Author Interview: Camille Suárez

Author Interview: Camille Suárez

Today we share an interview with Camille Suárez, who published an article in the March 2023 JCWE, titled “A Legal Confiscation: The 1851 Land Act and the Transformation of Californios into Colonized Colonizers.” Camille Suárez is an assistant professor of history at CalState LA. As a historian of the US West, she focuses on the history of California, the Mexican American experience, and the environment. At present, she is finalizing her first book manuscript.

Thanks for participating in this interview, Camille. What interested you in the topic? 

When I began working on nineteenth century California, I was struck by the absence of Californios from the narrative and the lack of scholarship that explored their complex role and motivations in California politics. I wanted to understand the political motivations behind Californios’ political decisions. For example, what can we learn when we investigate Andrés Pico’s support of state division in 1859 independent from pro-slavery Southern supporters’ motives? With Mexican land grants, in particular, I wanted to understand how Californios attempted to negotiate an extralegal land seizure that violated their treaty rights. As I looked at Californio sources, it became clear to me that there was a larger story to write about state making and the encounter between two cultures that, I would argue, shapes present-day racial logics in California and the United States.

I appreciate how you examine Anglo-American and Californio settlers’ efforts to establish legitimate landholding practices according to their culturally specific racial logic.  As you conducted your research, was there an interesting source, person, and/or development that shaped your conclusions? 

A portrait of elite Californios Pablo de la Guerra, Salvador Vallejo, and Andres Pico taken in 1865. Courtesy of the Sonoma County History & Genealogy Library.

The life and archival record left by Pablo de la Guerra has been integral to my conclusions, that is why he is a central actor of the article! De la Guerra’s remarks at the 1849 California Constitutional Convention helped me understand why Californios would ally with Anglo-American settlers immediately after a war conquest. When the delegates discussed citizenship rights, Anglo-American delegates attempted to exclude Californios on the basis of whiteness; and as a delegate, de la Guerra questioned the American definition of whiteness because he saw Californios as included in the category, even if Anglo-Americans didn’t. Rather that push back against this definition of whiteness, de le Guerra attempted to perform his whiteness or superiority by making clear that he also believed that people of African descent ought not to be considered full citizens. As a settler class, Californios attempted to perform their superiority by upholding settler and racial regimes. I think understanding this strategy has allowed me to uncover de la Guerra’s and other Californios’ rationale and goals in their dealings with Anglo-American settlers and other racialized groups.


What are the key takeaways that you hope that readers might gain for either their own teaching or future research? 

When teaching the late-nineteenth century, I hope after reading the article one feels ready to highlight the role Californios performed in California becoming a US state. I also hope other scholars pursue work that recovers the Mexican national and Indigenous voices that shaped the politics and social worlds of the region after the US-Mexico War, and well into the Reconstruction Era. With my research, I hope to highlight the political power that a variety of people wielded to abet or challenge the settler state.

After this interesting article, what’s next? Can you provide our readers with a preview of your current research project? 

At the moment, I am finishing up my book manuscript, tentatively titled Colonial State Making: The Conflict Over Race, Land, and Citizenship in California, 1846 – 1879. Colonial State Making is a history of multiracial state-making in California that considers state makers beyond white settlers. In the manuscript, I center Californios, as an elite settler class, and demonstrate their central role in cementing US authority in the region and the making of a racial hierarchy that privileged whiteness. In addition to centering Californios, I make efforts to highlight the varied efforts, such as that of Black American communities, to reject the imposition of a racial hierarchy in a free state.

I am also working on an article about Reconstruction Era California, that I think would be of great interest to JCWE readers. In this article, I parse through Californio actions, mostly that of Los Angeles-based Californio, Antonio Coronel, to aid the state Democrat Party during Reconstruction. I wanted to better understand why the California State Legislature refused to ratify the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and the roots of the state’s anti-immigrant policies. In Los Angeles and Santa Barbara County, the Californio electorate played a crucial role in Democrat electoral victories. Elite Californios, like Coronel, made speeches on behalf of the Democrat Party and explicitly rejected the multiracial project of Reconstruction. By looking at Spanish-language sources, I think we get a better sense of how and why California rejected Reconstruction and embraced white supremacist polices in the late nineteenth century.

Thank for these responses!

Hilary N. Green

Hilary N. Green is the James B. Duke Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College. She previously worked in the Department of Gender and Race Studies at the University of Alabama where she developed the Hallowed Grounds Project. She earned her M.A. in History from Tufts University in 2003, and Ph.D. in History from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2010. Her research and teaching interests include the intersections of race, class, and gender in African American history, the American Civil War, Reconstruction, as well as Civil War memory, African American education, and the Black Atlantic. She is the author of Educational Reconstruction: African American Schools in the Urban South, 1865-1890 (Fordham, 2016).

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