The following is an excerpt from Josh Gottheimer’s book, Ripples of Hope: Great American Civil Rights Speeches.
The Hispanic-American civil rights struggle is rooted, in part, in the Mexican-American War and the resulting Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848). The treaty was negotiated by the United States ostensibly to prevent American settlers moving west from seizing land that belonged to Mexicans before the war. With the gold rush in full throttle, however, the treaty was quickly abandoned, as pioneers seized land indiscriminately and without care for Mexican Americans.
In 1851, in direct violation of the treaty, Congress passed the Land Law, requiring all Latinos living in the “new” territories to provide proof of their land grants, a near impossibility considering the lack of documentation. In the meantime, while the courts discerned true ownership, the law allowed Anglo Americans to seize and develop the disputed land. This mass confiscation later served as the root of the Chicano liberation movement and propelled the separatist ideas advanced by leaders like Reies L³pez Tijerina. In the 19th century, however, most Mexican Americans struggled in virtual silence to maintain their land holdings.
Pablo de la Guerra, a prominent Mexican American, was a lone voice against this injustice. One of the few Mexican Americans in the California State Assembly and Senate during the 1850s, he was embraced by many Mexican Americans and whites as an ally and trustworthy citizen. Speaking passionately, De la Guerra succeeded in tabling one land seizure bill after another. A cascade of political pressure ultimately overwhelmed his cause, as more white settlers and miners moved to California and demanded to “reclaim” the land. After De la Guerra died, the Latino cause largely would be put on hold for another century.
On Seizing Land from Native Californians
I hope the Senate will allow me to offer a few remarks upon the merits of the bill, and to state why, upon the principles of reason and justice I consider that the bill should be indefinitely postponed. :
Well, sir, the war took place, and we, after doing our duty as citizens of Mexico, were sold like sheepÂ-Â—abandoned by our nation, and as it were, awoke from a dream, strangers on the very soil on which we were native and to the manor born. We passed from the hands of Mexico to that of the United States, but we had the consolation of believing that the United States, as a nation, was more liberal than our own. We had the greatest respect for an American. Every American who came to our country was held in higher estimation than even one of our countrymen. And I call upon every American who visited us to bear testimony to this fact. And after being abandoned by our own country and annexed to the United States, we thought that we belonged to a nation the most civilized, the most humane-a nation that was the foremost in planting the banner of liberty on every portion of its dominions-a nation that was the most careful in protecting the just rights of its citizens. Well, sir, in 1849, a great many emigrated to California, not to settle upon the land or to cultivate the soil, but to work in the mines and go home; and from ‘49 to ‘52 they had no other object, but many finding that it was hard work in the mines, and being told that the land in the State had not been separated from the public domain, had no boundaries and being probably further misled by lawyers, or interested persons, who stated that the land in this condition would never be confirmed to the owners by the Supreme Court of the United States, came and settled upon our lands. And I ask, are we to suffer for that?
I believe that I speak advisedly, when I say that three-fourths of the settlers upon the lands, have been aware that someone had a prior claim; they knew it by common report, that such a one and such a one had a claim upon the land; but they thought that even if it was confirmed to the owners, that the use of the land until the confirmation, would be worth more than the improvements that they would make. Perhaps one-fourth went upon the land in good faith. I do not know that such was the case, but I am willing to grant it; but now, when they find that it is probable that the Supreme Court of the United States will confirm these grants, and after deriving all the benefits for the use of the same, they apply to the Legislature, in order that a State Law may be set up as a bar against the action of the Court of the United States.
I say, sir, that already we have suffered deeply; our property has been sacrificed. The Bay of San Francisco alone, at one time, had more cattle than can now be found in the counties of Santa Clara, Monterey, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Barbara. Horses, at that time could be counted by the thousands; and I believe that many settlers have settled upon lands for the purposes of stealing the cattle and sending them to the San Francisco market for sale.
Now, sir, of the 113 members in this Legislature, I am the only native of this state; and the native population expect from me, and through me, that in my place in this Legislative Hall, that I shall call the attention of this body to the facts I have now stated, and to tell you that badly treated as they have been in every respect, they look around them and find no other aid except in the mercy of Heaven, and the justice of this Legislature; and now, in their name, I call upon you, Senators, to consider that if they are deprived of what is left to them, they have no other place to go to. They have been rejected by the Mexicans; they know no other country but California, and by depriving them of their rights, they will be compelled to be beggars in the streets; and in order to prevent this terrible calamity from overtaking them, they, through me, throw themselves upon your mercy and clemency; and they ask and expect from you protection that will justify before the eyes of the world the belief in justice of the American people. If the American settlers are deprived of what they have expended for their improvements, they can go home and meet the aid and sympathies of their friends and countrymen; but the Californian, what prospect has he before him, or where shall he go?
I wish to make one remark about the expression, “settled in good faith,” and I am done. Sir, if this bill has effect, it will be from the countries of Santa Clara upward, because in the south we have no settlers; but in those counties I am now referring to, the settlers greatly outnumber the land claimants, and it is useless to say that juries are incorruptible. We know that such is not the case from our daily experience. And these juries will be formed by whom? Sir, they will consist of those very settlers. The Sheriff will summon such a jury as will suit their views. I have seen a good deal of juries in California. I have seen where proof, clear as noon day, would not alter the decision of a jury from their preconceived opinions.
And I will affirm that I believe that out of 100 cases tried between the settlers and the land owners, that 99 will be given in favor of the settler.
And, sir, to conclude these remarks, permit me to assure you, upon my honor as a gentleman, that everything I have stated is true and as clear as conviction itself. I know that I am in the Senate chamber of California, where full liberty of speech is allowed, but if I were speaking to a barbarous people, I should still advocate the same sentiments, and even if I were killed for so doing, I should at least have the satisfaction of dying in a just cause, and should receive the reward from Him who has said, “Blessed are those who are persecuted, for righteousness sake, for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” -Pablo de la Guerra, April 1855