Riley Sousa on Pérez, 'Colonial Intimacies: Interethnic Kinship, Sexuality, and Marriage in Southern California, 1769–1885'

Erika Pérez
Ashley Riley Sousa

Erika Pérez. Colonial Intimacies: Interethnic Kinship, Sexuality, and Marriage in Southern California, 1769–1885. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2018. xii + 396 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-5904-1.

Reviewed by Ashley Riley Sousa (Middle Tennessee State University) Published on H-California (November, 2019) Commissioned by Khal Schneider

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In this fascinating examination of interethnic intimacy in colonial Southern California, Erika Pérez demonstrates, with insightful interpretations of a diverse array of sources, how Californians used interethnic intimacy to negotiate successive colonialisms, from the mission era to the US conquest and beyond. Whether through compadrazco (godparentage), intermarriage, or child-rearing practices, indigenous, Spanish/Mexican, and Anglo/foreign Californians depended upon the bonds of kinship to fit themselves and others into rapidly changing colonial economic and legal systems upon which land, livelihood, and survival depended. More than just a simple story of accommodation or resistance, Pérez’s examination of intimate lives and relationships in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century California reveals the limits and contours of colonialisms that could not aspire to hegemony, as well as the limits and contours of how ordinary people adapted to, challenged, and sometimes subverted these imperfect systems of domination and control. Along the way, Pérez challenges a fair amount of received wisdom about indigenous assimilation to mission practices and Californio assimilation to Anglo cultural and legal dominance in this pivotal era. 

Among Pérez’s most important accomplishments in Colonial Intimacies is her use of ethnohistorical methodologies to access indigenous Californians’ experiences and perspectives. In the mission era, Franciscan missionaries strove to infiltrate the private lives of neophytes, relying on confesionarios (questionnaires) to probe the innermost secrets of individuals’ intimate lives and pressing indigenous informants for information about a wide range of sacred practices.  Informants such as the Chumash Christian Fernando Kitsepawit Librado were, in the eyes of indigenous communities, weak links that made them vulnerable to missionary intrusion. Librado recalled how Native communities would keep neophytes at arm’s length, denying them such information about ritual life and spiritual practices. Pérez’s use of Librado’s testimony highlights how and why indigenous communities developed strategies of resistance to total cultural transformation that might not otherwise be apparent. Similarly, her use of Delfina Cuero’s recollections of her ancestors’ lives on the ranchos illustrates flexible patterns of accommodation and adaptation of traditional medical practices. Kumeyaay and presumably other indigenous medical practitioners both adopted Mexican knowledge of plant-based medicines and lent Mexican women practitioners their expertise on using native healing plants. Thus, intimate contacts between indigenous and Mexican women at the household level produced a two-way street of cultural transmission. Both of these examples illustrate why indigenous perspectives are so important to the argument at the heart of her book—that colonists  sought to control and shape the intimate lives and relationships of Californians, but Californians of all racial and ethnic backgrounds could and did use intimate connections to guard and protect those cultural foundations most important to them.   

Pérez’s focus on Californio women’s perspectives complicates the declension narrative of the Californio experience under US rule. She offers case studies of mixed families in which “Californianas transmitted Mexican cultural values … to their mixed-ancestry descendants even after U.S. conquest, offering a corrective to romantic narratives that portrayed such women as assimilationist” (p. 104). Among these case studies are stories of Californianas’ efforts to sustain their culture, such as that of Teresa De la Guerra, who argued for the full racial and cultural equality of Californios in terms of race and progress and placed the Californio community among the pioneers who civilized California, or Arcadia Bandina Stearns de Baker, who along with other Californianas “ruled Los Angeles society in the 1850s and 1860s” by supporting cultural events that commanded the attention and acceptance of “the Anglo-American elite … because of the wealth and influence they commanded” (p. 95). In the domestic sphere, Californianas married to extranjeros (foreigners) continued to exert tremendous influence in the domestic sphere, as many mixed families retained their Catholic faith, bilingualism, and pride in their Mexican heritage well into the era of US control when such cultural retention presented no clear political or economic advantage. 

Perhaps my inherent Northern Californian bias makes me side-eye a study that excludes the better half of my home state (kidding, of course), but I was left curious about Pérez’s reasoning for focusing on Southern California. I have some guesses, but a clearer statement about Southern California as a geographic unit of analysis would have added to the usefulness of this book. I suspect a focus on Northern California, with the presence of the Russian colonial outpost at Fort Ross, the presence of Swiss, German, English, and Irish settlers at John Sutter’s New Helvetia colony, as well as extensive contact with Hudson’s Bay Company agents, might have yielded a much more complex, and possibly unwieldy, set of interethnic relations to contend with in a single volume. But, as recent work by Verónica Castillo-Muñoz has shown, southern Alta California shared much in common with Baja California culturally and economically, orienting it toward the rest of Mexico to a greater degree than the remote northern reaches of the province. Better defining Southern California as a unique and distinct region within Alta California and contextualizing it in the broader cultural and economic landscape of the Spanish borderlands would have more firmly situated this study in the growing field of scholarship on family, community, and empire in the Spanish borderlands.   

Colonial Intimacies should prove a critical read for historians of California, the American West, and the Southwest borderlands as it shakes up some entrenched narratives about indigenous and Mexican dispossession and acquiescence to colonial conquests. Moreover, it would work exceptionally well in the classroom, as its clear argument and structure would be manageable for undergraduates, while graduate students could learn much from its methodology. Pérez’s use of family stories as source material makes for a very lively narrative and calls to mind Anne Hyde’s Empires, Nations, and Families (2011) in using the stories of intimate lives and connections to make important and interesting claims about colonialism.  

Citation: Ashley Riley Sousa. Review of Pérez, Erika, Colonial Intimacies: Interethnic Kinship, Sexuality, and Marriage in Southern California, 1769–1885. H-California, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL:

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