Literary Profile: Maria Ruiz de Burton

In celebration of Women’s History Month, I want to bring attention to Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, an under-recognized but important female voice in American literature.  As a Mexican-American woman living in the Civil War era, Ruiz de Burton was able to capture a unique, eye-opening perspective not often found in the history books. She was not known for her writings until years after she died, and I still wasn’t aware of her stories and experiences until late last year.

Born on July 3, 1832, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton was the granddaughter of Don Jose Manuel  Ruiz, a former governor of Baja California. This is to say that Maria came from a well-to-do family, being “related by blood or marriage to several leading Californio families,” according to an article written by Beatrice Pita. She met her future husband when he, Henry S. Burton, came to Baja California in 1847 as a Captain of the U.S. Army. He had come with a group of volunteers under his command to take possession of Baja California while their General marched on to Mexico City.María_Ruiz_de_Burton

When the political situation was over, Maria was among the group of Mexicans that decided to gain full U.S. citizenship, moving to the north around the San Francisco area. One of her main reasons for moving was her relationship with Captain Burton; when they married in 1849, he was twenty-eight years old and a widower while she was only sixteen. Since she was already from a prestigious family and was already offered U.S. citizenship, the only explainable motive for their relationship was love.

Their marriage was unusual, though; in her piece on Ruiz de Burton, Pita shares an article from a 1932 issue of The Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine that called their marriage a union of “natural enemies.” Truer words were never written. Not only did they have more than a decade between them, but they differed in religion, and there was also a state of war between their two countries. Their devotion must have been great.

For the first ten years or so of their marriage, the Burtons remained on the West coast. However, the Captain was ordered east due to the imminence of a civil war, and he was promoted first to major and then to brigadier general in the Union Army. After ten years in the East, he contracted malaria and died, leaving thirty-seven-year-old Maria behind with two children.

She returned to the West after her husband’s death, and Maria spent the rest of her life trying to get the whole of the Ensenada tract of land in Baja California recognized as her own. The whole situation became a huge mess, eventually turning her own mother and brother against her and leaving her with the task of filing lawsuits and appeals until she died in Chicago in 1895.

While the end of her life may sound sad, her literature has left her remembered fondly – even though it took about one hundred years after her death for her to be recognized for her novels. She was initially remembered for her beauty and aristocratic air, but few thought it important enough to mention her work as a writer.

She is now known for her two novels, the first being Who Would Have Thought It? and the second being The Squatter and the Don: A Novel Descriptive of Contemporary Occurrences in California. She never did publish these works in her name, though, probably to hide her gender as well as her nationality; it is possible that she wanted to distance herself from some of the content in her work as well, satirizing a popular scandal in her day and portraying the American government in a cynical light.

According to Pita, The Squatter and the Don is believed to be the “first published narrative written in English from the perspective of the conquered Californio population.” In this story, Ruiz de Burton questions the dominant American ideology that changed her home and disrupted her culture by satirizing the “presumed superiority of the Anglo Americans” in her book. The Squatter and the Don depicts the Californios as people who had their territory stolen from them as well as their wealth taken from them, depicting them as heroic people against the oppressive, imperialist American government. This book was written during her struggle to get her land legally recognized as her own after her husband’s death, explaining her feelings of injustice for herself as well as for the Californio Mexicanos due to the mistreatment and discrimination by individuals and U.S. policy.

Her novel Who Would Have Thought It?, on the other hand, was greatly inspired by her  period on the East coast during the Civil War. She moved in the highest military, political, and social circles, even having a personal relationship with President Lincoln’s wife. This allowed her to see the un-fantasized reality of the Civil War, seeing the scandals, corruption, and inside goings on at the capitol. Her first-hand experiences give her credibility as a critic on U.S. society and government during this time. She is also able to write with a less biased point of view, not seeing America as having the “best government on earth” since she herself lived through the government displacing her people and home in Baja California.

Besides being well-written and entertaining, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s novels are important to read alongside other American classics. Her stories shed light on the story behind the story, able to view the Civil War and the American government without rose-colored glasses. She endured first-hand the negative effects of American imperialism, and she was able to personally view the inner workings of the American government and its leaders due to her husband’s high position in the military. She wasn’t afraid to write what she saw and what she felt, and she didn’t let discrimination from those around her keep her silent.

 

Source: Pita, Beatrice. “Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton.”Chicano WritersThird Series. Ed. Francisco A.   Lomeli and Carl R. Shirley. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999. Dictionary of Literary Biography.Vol. 209. Literature Resource Center.

Recently graduated from college, Literary Editor/Copy Editor/Managing Editor Briana Bailey has begun a journey into the mysterious realm known as the "real world." She has a passion and appreciation for art, including music, writing, photography, and drawing. Her love for reading is why she wishes to one day copy edit novels. Yes, this means she is one of those people who really likes grammar. No, she is not one of those people who corrects other people's grammar when they talk.  (Don't believe her?  Email her at brianabailey@germmagazine.com.)

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