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Colección: La Educación
Número: (119) III
Año: 1994

7. Douglas MONROY. Thrown Among Strangers. The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990, 337 p., notes, bibliography, index.

With ample textual support in the form of correspondence and personal accounts and a lively prose style, Douglas Monroy recreates the atmosphere of the forgotten California of the late 18th and 19th centuries, and describes the rich interplay of historical forces that turned it into the California of today. In many ways, Monroy’s analysis of the shifting tides of cultural change in frontier California with all its tales of idiosyncracy and injustice, domination and defiance, tells a familiar story of America, yet from a set of enlighteningly new perspectives. This study of American cultural history has the considerable virtue of allowing the major groups involved to tell their own story (as far as possible of course), and on their own terms. Thus Thrown Among Strangers deploys side by side in its discourse culturally antithetical terms such as gringo and cholo, greaser and yankee, gente de razón and neófitas, hidalgos and desgraciados, all for the purpose of recreating the sort of complex cultural dialogue that occurs when distinct peoples meet on common ground. In this case that common ground is California; and over the century or so examined in this book, the reader will see how the peculiar characteristics of native Indian, Spanish, Mexican, American and British cultures (among still others) clashed and mingled to produce a hierarchy of social relations that dictated who should own the land, “who should work” (one of Monroy’s recurring focal points), and more specifically, which races were fit to do which kinds of work. Thrown Among Strangers is a fascinating story primarily because of the variety of characters and the pace with which its events unfold. The temperate, fertile climate of California acts as the catalyst for rapid social displacement and upheaval through American and European imperialism.

The author, a professor of history at Colorado College, makes an honest attempt to expose the cultural biases and presuppositions that formed everything from the daily conduct to the official policy of the peoples studied, while admitting that historians like himself cannot entirely escape the effects of cultural bias from their own era no matter how hard they try to be “objective.” For Monroy, the common denominator in this hundred year survey of California’s history (and the common victim as well), has undoubtedly to be the native Indians of the region who were “discovered” by the Spaniards in 1771. The history of this era is also sadly the history of the moral and physical destruction of the original inhabitants of California. The California indians were, to use Monroy’s interesting metaphor, “placed on the highway of history” on the unlucky day they met the Spaniards, and this was to be their undoing. Previously, the native Californians had led a tranquil, pleasure-loving existence with a rich culture that revolved around loose kinship ties and the generosity of nature. For the indians, time was circular: Those things that recurred such as the seasons or the rising and setting of the sun were the most important and meaningful. On the other hand, the European and especially the American conception of time could be thought of as a highway of progress whose roadmarkers heralded the achievements of western civilization; time was linear and cumulative. In the end the indians became a commodity, the fuel which the machine of progress blindly utilized and expended completely. Throughout the periods that Monroy delineates—the mission era, the era of the first pueblos, the “golden” rancho era, the era of Anglo domination—and until their final destruction, the indians unquestioningly play the all important role of “who should work.”

Monroy makes it clear, however, that the handful of Spanish priests and soldiers who were the first masters of the region, cruel as they were with their indian charges, had better intentions at heart than many of their successors. These protagonists of the first era, the so-called mission era, looked upon the indians as child-like savages who could be Hispanicized and Christianized to lead useful lives working land of their own. According to the original plan, after 10 years of instruction in the mores of Ibero-Catholic society the indians were to be given their freedom and a piece of land of their own. Because of the fight for economic power (largely in terms of land and cheap labor) among the now affluent missions, the stubborn presidios and the young Mexican republic, the indians never truly received the fruit of Spanish good intentions. The author skillfully illustrates with recourse to the work of Michel Foucault and Max Horkheimer how complex power relations arose out of the social framework that effectively excluded the indians from any control over their destiny. The Anglo-American mentality which was to predominate in the last half of the 19th century, freed from the sort of church-state wrangling that confused Spanish policy, saw in the indians only laziness and sexual license. The “accumulationist-minded” yankees simply could not tolerate a people who, in addition to not being white, could not even adapt to the white man’s discipline so as to be useful to him. The California Mexicans, protagonists of the rancho era and renowned for their genteel hospitality, allied themselves closely with the Anglo businessmen (or peddlers as these Mexicans derisively called them) who were to dominate California completely by the end of the 19th century. Through intermarriage, business know-how and the legal support of the United States government, the American newcomers reduced the genteel California Mexicans themselves to poverty and shame by end of century.

It would be easy to say that the villain of Douglas Monroy’s Thrown Among Strangers is the imperialist, racist empire of 19th century America that destroyed everything in its path in order to establish its own hollow, materialist brand of culture. By emphasizing the notion that the surviving remnants of mission and rancho California tradition—wrinkled caballeros and elderly indian peons, kindly padres and colorful fiestas—were appropriated by the Anglos as curiosities good only for weekend entertainment, Monroy certainly leads one toward this conclusion. Typical of his multi-voiced approach, however, he does not let his conclusions rest on so broad a cultural generalization. Many Anglos after all, genuinely adopted the ways of the California Mexican elite and maintained reasonably humane relationships with their indian laborers; and not all Anglos who found their way to California struck it rich by any means. Similarly, the Californios rather easily adopted the race-based discrimination that was the unwritten hallmark of American imperialism and law because they did not wish to be associated with the lower class Mexican cholos who also came to California in search of prosperity. Indeed one of the strengths of Monroy’s study is that it can support so many different conclusions because of the wealth of first hand information that it provides. The reader is largely left on his own to assess blame if he must, though he would be better advised to revel in understanding than in self-righteousness. The clash of cultures need not always result in destruction, Monroy reminds us, provided that one is willing to meet strangers on the common ground of respect.

William C. Baldwin