Interest in her heritage led UNLV history professor María Raquél Casas to research the subject of her recent book on Mexican/EuroAmerican intermarriage in colonial California, Married to a Daughter of the Land: Spanish-Mexican Women and Interethnic Marriage in California, 1820-1880.
“When I began my graduate career I knew that I wanted to study gender and specifically Chicana history,” Casas says. “Because I am a Mexican-American, I was drawn to women in interethnic marriages, and my family strengthened my interest because three of my siblings intermarried. What I was discussing wasn’t just an academic, intellectual exercise but a very personal one.”
Casas approached her research with thought-provoking memories from her upbringing in a Mexican-American family in the San Joaquin Valley. As a child, she was not only aware of interethnic marriages but also of how gender bias affected perceptions of these relationships.
“When a Chicano or Mexican man married outside his ethnic group, there was little comment or questioning of his motives or identity issues,” Casas says. “But when a Chicana or Mexicana married outside her ethnic group, especially to a Euro-American, she was described in mostly negative terms.”
A woman was seen as “trying to become white,” Casas says, and this made her a “cultural traitor.” At the same time, however, Casas recalls hearing comments suggesting that “marrying someone ‘lighter’ was preferable to marrying someone ‘darker.’” Even in her youth, she perceived the contradiction; as a young historian, she was determined to better understand the origins of the attitudes.
When she began her research, Casas found such themes born out in history books, discovering that women who married Euro-Americans were often written out of much Mexican- American history largely because they were considered supporters of the conquerors.
“However, my work shows that it was never that simplistic,” Casas says, explaining that these women naturally chose their spouses according to their personal needs and desires. “The book helps explain the logic behind these unions so that the human relationships are at the forefront.”
In her book, which is the first major scholarly treatment on the subject, Casas explores a number of stories of Chicanas who married EuroAmericans in California in the mid-1800s. She discusses how such unions contributed to the multicultural development of California society, addressing such issues as class, race, and identity.
The end result is a book that depicts Spanish-Mexican women’s lives during an important era in California history and that shows how these women “negotiated the precarious boundaries of gender and race.”
Casas says that one of the goals of her research was to provide greater context for these interethnic marriages.
“Too often people see intermarriage as a recent social phenomenon with only contemporary consequence,” Casas says. “I hope my work will help people examine intermarriage in the past and understand how persistent and constant it has been in human history.”