Today we welcome a guest blog post from Karen R. Roybal, author of Archives of Dispossession: Recovering the Testimonios of Mexican American Herederas, 1848–1960, on the importance of archival research.
One method of American territory expansion in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands was the denial of property rights to Mexican landowners, which led to dispossession. Many historical accounts overlook this colonial impact on Indigenous and Mexican peoples, and existing studies that do tackle this subject tend to privilege the male experience. In Archives of Dispossession, Karen R. Roybal recenters the focus of dispossession on women, arguing that gender, sometimes more than race, dictated legal concepts of property ownership and individual autonomy. Drawing on a diverse source base—legal land records, personal letters, and literature—Roybal locates voices of Mexican American women in the Southwest to show how they fought against the erasure of their rights, both as women and as landowners. Woven throughout Roybal’s analysis are these women’s testimonios—their stories focusing on inheritance, property rights, and shifts in power. Roybal positions these testimonios as an alternate archive that illustrates the myriad ways in which multiple layers of dispossession—and the changes of property ownership in Mexican law—affected the formation of Mexicana identity.
Archives of Dispossession is available now in both print and e-book editions.
Do You Swear to Tell Nothing but the Truth?
On March 29, 1887, María Cleofas Bóne de López was sworn in to testify for a case presented by the U.S. Surveyor General’s Office. She was one of thousands of Mexican American land grant heirs asked to provide permissible documents that would confirm their status as legal property owners. Bóne de López was a member of a Mexican American community whose livelihoods were tied to the land in question, which was situated in La Junta, a small northeastern New Mexico town. The community members in La Junta, along with numerous Mexican American families throughout the U.S. Southwest were undergoing an enormous legal and cultural transition. Anglo American settlers made their way west and a new U.S. legal system was established after the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), which impacted them in significant ways. Bóne de López’s family history is quite intriguing. Her father, Santiago Bóne, was an English immigrant whose real name was James Bonney; it is rumored that he was the grandfather of the infamous “Billy the Kid.” In an effort to fit in to the Mexican community of which he wanted to become a part, he changed his name to Santiago Bóne, married a Mexican woman, and was granted a parcel of land by her father. This parcel was the land to which Bóne de López and her siblings lay claim in 1887.
I discovered Bóne de López’s deposition to the U.S. Surveyor General in the Spanish Archives of New Mexico – what is considered the “official” archive on land adjudication proceedings by the U.S. government and the dominant public. The discovery was a eureka moment for me. After days and weeks of combing through the archive and reviewing land grant records on microfiche, I was beginning to lose hope that I would find any gendered voice in the archive. This finding, I believe, was a great one; out of 1,000 testimonios, or testimonies, I examined, Bóne de López’s was one of the two provided by a female. Locating her testimonio revealed that the idea of the masculine western frontier and history of property ownership was influenced in a direct way by women.
In Archives of Dispossession, you’ll learn the outcome of Bóne de López’s legal case, but here I use her story to emphasize two points: (1) the importance of archival research in locating and (re)telling alternative histories, and (2) the importance of women’s legal rights to influence the outcomes of issues that impact their lives directly.
Archival research can be taxing…combing through manuscripts, legal documents, and other ephemera takes time and patience. However, the process of discovery that comes along with that work is not only fulfilling, but it provides a way for us to gain important knowledge about the people, places, and stories that are not told in our dominant, or “official,” histories. Locating clues about the history of those whose stories are often placed in the margins of historical narratives is important for preserving culture, tradition, and more well-rounded interpretations of our past. Though archival research can be isolating, it requires the researcher to establish her/his own network with archivists, other researchers, and local peoples who have knowledge about the topics we’re interested in exploring. I could go on and on about the importance of archival research, but I’d like to return to Bóne de López’s story.
The testimonio that she provided to the U.S. Surveyor General provided not only her family history, which is an important part of Archives of Dispossession, but it also reveals the enduring struggle that women have had to endure to make their voices heard in the public record. With the current political climate, especially that which impacts women’s rights, it is ever more pressing to acknowledge that women have been active politically, legally, and socially, for centuries. Bóne de López’s presence in that legal setting demonstrates that she knew the importance of her voice in that space.
Archival research is not only about finding materials to tell stories about the past – it is about the reciprocal relationship between the past and how it impacts the present.
Karen R. Roybal is assistant professor of Southwest studies at Colorado College.