A Short Commentary on the Life and Works of Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton

Biography:

According to author Kathleen Crawford at the San Diego History Center, Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton was “beautiful, articulate, well educated, and charming” (Crawford “The General’s Lady"). Burton was born in 1832 in La Paz (which translates to Peace in English), Baja California to a wealthy and influential Mexican family. Burton was surrounded by natural and political disasters while she lived in Baja. Even the date of her birth has been contested, as conflicts between the indigenous residences of Baja, American troops and her own government to which her family was well connected brought destruction to many towns and cities and in turn destroyed important documents such as birth certificates.

Burton gives us an indispensable look into major historical events as well as a commentary on the seemingly mundane events in the lives of ordinary citizens.

Burton went on to marry famed American military officer Henry Stanton Burton in 1849. Subsequently, Burton moved to California to join him. Her family was already knowledgeable about and through out her new home, as her great uncle was the commander of San Diego in the early 1800s. It was while Burton was in California that she began to learn English. The correspondence that Burton kept with her tutor, Mariano Vallejo, is a helpful peak into Burton’s character. She writes, “… I am persuaded that we were born to do something more than simply live, that is, we were born for something more, for the rest of our poor countrymen” (Reuben “Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton”). Burton was soon able to understand what exactly the plight was of those she felt so much compassion for; while stationed in San Diego, the Burtons became homesteaders of over half a million acres. This time in Burton’s life was filled with ranching cattle and experimenting with the limestone on her property that would be used for future business endeavors that included turning limestone into lime. As Crawford goes on to write, “Maria was a woman of remarkable talent, drive and foresight…” (Crawford). When looking at Burton’s accomplishments Crawford’s words could be considered an understatement.

Although Mrs. Burton went on to live in Virginia with her husband, she eventually found her way back to San Diego after his death. It was after her return to San Diego that Burton began to write professionally, perhaps in the hope of making a profit during hard financial times for her family. After Mr. Burton’s death Mrs. Burton was thrown into many rounds of litigation over the land that her family had bought in San Diego that lasted until her death in 1895. Burton died in Chicago where she had traveled to reclaim the land that she ferociously believed was hers.

Writing Topics:

Despite the fact that Burton wrote fiction, her works follow the historical events of her time. Beatrice Pita and Margarite Fernandez Olmost write in Trials and Tribulations: The Life and Works of Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton that Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It, “… Scrutinizes the pettiness and racism of a Northern Abolitionist family and discourses on issues of democracy, liberalism, women’s suffrage, imperialism political opportunism and religious hypocrisy.” Burton would have drawn on the observations she made while she was in Washington with her husband, giving her readers a look into the inner workings of politics and policy. Although she muses on feminist issues, Burton was able to do so as a part of the elitist world that few feminists were able to access, if only because of their allegiance to the feminist cause and the public knowledge of this allegiance. Of course, I have the utmost of respect for an author that was able to transpose these real life issues into a fiction book. To fill in the gaps between real events with creative discourse, discussion and implicit opinions is truly a gift.

Social Context:

To understand the social context of Burton’s novels is to understand the novels themselves. Because Burton draws on many historical events, the reader would be wise to make an effort to understand the political and social events that surrounded Burton. Burton was only fifteen years old when she beheld La Paz surrender to American troops in 1848. It while Henry Stanton Burton was in La Paz to command troops in the take over that he first met his future wife. The religious circumstances that surrounded their romance are another important social variable. Mrs. Burton was raised in Spanish Catholic family while Mr. Burton was raised a Protestant. Both of these facts were well known and neither party’s religion could be changed without considerable conflict. The Catholic Church posed great opposition to their marriage, with the Bishop of Upper and Lower California refusing to wed the couple. Then governor of California Richard B. Mason even mandated that there would not be any marriages when either the husband to be or the bride to be is Catholic in the hope that this would deter the Burtons. Even though it is amazing that such discrimination was ordered by such a prominent political figure, this is not so surprising in the social context of the time. In the end, the Burtons were married by a Protestant minister, though the government tried to prevent the marriage ceremony from taking place by sending the owner of the house where the wedding was to take place away on military business.

Importance of Work:

An unsurprising fact considering the time that Burton was alive, the men in her life often defined her own life. This can be observed clearly in the difficult legal wars that Burton waged; many of her grievances were caused by the mere fact that she was a women and lacked the legal clout that men held automatically. Of course, Burton’s personality and charisma meant that she was able to stand on her own socially, and she often used these connections to help her legally. It is also this fact that makes her writing an important perspective of the events she lived through. Burton gives us an indispensable look into major historical events as well as a commentary on the seemingly mundane events in the lives of ordinary citizens. Both of her novels, Who Would Have Thought It and The Squatter and the Don, discusses events that range from treaties such as the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to the plight of families that had lost their land to litigation and squatters. The diversity in her works is a testament to her own metamorphic place in the different communities she was a part of. As a homesteader who spent years in litigation herself Burton could sympathize with the families she wrote of; as an immigrant in America she could sympathize with her fellow immigrants; and as a wife to an American officer she could also speak with confidence about this military matters as well. Burton’s multifaceted life served her well in her literary works. Of course, a discussion on the importance of Burton’s work cannot continue without mentioning that she is the first Mexican woman to write in English. Although her work could stand alone without this fact, this is an important detail that only adds to her literary credibility.

Works Cited

Burton, H.S. & Mrs. “Who Would Have Thought It.” The Trustees of Indiana University Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1872. Web. 28 Sep. 2011.

Crawford, Kathleen. “The General’s Lady.” The Journal of San Diego History. 30.3 (1984). n. pag. Web. 28 Sep. 2011.

Pita, Beatrice & Margarite Fernandez Olmost. “Trails and Tribulations: The Life and Works of Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton.” Greenwood Publishing Group: Santa Barbara, California. 2000. Pp. 11-20.

Reuben, Paul. “Maria Amparo Ruiz de Burton (1832-1895).” PAL: Perspectives in American Literature- A Research and Reference Guide- An Ongoing Project. 25 Dec. 2010. Web. 28. Sep 2011.


Return to the table of contents for 1.3 Women and Gender in Writing