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.
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
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
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
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