Resource

Life Story: María Ruiz de Burton (1832–1895)

Writer and Advocate

The story of a Latina author who used her work to critique the American treatment of Mexican people.

María Ruiz de Burton

María Ruiz de Burton, before 1895 (Wikimedia Commons).

This video was created by the New-York Historical Society Teen Leaders in collaboration with the Untold project.

María Amparo Ruiz was born in Loreto, Baja California, on July 3, 1832. Baja California was a Mexican state at the time. María belonged to a wealthy political family. María attended school in La Paz, Baja California. She took classes in her native language of Spanish and also in French. 

María met Captain Henry S. Burton when she was 15 years old in 1847. Captain Burton was a member of the U.S. Army. He and María met during the middle of the Mexican-American War. Captain Burton’s goal was to take possession of Baja California for the United States. However, La Paz had already surrendered by the time he arrived. Some La Paz citizens had signed articles of capitulation that allowed them to keep their own laws and elected officials under American occupation. 

Several months later, the United States and Mexico signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexico gave up much of its territory as a result of the treaty. This land was known as Upper California and eventually became the states of California, Nevada, Arizona, and New Mexico. The descendants of Spanish colonists who had lived there when the area was part of Mexico were known as Californios. Baja California, however, was still part of Mexico. The United States promised some of its residents American citizenship. 

After the war ended, two American ships transported around 480 Baja Californians to Monterey, California. María and her mother Isabel were among the refugees. María enrolled in a local school so she could learn English. María and the other refugees became full U.S. citizens. However, Californios still faced discrimination because of their skin color and Indigenous heritage, and many did not speak English.

María never lost touch with Captain Burton and married him when she was 17 years old in Monterey. Their marriage was described as a love story in California newspapers. One article about them was titled “Enemy Lovers,” because they had different nationalities and religions. Burton was also 13 years older than her. A year after they married, María gave birth to a daughter named Nellie. Two years later, their son Henry was born. By that time, the Burton family lived in San Diego, where Captain Burton was stationed. The government gave the family a large area of farmland called Rancho Jamul. Some of María’s family, including her mother and brother, lived with them there for many years.

María started her writing career while living at Rancho Jamul. She wrote plays, including an adaptation of the Spanish novel Don Quixote. These plays were performed at Mission San Diego, a historic religious outpost for Catholics to spread Christianity in the Americas.

The family moved again in 1859 for Captain Burton’s work. This time, they moved to the East Coast. They lived in several different places during the Civil War, including Rhode Island, New York, Washington, D.C., Delaware, and Virginia. María’s mother and brother stayed in California to take care of Rancho Jamul. 

Captain Burton became an important military officer during the Civil War, and María often socialized at the highest levels of American political society. María became close friends with First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln. Her time in Washington, D.C. gave her an inside look into the scandals and corruption of the federal government. This heavily influenced her work as a writer. 

After the Civil War ended in 1865, Captain Burton was assigned a new position as commander at Fort Monroe in Virginia. Former Confederate president Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina, were there as prisoners of war. María befriended Varina Davis during this time.

“Much wisdom is learnt through tears, but none by forgetting our lessons.”

Captain Burton died of malaria in 1869. María moved back to Rancho Jamul with her two children. She then learned that her ownership of the land was uncertain. Captain Burton had officially owned the land and he did not have a will when he died. And new laws also made it easier for white Americans to claim land owned by Californios. As a Latina whose husband left no will, María refused to give up the land and fought to keep it in court. She later started several businesses at Rancho Jamul to earn a living. She raised cattle, grew wheat and barley, and produced castor beans. 

María never forgot about her heritage and homeland. She sued to claim a tract of land in Baja California as her own. The Mexican government gave her grandfather this land in 1825 as a reward for his three years of service as governor of the area. María identified herself as Mexican in the legal proceedings, even though she had been an American citizen since 1848. 

She published her first book entitled Who Would Have Thought It? in 1872. María published the book anonymously. She never used her own name in her publications. She might have wanted to hide her identity as a woman and a Latina. Her first novel was a satire of the United States during the Civil War. The book criticized Northern abolitionist society. It described Americans as classist and racist towards the main character, who was Mexican-American. María also included strong and intelligent female characters.

María was struggling financially when she started writing her second novel in 1880. She received a very small pension as the widow of an army officer, which was not enough to live on. The legal battles over Rancho Jamul and Ensenada were also expensive. She wrote the book to make money, according to her personal letters.

María’s second book, The Squatter and the Don, was published in 1885. This time, she used another pen name: C. Loyal. It stood for “Loyal Citizen” or Ciudadano Leal in Spanish. Ciudadano Leal was a common way to sign official Mexican letters at the time. The Squatter and the Don was the first published work written in English from the perspective of a Californio. 

María explored issues of gender and race in her work at a time when there were very few female authors of color. Today, María’s work is considered a forerunner to Chicano/a literature. This is a form of literature written by Mexicans and Mexican-Americans covering themes that include identity and discrimination.

As a Latina who had little choice in becoming American, María thought it was important for people to understand the concerns of the Californio population. The United States promised Californios all the rights of American citizenship. But the United States treated them as second-class citizens. María argued that it was illegal for the United States to take over Mexican land and people. 

To bring in more income, María wrote articles for San Diego newspapers as she continued to fight for her land in court. After years in court, she eventually lost both cases. 

María Ruiz de Burton died in Chicago in 1895 during a business trip. Her family buried her in San Diego.

Vocabulary

  • Baja California: Spanish for “Lower California.” The Mexican state that borders the U.S. state of California.
  • Californio: Spanish-speaking residents of California who had lived there since before the Mexican-American War.
  • capitulation: Surrender.
  • Chicano/a: American of Mexican descent.
  • corruption: Illegal behavior by people in power.
  • pen name: A fake name used by a writer to keep his or her real name a secret.
  • prisoner of war: Soldier or civilian caught by an enemy during a war and kept as a prisoner, usually until the war ends.
  • refugee: Someone who is forced to leave their home or country.
  • satire: Use of humor or exaggeration to criticize something or someone.
  • will: Official document that specifies what happens with your property when you die.

Discussion Questions

  • How was María’s life affected by the Mexican-American war? 
  • How did María’s marriage to Captain Burton shape her life? What opportunities did she have as the wife of a white officer? What challenges did she face as his widow? 
  • María Ruiz de Burton identified as Mexican her entire life but wrote in English under pen names that hid her L