Chances are that readers who are familiar with early Texas history have heard of Doña Patricia de León.
She led a courageous and spirited fight to regain her family’s land seized by U.S. Anglo immigrants after the 1836 Texas Revolution.
Yet, chances are that few have heard of Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton, Doña Patricia’s California counterpart.
Who is this fearless wonder woman of the west who dared to single-handedly tackle male-dominated nineteenth century U.S. society? Well, for starters:
- She was the first Mexican-descent author to write in English. Among other literary works, she wrote two books:“Who Would Have Thought It?” and“The Squatter and the Don.” Both were used as the basis for this article.)
- Is regarded as the firstMexicanato address human rights abuse issues, becoming the forerunner of the 1960s-1970s Chicano/a civil rights movement. In doing so, she wrote about the injustice toward Spanish Mexican-descent people in the U.S. That special calling was her life’s work.
- Counted First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln as her friend.
- Based on her own merits, she was granted a one-on-one meeting with President Lincoln at the White House.
Maria Amparo Ruiz was born in 1832, in Loreto, Baja California. She was a young teenager when she saw U.S. military forces invade her homeland during the U.S.-Mexico War of 1846-48. That life-changing episode was forever etched in her mind as it was for every Californio.
Still, amid the chaos created by the U.S. assault on the Republic of Mexico, Maria met her future husband, Captain Henry S. Burton, commander of the New York volunteers who occupied her hometown of La Paz.
She belonged to an influential family of California government officials. Grandfather José Manuel Ruiz was the military commander of Mexico’s northern region of Baja California. He was also the governor (1822-1825). For his service, the government rewarded him with thousands of acres of land. His brother Francisco was the Commander, Presidio of San Diego.
Fittingly, her early education was in line with her status in society, emphasizing language arts (Spanish, French, and English), the classics, literature, European and U.S. history, and related subjects.
Her marriage in 1849 to Captain Burton was extraordinary. She was a member of a vanquished people, and he was an officer of the occupying army. She was a Roman Catholic, while he was a Protestant. Each chose to retain their religion. Yet, after very delicate negotiations, the wedding was approved by the governor and received the bishop’s blessings.
In 1852, her husband accepted an assignment as commander of the San Diego Army Post, relocating the couple to San Diego. Here, Maria Amparo did a superb job performing the duties of the commander’s wife. Shortly after arriving in San Diego, they acquired a rancho where they began raising their family. In 1859, Captain Burton was reassigned across the country to help Union forces prepare for the approaching Civil War. Maria Amparo and her two children accompanied her husband in his new job at Ft. Monroe, Virginia.
For the next few years, the Burtons moved throughout the east coast via various military transfers, such as Washington, D.C. and was now the wife of a senior military officer. She attended and hosted official gatherings, and especially enjoyed sitting in the visitors’ gallery to observe Congress in session.
Please note that Maria lived in our nation’s capital during the turbulent Civil War and reconstruction years. It was also a time in the U.S. when Spanish Mexican Mestizo and Native American people were disparaged through deep-rooted hateful rhetoric driven by Presidents Andrew Jackson and James K. Polk, and Senator John C. Calhoun. However, Maria Amparo aptly held her own and, as mentioned above, her societal contacts included a close relationship with Mary Todd Lincoln.
While she made the best of it, it was an eye-opening encounter as she noted how easily corrupt officials approved government policies to benefit mostly corporations, such as the railroad industry. Also, she noted the hypocrisy of social standards within our nation’s capital. Later, she used these details to write her first book describing such experiences.
Adeptly writing English as if she had grown up with the language, her grasp of common phrases used in 19th Century U.S. society is phenomenal. Expectedly, “Who Would Have Thought It”became her first book’s title, outlining her life as a Mexican-born trendsetter in Washington, D.C.
Alas, while on assignment in the war’s reconstruction efforts in Petersburg, Virginia, her husband Henry contracted malaria. Sadly, recurrent malarial attacks took a toll and he finally succumbed as a result of the disease in 1869.
Maria Amparo was left a widow with a small pension. She returned to her rancho in California, intending to make money to feed her family. In due course, she operated a number of business ventures she managed herself.
However, her return to California was disturbing. To her dismay, approved government policies allowed trespassers to settle on Mexican land grants, such as hers.
She was devastated when she found out that parts of her rancho had been confiscated and sold, and that squatters were living within its boundaries. Lacking financial resources and not being able to afford legal services, she wrote her own court briefs and tirelessly fought to regain her property. As with her other book, trudging through the burdensome U.S. court system is the subject of her second book,“The Squatter and the Don.”
Regrettably, it was while travelling and pursuing her case that she died in Chicago, Illinois in 1895. Her body was returned to San Diego where she is buried.
In summary, clearly no one knows why our Spanish Mexican pioneer ancestors were unsuccessful in convincing the dominant Anglo Saxon-based society that (although written in Spanish) our pre-1848 heritage is vital in presenting a “seamless” history of our country.
Of consolation is the fact that Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton was a true trailblazer who fought back. She sounded the alarm by courageously recording that “liberty and justice for all” didn’t apply equally across the board in the U.S.
Painfully, she was forced to omit her Spanish surname as an author. Yet, her books were still excluded from U.S. bookstores. Why? Because 19th century book industryauthorities were unwilling to publicize an author who criticized the U.S. status quo. Thus, her ominous message went unnoticed for over 100 years.
Lastly, Maria Amparo used her dying breath to fight for her land. Unfortunately, as with Doña Patricia in Texas, she was unable to regain what was justifiably hers. If alive today, she would quickly note that little has changed in how often justice is denied toward Mexican-descent people in the U.S. Prime examples abound:
- California’s Mendez vs. Westminster School court case;
- Tucson officials’ cruel confiscation of Mexican American Studies (MAS) history textbooks from classrooms;
- New Mexico’s Spanish Land Claims Tierra Amarilla incident symbolizing the unfair seizure by the U.S. government of millions of acres of Southwest land;
- Texas’ Class Apart Decision of 1954; and, sadly, so many more.
Thus, it is fitting to end this article with Maria’s own words in her 1885 book, “The Squatter and the Don”: “If those kind eyes of the Goddess of Justice were not bandaged, she could see how her pure white robes have been begrimed and soiled…, and how her lofty dignity is thus lowered to the dust; she would no doubt feel affronted and aggrieved.”