestyle, Californio vaqueros owned small plots of land. This allowed them to work seasonal jobs and still maintain a home.

Racial violence was influenced by the lynching in the east United States. During the Gold Rush, Anglos intimidated experienced miners with violence. Compared to the casta system of the Spanish period, tolerance was harder to obtain during the American period. In the casta system, people could adopt Spanish behavior and convert to Catholicism to raise their class. Status was flexible and depended on many different attributes. On the other hand, ethnicity was the most important measure of status during the American period.

The population of California was unable to be completely Hispanicized or Americanized. Haas attributes this to the persistence of human memory. She writes that the United States¡¦ expansion ¡§produced new landscapes but [was] unable to obliterate memory of the past.¡¨20 Haas not only examines how conflict created national identities, but she also explains how different ethnic groups formed larger collective identities.


1. Haas, Lisbeth. Conquests and Historical Identities in California, 1769-1936. London: University of California Press Ltd., 1995, 8.

2. Haas, Lisbeth 40.

3. Haas, Lisbeth 65.

4. Haas, Lisbeth 76.

5. Haas, Lisbeth 82.

6. Haas, Lisbeth 114.

7. Haas, Lisbeth 119.

8. Haas, Lisbeth 151.

9. Haas, Lisbeth 144.

10. Haas, Lisbeth 10.

11. Haas, Lisbeth 169.

12. Haas, Lisbeth 210.

13. Haas, Lisbeth 81.

14. Haas, Lisbeth 84.

15. Haas, Lisbeth 30.

16. Haas, Lisbeth 59.

17. Haas, Lisbeth 28.

18. Haas, Lisbeth 29.

19. Haas, Lisbeth 211.

20. Haas, Lisbeth 209.

21. Monroy, Douglas. Pacific Historical Review 65 (1996): 476-77

22. Dillon, Richard. Western Historical Quarterly 27 (1996): 89-90