Martin on Pubols, 'The Father of All: The de la Guerra Family, Power, and Patriarchy in Mexican California'

Louise Pubols
Cheryl E. Martin

Louise Pubols. The Father of All: The de la Guerra Family, Power, and Patriarchy in Mexican California. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009. xi + 435 pp. $44.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87328-240-6.

Reviewed by Cheryl E. Martin Published on H-Borderlands (February, 2012) Commissioned by Benjamin H. Johnson

Power and Patriarchy in Mexican California

The opening chapters of Louise Pubols’s well-written and carefully documented study of the de la Guerra family of Santa Bárbara, California, clearly demonstrate why she chose to title her book The Father of All. Spanish-born military officer José de la Guerra is the central figure in this history, and members of his large family play important supporting roles. He arrived in Alta California in 1801 and quickly established California roots with his marriage to María Antonia Carrillo y Lugo, daughter of his commanding officer. The Carrillos and the Lugos were typical of the province’s earliest settlers, racially mixed individuals who had left the impoverished towns and mining centers of Sinaloa and Sonora in search of better times, racial “whitening,” and upward social mobility through military service.

De la Guerra became commander of the Santa Bárbara presidio in 1815, a position he held until 1827. His Spanish birth, military rank, connections in Mexico City, wife’s extended family, and shrewd business acumen helped him build a diversified enterprise that survived the political turmoil and shifting economic climate of California in the first half of the nineteenth century. His official responsibility for overseeing presidio accounts and supply chains enabled him to steer contracts toward his uncle’s Mexico City trading firm and to his own burgeoning commercial ventures. He carefully nurtured relationships with ship captains and Franciscan missionaries, many of them fellow Spaniards, and garnered handsome commissions trading with merchants from Peru and the Philippines as well as New Spain. 

By the 1820s, de la Guerra had broadened his business and family ties to include merchants from Great Britain and the United States. His daughter Teresa’s marriage to a Briton and her sister Anita’s to an American formed part of a calculated “strategy to capture the potentially hostile traders and integrate them into Californio systems of family obligation and dependence” (p. 10). He further consolidated his networks of patronage and trust through compadrazgo, the fictive kinship relations among individuals and their children’s godparents. Missions, rancheros, soldiers, farmers, and artisans all came to depend on him to market their produce and secure crucial imported goods. Throughout Alta California, de la Guerra won renown as “a man with excellent contacts and a full warehouse” (p. 43). Although he never held elective office, his kinfolk, compadres, and business associates occupied important posts in local politics after Mexican independence.

De la Guerra’s stature rested on the ethos of patriarchy, defined by Pubols as “the cultural and political patterns in Mexican California that linked father-elder dominance within families to the understanding of authority generally” (p. 8). As family patriarch, he directed his children’s marriage choices, restricted the freedom of his adult sons even after they married, and controlled the lives of his servants. As community patriarch, he offered succor in times of need and hospitality on special occasions, but also played the role of firm disciplinarian. He championed the Franciscans’ “cultural project of making California’s Indians ‘children,’ subject to their colonial ‘fathers’” (p. 59), pursuing neophytes who fled the mission, supervising contract and convict Indian workers at the presidio, and suppressing the revolt of the Chumash people in 1824. He also meddled in the affairs of the growing civilian communities of Santa Bárbara and Los Angeles. 

Despite its title, this book is much more than the story of one powerful man and his family. Through the lens of patriarchy, Pubols examines the broader political controversies that divided California after Mexican independence, concluding that “the true fissure was not just between federalist and centralist, of California and Mexico, or north and south, but also between father and son” (p. 150). As José de la Guerra’s own sons and other second-generation Californios reached adulthood, their fathers were often reluctant to allow them to become autonomous patriarchs in their own right. Liberal ideology, especially its emphasis on the secularization of mission lands, offered these young men an alternative means of establishing their fortunes, and they became the core of the emergent ranchero elite of the 1840s and champions of a new Californian identity that was neither Spanish nor Mexican. Yet as they attained economic independence and political influence, they deployed the language and performance of patriarchy every bit as adeptly as their fathers before them. The de la Guerra family and the patriarchal values of the Californios proved similarly flexible and resilient through the war with the United States. Although they resisted the American occupation, the de la Guerras also “attempted to project a public image of themselves as moderates and mediators between the American forces and the more radical or militant Californios of all classes” (p. 257). In so doing, they secured for themselves a foothold in the new political order after the war ended.

Borderlands historians face a particularly daunting challenge. Most of us were trained either as U.S. historians or Latin Americanists, but doing justice to our subject often requires that we engage two separate historiographies and seek out sources from both sides of the international boundary. Pubols uses a wealth of manuscript sources, all from California repositories, and just a handful of published Mexican primary sources. She does, however, demonstrate a clear understanding of nineteenth-century Mexican politics, drawing on the best recent scholarship on the emergence of new political actors and the substantive ideological debates that underlay the frequent shifts of power in Mexico City. Her discussion of honor and patriarchy is similarly well grounded in Latin Americanists’ work on these topics. She thus succeeds in bridging the historiographical divide that sometimes flaws otherwise good Borderlands histories.

Although the book ends somewhat abruptly with California statehood, Pubols contributes to a growing body of Borderlands literature on continuity and change during the first few decades after 1848. The “decline” of Southern California’s elites did not follow immediately on the U.S. takeover. De la Guerra’s sons successfully wedded old-style paternalism with the electoral politics of the new era, creating a political machine that endured until the arrival of large numbers of Anglo settlers in the 1870s. Her brief epilogue sketches the deterioration of the family’s economic base after 1850, but she could have done more to explore their political tactics in the 1850s and 1860s, beyond the overview that she has provided in an essay included in Continental Crossroads: Remapping U.S.-Mexico Borderlands History, edited by Samuel Truett and Elliott Young, and published by Duke University Press in 2004. This minor quibble aside, The Father of All belongs on a “must-read” list for every serious student of Borderlands history. 

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Citation: Cheryl E. Martin. Review of Pubols, Louise, The Father of All: The de la Guerra Family, Power, and Patriarchy in Mexican California. H-Borderlands, H-Net Reviews. February, 2012. URL:

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