Identity: It’s Not That Simple!

© Albert V Vela PhD

January 12, 2019

Identity is not that simple because it has many layers of meaning. For instance, someone may be asked to answer questions about one’s religious affiliation, socio-economic status (class), place of birth, age, marital status, address, political affiliation, gender, nationality, educational achievement, places traveled, ideologies, race, citizenship, ethnicity, etc.

In this study I am primarily interested in ethnicity. In her revised edition of The Archaeology of Ethnogenesis (2008), Barbara Voss points out that “ethnicity is something people do rather than something people are.” She adds that “[I]t is an active, ongoing process, not a static category,” (p xix). Because a community’s “ethnicity” is constantly changing, it is not subject easy to classify. It’s like trying to hit a flying target.

By ‘ethnogenesis’ Voss refers to the formation and development of an ethnic group through self-identification and as identified by a more dominant group. She states,

              “[Ethnogenesis does not occur only as a struggle against institutionalized inequalities; it is also a      strategy for legitimizing or maintaining unequal access to power or resources,” (p xxii).

Students of US History can easily see what Voss means by looking at the power relations between the Anglo Americans and the Indigenous nations from the time of the colonies to their westward migration. By and by, Anglos considered the Native American as savages and removed them from their ancestral lands. This relationship endures because the powerful dominant group controls the political and legal systems (p xxii). In a similar way the Spanish colonists in California controlled the vastly numerical Indigenous.

Parenthetically and speaking of identity, Voss notes that Californios (members of the organization, Los Californios) whom she met at the start of her investigations at the Presidio de San Francisco in 1992, would introduce themselves as Spanish. She surmised that they identified with European culture as a way of surviving socially, economically, and culturally in the face of anti-Mexican and anti-Native American racism (p xxix). This report totally surprised me because I surmised that by the 1990s at least, most of my Orange County Mexican American amigos knew their identity and were proud of their heritage. They didn’t hide behind ethnic labels like Hispanic, Spanish-speaking, Latina/o, of Spanish heritage, etc.

Back to our study

A historian, anthropologist, and archaeologist, Voss totally disagrees with popular and scholarly reports of Alta California history where military colonists are identified as “Spanish soldiers.” In her view, this is “grossly misleading.” She states that most of the settlers were born in New Spain (Mexico and its territories), a huge number in the Interior Provinces (p 83). In the main, a few settlers were Spanish but the majority were mestizos (offspring of Spanish and Indian) and mulattos (offspring of Spanish and African). [In 1821 they became Mexican nationals when Mexico became a republic after driving out the Spaniards from Mexico].

The Spanish law that prevailed in Alta California in the 18th century is captured in the sistema de castas that defined one’s racial status. The sistema de castas (up to forty categories) made possible “the explicit recognition of mixed heritage and opportunities for individual upward mobility” (p 83). She views this construction of race as markedly different from the Anglo-American system of race. Though Voss doesn’t explain the difference, I believe she means Anglo American’s misegenation laws made it illegal for whites to marry Blacks. This was not the case in New Spain because Spaniards (peninsulars and criollos) could legally marry outside their español casta.

According to Voss, most of the military colonists were able to change their casta during a period of fifteen years, 1769-1784. In so doing, they “undermined the sistema de castas and minimized the racial differences among the colonial population of the settlement,” p 83). The archaeologist uses the data in The Census of 1790 by William Marvin Mason to support her point.

              Of the sixty-seven men and women listed as residents of the Presidio in 1790, twenty-five came from Sinaloa and nineteen from Sonora, together constituting two-thirds of the Presidio’s adult population. Eighteen had been born in the other provinces of New Spain, including Baja California, Jalisco, Chihuahua, Zacatecas, Nayarit, Querétaro, Durango, and Mexico City.

              One adult resident, a retired soldier named Manuel Buitrón, had been born in Spain. Additionally, four colonists had been born in Alta California: mostly teenaged women married to older soldiers, they represented the beginning ascendancy of the first generation of California-born colonists, (in Voss, pp 83-84). Buitrón was one of a small number of Spaniards who married a Native Californian.

The number of presidial colonists increased with arrival of Catalonian Volunteers (1796-1803) and the San Blas infantry (1819-1823). As in the case of the original residents, most of them were born in the Interior Provinces. Voss reiterates the fact of their birth in the Americas “in order to dispel the romantic myth of Spanish California as a land of titled caballeros,” (p 84).

Voss indicates another significant difference racially-speaking between the Spanish sistema of casta and the American system of race. A person of mixed parentage could move to español if s/he had European-like cultural traits, “or was one of more generations removed from non-European ancestors,” (p 85). In addition persons of African and/or Indian ancestry could buy a license, a cedula de gracias al sacar. The bearer of cedula entitled him/her to the significant rights and privileges of the españolcasta. Residents could also move up the social ladder by means of marriage, patronage, migration, appealing to the court, and changes in physical appearance (p 86).

To highlight the “whitening” of the lower castas, Voss cites Miranda (1988, p 275) about the experience of a traveler who complained:

              “The least drop of Spanish blood, if it only be a quadroon or octoroom, is sufficient to raise one from a position of a serf, and entitles him to wear a suit of clothes and to call himself Español, and to hold property,” (Voss, p 86).

In 1776 Anza’s expedition brought to the San Francisco Presidio a number of new military settlers. They were described as respectable, impoverished and landless; persons who lacked financial resources and social connections. Their castas in 1776 were 39% español; 31% mulatto; and 12% indio.

In the Census records of 1782 and 1790, the español casta numbered 44% in 1782 and 57% in 1790. The mestizos also increased from 31% in 1776 to 33% in 1782 dropping slightly to 29% in 1790. Significantly, in the span of fifteen years the majority of the population emerged as español (pp 90-91).

The changes in racial identities continued into the 1790s. Disappearing were the four racial classifications that gave way to gente de razón (literally, people with reason) and gente sin razón. The gente de razón were the Christian colonizers while the Native Americans became the gente sin razón—the colonized (pp 101-102).   

The process of self-identity continued into the early 1800s when the colonizers described themselves as hijas and hijos del país (daughters and sons of the land), Californios, and Californias. This metamorphosis took place during the period of isolation from Mexico and when the residents began thinking of self-rule (p 102).

At this point of her investigation of the social identification of the Alta California colonists, Voss attacks the misconceptions of historians who described the period of the 1820-1840 with romantic notions of pastoralism and feudalism (p 103). Following the US defeat of Mexico (1848), Anglo Americans denigrated Californios (Mexican Americans) seeing them as “lazy, indolent, backward, wasteful, uneducated, and immoral,” portrayals that “served to justify the U.S. annexation of California and Anglo-Americans’ seizure of Californios’ lands and livestock,”  (p 103). The early Anglo American histories of Californios painted romantic pictures of fandangos, “virile rancheros, and beautiful women” who were logically displaced by the more energetic, enterprising americanos (p 104).

Barbara Voss correctly identifies Hubert Howe Bancroft as the major originator of the romantic tales/histories of early Californio myths. Bancroft funded the research for the seven-volume History of California (1886-1890) and California Pastoral (1888). She believes that mischaracterizations of the Californio period persist today in scholarly and popular works. Renato Rosaldo (1989, in Voss, p 104) refers to the Spanish myths as “imperialist nostalgia,” a period where “conquerors mourn the passing of the traditional culture that they themselves transformed,” (p 104).

Voss ends “Chapter 4: From Casta To Californio, II” by briefly summing up her study of the malleability of social identity in Alta California’s Presidio of San Francisco. She lists five major conclusions:

              “The first was a shift from individual or family-based identity to a collective colonial identity. The second, closely related trend was a transition from a heterogeneous society, diverse in heritage and places or origin, to one that represented itself as internally homogeneous. Third, the internal homogeneity of colonial society was contrasted against Native Californian‘others.’ Fourth, the growing distinction between the colonial settlers and the Native Californians among whom they lived and worked was supported by the colonists’ repudiation of their own indigenous and African ancestry in exchange for español and Californio identities. Fifth, distinctions among colonists were increasingly expressed not as racial differences but as differences in honor, economic means, landownership, and political affiliation,” (p 115).

Note: The March Article on Identity will be a discussion of Albert L Hurtado’s analytical study, “Fantasy Heritage: California’s Historical Identities and the Professional Empire of Herbert E Bolton.” Bolton made his way to California in 1909 where he established a dynasty working at Stanford University.

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