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The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California

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Douglas Monroy maps out the chronological communication amid cultures in Thrown Among Strangers: The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California. Opening with the missions and finishing in the late 1800s, he uses associations of production and labor demands as a scaffold to clarify the dominion of a few groups and the crumbling of others and concludes with the impression that “California would have been, and would be today, a different place indeed if people had done more of their own work.”(Monroy, 276)

Douglas Monroy initiates the account by relating to the customary oral communication methods of the Californian Indians that were in practice during their encounter with Anglo-American and earlier Spanish invaders. The title is inspiration from the argument of the Californian Mexican landowners that they were “thrown among those who were strangers” to their culture. This argument was raised as petition to the United States Congress in 1859. This statement perfectly suited the idea behind Monroy’s work, as it displays explicitly the cultural and historical transformations with purposely focus on claim of work in California in the nineteenth century. Monroy’s main focus in the story is the relationship of Indians with the Spanish and Anglo-American; however, throughout the story the balance is well maintained while explaining the relationship among different groups.

Monroy highlights the persistent recurrence of people being thrown among stranger due to the growing workforce requirement in southern California. Meanwhile, Monroy has proportionally put the culture to understand the early California society and simultaneously the factors that have helped in molding the culture. For instance, relationship related to nature and human sexuality according to different school of thoughts was one major factor to form relation between Indians with Spanish priest in California. On the other hand, the typical Mexican culture was shaping labor relations and relationship between various ethnic groups. Incongruity and variation signed California ethnic behaviors and attitudes pre and post Mexican-American War.

The Spanish entered the region to transform it into a symbolic Hispanic society through order and inter-societal marriage. However, were only successful in spreading syphilis to the new population pushing them to death. Similarly, Anglo-Americans invaded California with contempt for apparent Spanish and Mexican mixture and confidence about the assumed cultural dominance of liberalism and market relations.

However, American farmers extended the use of forced labor peonage and alert justice, justifying their own “liberty” through a racialist eye which kept them from acknowledging the humanity of “the other.” As Monroy so brilliantly accounts, “having people darker than themselves do their work for them was one factor that united Californio and interloping American elites (p. 277).

Turning to the southern California ranchos, he attends to the heritage of missionization on Mexican civilization prior to and subsequent to the Mexican-American War.  The thought of personal property clashed with the Indian’s perception of land; thus, after secularization of the missions, the Indians became laborers without lands, or peones, “shepherdless along with the land-hungry wolves” (127).

The rancheros provided work for the Indians; consequently strengthening the preceding labor model in an understanding Monroy considers seigneurialism.  He notes, “Liberalism thrust on a culture that had not desire or means to assimilate it, or even understand it, translated into libertinism” (133). The ranchos reserved themselves in so far as possible from the Indians so as to shape their own social identity.  “To be de razon meant not to be like Indians” (136).  “Racial ideology was replacing reason and the lack thereof as the divider of the peoples of nineteenth-century California.”(138)   Monroy successfully exemplifies the truth that the ranchos and the Indians were at the same time polarizing and merging (103).

When Spanish colonized California, they attacked the native Indians with foreign thoughts, arms, and diseases. The unique culture that generated from this merger then found itself attacked by Anglo-Americans with their unusual social, political, and economic concepts. Monroy asserted that the disparities between these societies resigned. With this claim, he tracked historical relations among the cultures. Monroy encompassed the era when the religious mission started to settle till the closing of the nineteenth century. He uses the relation of production and workforce demands as outline to describe the control of some groups and the decline of others and wraps up with the view that “California would have been, and would be today, a different place indeed if people had done more of their own work”(276).

According to Monroy, the native Indians of southern California were not successful in wholly adopting the tradition of the Europeans; as a result, the Spanish could only make them reliant, not in adapting them to Spanish ways. The inheritance of Spain that endured to become Mexican California was based on a feudal system of farmers who moved on to supervise, but barely interconnected with the Indian people who existed at the end of the Spanish period near the beginning of the nineteenth century.

When Mexicans, called cholos, moved to southern California from their origin, Spanish Californios, many of whom were the offspring of earlier Indian-Spanish-Mexican intermarriage, started to separate themselves from the immigrants by the favored self-referent gente de razon. Lastly, Monroy reiterates the now eminent change of Mexican Californio society that have occurred after the Anglo-Americans overtook land, merchant economies, and numerical supremacy in the later half of the nineteenth century.

In spite of these trivial critiques, Monroy’s narrative gives a framework of how multicultural accounts in history should be written. Monroy’s has proven his mastery over many perspectives that were prominent elements in the history. Through this mastery, Monroy has prepared a convincing creation from many divergent legacies of control, conquest and societal adaptation.

Monroy’s last chapter elucidates the increasing group of Mexican unskillful labor in Southern California and scrutinizes the psychology at the back of American beliefs.  Contrasting the padres and the rancheros, the market-oriented Anglos experienced no mutual compulsions towards their employees. Monroy calls American traditions egotistic, because “it cannot reflect the reality of another culture because it has severed the ties with ‘other.’  Such others are important or significant only insofar as they add to the adulation of the narcissist.”(269)

Monroy’s book can now be served as the basis of many researches in the future. Especially for those interested in history and/or geography of early California. Using various documented sources such as government official documents, and newspaper reports, Monroy portrays the making of a new society “out of a combination of adaptation, resistance, resignation, and the application of familiar ways and beliefs” (p. 256). His zealous and concerned story calls for assessment with the accounts of other immigrant groups arriving at the United States and benefits from numerous brilliant and well-placed images. For those who consent with Monroy that “the interaction of cultures need not be such a negative ordeal” (p. 276), Thrown Among Strangers is a must read.


Douglas Monroy, 1990, Thrown Among Strangers, The Making of Mexican Culture in Frontier California, University of California Press

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