California’s Winners and Losers

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, I share an excerpt from my newest novel, Kit’s Mine, the story of how a native Californio dealt with the changing times of 1870 California. Individual property ownership offered by America’s Homestead Act was a new concept for Spanish and Mexicans. The Spanish mercantilism system of granting large tracts of land to favored citizens who in turn hired employees to work it, or at best rented the land in return for a share of crops, was profitable for the landowner. However, it kept the lower and middle classes beholden to the upper class forever, with no chance for improving their lots:

“Actually, Kit is excited by the challenge of our new venture as property owners,” Michael said. “We both believe in America’s laws encouraging people to develop their own land, instead of working to increase its worth for a landlord, as they do in Mexico and Spain.”

A solicitous waiter approached and hovered near Diego’s elbow. Michael waved him off.

“That’s idealistic, Miguel,” Diego replied. “You’ll soon find that this country, identical to others, prefers its property owned by moneyed citizens. There is no value in simpletons establishing a home merely for the sake of ownership. People should leave that to educated gentlemen who turn land into productive assets for the greater good. Besides, working your individual ranch like a slave is not a pathway to become influential in society.”

Michael itched to pop Diego’s smirking ego. “Why would I want influence in your piddling circle? From what I’ve seen, the corruption of these so-called gentlemen is worse than among common prisoners. If your great society continues demeaning the hard-working folk, how will you and your kind find more to exploit?”

Kit nodded her discreet approval.

Michael rested his forearms on the tabletop, drilling Diego with his gaze. “Who will work the land for you, produce your food, and build the railroads so you can travel quickly to Washington in comfort? Or build your fancy homes and take care of your children so you can entertain lavishly to impress your powerful friends? Who will you be influencing but each other, once people refuse to work for you anymore?”

“You think you’re able to change society from the outside by working hard on your land, instead of letting the cream of society make improvements from the inside?” Diego’s loud laugh filled the dining room.

Image courtesy of Calisphere Project.

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