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The Borderlands

The Travail of War: Women and Children in the Years
After the U.S.-Mexican War

by Deena González
Pomona College

Painting of civilians at a fort with an American flagBy any standard or measure, María Gertrudes Barceló would have been considered a success. In 1844, she appeared before judge Tomás Ortiz to record a property deed for a house of nine rooms, plus another, smaller house, composed of porches and an entryway. The home stood not far from the central plaza in Santa Fe. Recording at the court legal ownership was not an unusual custom, not even for poorer men or women; under Spanish laws dating back to the 14th century, women were allowed to own and retain property and dowries in their family name. The same practices also allowed women to retain their family names in marriage. Barceló's action seems unusual only in the context that in the mid-1840s, more documents such as hers were being filed than ever before. What had happened?

As more merchants and traders arrived from the United States, some legally entitled by both the U.S. and Mexican governments to enter Northern Mexican territory — Santa Fe, in this case — they began to change the economic climate of the place. Illegal immigrants from the United States also flowed into Santa Fe, capitalizing on the need for manufactured items; their caravans out of Missouri and all the way down to Chihuahua City have sometimes been viewed as a positive development in frontier life. But the ruddy trail, the imprint on the road they created from Missouri to Chihuahua, had a decisively negative impact on women and children who were not like Doña Gertrudes Barceló, owners of large homes or of gambling saloons.

In August 1846, several hundred troops accompanied Stephen Watts Kearney into Santa Fe. He hauled down the Mexican flag and unfurled the Stars and Stripes, declaring to the people of the town (then the largest Mexican settlement west of the Mississippi), "we come to better your condition." Certainly the soldiers improved the lives of business people like Barceló. Known as "La Tules," she profited each time the lonely soldiers entered her establishment; they gambled and drank away their evenings after spending the day constructing a fort on the hill overlooking Santa Fe. In the outskirts of town, several resistance fighters plotted to overthrow the hated Euro-Americans, but each skirmish ended badly and no unified effort against the soldiers, their weapons, supplies and government vouchers proved successful.

Men who arrived in Santa Fe decrying the look of the place, calling the buildings "decayed," "dirty," and "mud-locked," left Barceló's gambling hall feeling better about their station. About the people they met, these men, like the merchants who had preceded them in the 1820s and 1840s, would say that the Spanish-Mexican women were "toilers," "slaves to the tyranny of their husbands," and "ugly, debased in all moral values." Perhaps the attitudes dissipated a bit in the saloon; with only one or two exceptions, the merchants and the soldiers would write home lamenting their predicament at being stuck out West in a place that offered them so little in return. Even James Josiah Webb, with 20 years of merchandising experience in Santa Fe, lamented "the Pinos and Ortizes were considered the 'ricos' and those most respectable leaders in society and political influence, but idleness, gambling, and the Indians had made such inroads upon their influence that there was little left except the reputation of honorable descent." His comment conflated "Indianness," "gambling," and hardship and the words became the adjectives these foreigners would use over and over again to describe the New Mexicans, indeed all Mexicans.

The 250 travelogues, diaries, memoirs and articles written "back home," to the southern and eastern United States, focused on the cultural attributes of a "poor" or "downtrodden" race. Few could or would decipher whether Spanish-Mexican people were "mestizos," that is, mixed-race (the majority were), Mexicanos, or Hispanos. Color and class mattered very much on this frontier, as did gender. Spanish-Mexican and Indian women began to work for the conquering army, as they had for the merchants in the previous decades. Their wages would be listed in the census separately, one list for "Americans," another for "Mexicans." For the same job or work, "Mexicans" were consistently paid less. Inflation rose, and in the decades after the war, reports were issued about how poor people flooded the former territorial capitol city of Santa Fe. Beggars became common and one way to stave off complete poverty was to work two or three jobs. In the first official, U.S. census for the town in 1850, over three-fourths of the "Mexican" women named "laundress," "seamstress," and/or "domestic" as their job. Their average household size grew larger and like all Spanish-Mexican residents of Northern Mexico, 90 percent of them lost their lands or properties within the first ten years of the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo.

For these women and their ancestors today, Spanish-Mexican and Native alike, the arrival of the army and the ending of the war conveys a bitter legacy. First, they did not emigrate to the United States; it came to them. Second, the majority of ordinary, working class people of the time, had issued no invitations for takeover or conquest. Third, most could not have envisioned the method used to segregate them economically or physically, in wage work or in land swindles. The gestures of the U.S. government are painfully obvious in the documents of the time: The census placed Americans in one column, Mexicans in another. Indians, many of them carrying Spanish surnames, were nearly invisible, and yet the Pueblo Indians surrounded the town of Santa Fe and many worked for wages as well. Alas, New Mexico would not be deemed (or its people?) worthy of statehood until 64 years later, in 1912. That and these other facts convey what the Americans really had in mind when they conquered Northern México and claimed the land, but not the people.

Today, many heirs to this tradition of takeover reconcile themselves to the War's legacy or to the military invasion of lands and territories. Few have bothered to investigate how either Native peoples or Spanish-Mexicans felt back then, and today the story is still told as if to explain the distant decisions of officials in either Mexico City or Washington, D.C. The border zone, the space in between two countries, tells us a different story. As "fronteriza" Gloria Anzaldúa notes, this is a place where the U.S. and México "rub against each other." Many of the Borderlands' people even talk about how they were "sold" to the U.S., or to the lawyers and capitalists from there. My point in describing the attitudes of westering Americans and of the first residents is not to issue blame, on to conscripted soldiers or generals, but to examine from an historical perspective both the implications and the legacy of the War. Like it or not, we live with both.