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Race Relations in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century California

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Nancy Heise

Dr. Schultz

HIST 4405-40

16 August 2016

Race Relations in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century California

Stereotypes and racial biases have controlled the human race for as long as it has existed. Perhaps one of the most intense periods of creation of negative racial attitudes was during the empirical period of Europe and afterwards into the continued meeting of races. In every case of one race meeting another, a race holding the most privileges emerged. Eighteenth and nineteenth century California provides numerous examples of races meeting one another and one becoming marginalized. In the late 1700s, Spanish expeditions into California to claim it for the Spanish crown had Europeans claiming their place above the natives, as they did in every other global instance of imperialism. Then, as whites flocked to Mexican California from the US in the 1800s, the once privileged European groups, now Hispanics, joined the underclass. In the mid nineteenth century, northern California was populated with whites, and an influx of Chinese immigrants began. At this racial meetup, whites had already established themselves as the dominant race in California, and kept themselves that way by marginalizing the Chinese. A pattern of oppression and submission that is common throughout world history plagued the development of California as well. Leading to the conclusion that privileged groups are nearly identical in their attitudes towards and relationships with the marginalized groups that make up the underclass of their societies. Even California’s last frontier cannot be excluded.

Racial attitudes in California in the late eighteenth century and through the nineteenth century can be exemplified by the attitude the first Europeans had towards the natives of the region. The initial and lasting attitude of the Iberians towards the natives of California was characterized by the same ideas of ethnocentrism that plagued the encounters between natives and Europeans throughout the Americas. That is to say, the natives were seen as heathens: uncivilized and indolent.

Iberians who traveled to the west coast of North America had the goal of making natives “people of reason.” The notion that natives were without reason is reiterated throughout Douglas Monroy’s Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California. Because the Spaniards maintained the idea that their culture and way of life was surely the only way to live correctly, they tried to assimilate the natives to it.

Natives in the area didn’t assimilate, they only became dependent on the missions. The arrival of the Spanish had upset the natural ways of life that provided the natives with year-round food and shelter. Because of the language barrier, and a lack of attempt at trying to break that barrier down, the Europeans were unsuccessful in their endeavor of incorporating the natives to make them seamless citizens of new Spain. True, the objective of the Spanish conquest in California was a predominantly religious one. But, the world view of the natives could not be changed because of the lack of ability to adequately communicate Catholicism to them. In short, the missions had not made any successes in truly converting the natives to their European brand of reason. Rather, through the Iberian’s impertinence to the way of life of the natives, they made the natives dependent upon their reason.

The failure of the missions to include natives in their practices was the first step in creating a racially biased class system. Of course, this bias had less to do with race itself than with the religious differences between the races. Nonetheless, the racial bias toward the natives made them lower class citizens. After Mexican independence was declared, the country began using California as a dumping ground for their less than desirable citizens. These immigrants became the middle class of California. The upper class during the early nineteenth century were the “people of reason,” the original settlers and their descendants. In an effort to distinguish themselves from the Mexican immigrants who were hereditarily of the same race, the “people of reason” began referring to themselves not as Mexicans, but as Californios.

Attitudes about race were obviously not all positive before Anglo-American and English people began arriving in California. Because of their arrival, though, negative racial biases only deepened. Their pale skin enticed the Californios because of its clear discernibility from the native’s olive skin tones. Despite the business-like, uncatholic nature of the white men’s pursuits in California, the Californios began arranging for their daughters to marry the Anglo men. These marriages not only improved the social and racial statuses of the brides’ families, they also created an ideal economic situation for the white men.

As much as the “people of reason” disliked and misunderstood the natives’ practices upon their arrival, some of the native lifestyle made it into the reason of the Californios. One of these practices was to believe that giving property, rather than solely accumulating it, increased one’s status. The tendency of the Californios to display their status by giving was quickly taken advantage of by their white sons-in-law. Another way of life Californios picked up from the natives was their laziness. When Anglo-Americans began arriving in larger numbers, they described Californios as indolent, a term the “people of reason” had used to describe natives not even a century before. Because of this and the skin tone differences, a new racial class of purely Anglos emerged.

In addition to deepening racial tensions, the integration of Anglo-Americans into the Mexican California lifestyle created larger disparities between the upper class and the lower classes. Monroy’s best example of these disparities is his discussion of the way one town celebrated Mexican Independence Day in 1840. Up to that point, many of the celebrations had been socially integrated. Ceremonies for weddings and baptisms were usually segregated by class, but the partying that followed gave the classes a chance to “rub elbows” with each other in friendly gaiety. On September 16, 1840 two separate celebrations were thrown. One party was held in the plaza for the lower classed masses. Another party was hosted by a white man and his Californian wife for other Anglos and Californios, for one of the first times, the lower classes were excluded completely.

This exclusion continued into the 1850s. 1849 began the huge influx of Gold Rushing Anglo-Americans who held prejudices against Mexicans and their culture. The Californios, though still intermarrying with whites, maintained a culture that was not considered “American.” As the Anglo-Americans developed an industrialized economy in California, the Californios found themselves excluded from the upper social classes of the new society. The elitist exclusion they once were on the top of, flipped, leaving Californios on the underside with natives and Mexican immigrants.

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