A History of Mexican Americans in California:
In 1846, the United States invaded and conquered California, then part of the Republic of Mexico. This event, one aspect of the 1846-1848 U.S.-Mexican War, led to U.S. annexation of California through the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. Mexican American history in California had begun.
But if the Mexican American era in California was new, the roots of the Chicano1 experience stretched back some three centuries to 1519 when Spaniards and their Indian allies carried out the conquest of the Aztec Empire in central Mexico and established what they called "New Spain." Exploration and colonization spread from Mexico City in all directions. This eventually included settlements throughout the northern frontier in the areas now occupied by the states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and of course, California.
Hispanic settlement of what is now California began in 1769 when the Presidio and Catholic mission of San Diego were established. By 1823, 20 more missions dotted the California coast from San Diego to Sonoma, along with several military presidios and civilian communities. With few exceptions, the settlers and their descendants stayed close to the coast. There were few extensions into the California interior.
The California economy was based on agriculture and livestock. In contrast to central New Spain, coastal colonists found little mineral wealth. Some became farmers or ranchers, working for themselves on their own land or for other colonists. Government officials, priests, soldiers, and artisans settled in towns, missions, and presidios.
Socially, a combination class-caste system developed, although it lacked the rigidity of that in central New Spain. Most residents belonged to the lower and lower-middle classes, but some colonists arrived with or attained upper-class status, mainly through ranching or the acquisition of land grants. They reflected varied backgrounds peninsular (born in Spain), criollo (born in New Spain of pure Spanish ancestry), Indian, Black, mestizo (of Spanish and Indian ancestry), mulato (of Spanish and African ancestry), and zambo (of Indian and African ancestry). Most colonists were of mixed racial backgrounds, and the process of mestizaje (racial mixture) continued in California, including mixture with various California Indian civilizations. Many mestizos strove, sometimes successfully, to become identified as pure-blooded Spaniards because racial identity affected socio-economic mobility. Whites generally held major government positions, church offices, and private lands, while mestizos and Indians were concentrated at lower levels of the social structure. However, many people with mixed blood did succeed in becoming ranch owners and leading Californios, which sometimes brought an accompanying change of ethnic identity.
For the most part, Spanish California developed in relative isolation despite nominal central government control through appointed officials. When Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821, central government control was even further diminished. In particular, Mexican independence opened the California door to trade with other countries, especially the United States. In the early 1820s, Anglo-Americans2 developed an intensive trade with California via sailing ships around Cape Horn. The Old Spanish Trail, established in 1829 to link Los Angeles and Santa Fe, New Mexico, became the first major northern Mexican interprovincial trade route. Moreover, it linked California to the Santa Fe Trail between New Mexico and the United States.
Trade with the United States began the process of economic detachment of California and New Mexico from central Mexico. Ships brought hides and tallow from California in exchange for manufactured goods from both the United States and England. Increased trade led to increased demand for consumer goods, and therefore, greater dependence on the United States as the primary source of supply. Along with a burgeoning economy, California also experienced periodic revolutions, as large landowners vied for political supremacy, and the Mexican government made intermittent, sometimes unpopular, efforts to tighten the reins
One of the most dramatic and significant events of the Mexican period occurred in 1833, when the Mexican government secularized the missions. This meant that vast mission landholdings were taken over by the government, which in turn awarded them as land grants to Californios. Soon huge sprawling ranchos became the basic socio-economic units of the province. While upward mobility remained difficult, some Mexicans succeeded in making the transition into the California elite, particularly with the help of these land grants.
During the 1821-1846 period, Anglo-Americans began to settle in California. Many of these settlers, particularly those who had come by ship, eventually married Mexican women (usually of the local aristocracy), became Mexican citizens, and obtained land grants. In contrast, Anglo overland pioneers who settled in the Sacramento Valley of northern California brought their families, stayed to themselves, and resisted integration into Mexican society. It was this group that ultimately rebelled in 1846 against its Mexican hosts and formed the short-lived secessionist Bear Flag Republic, which disappeared during the U.S. conquest of California.
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