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Colorado history: How a clash of legal traditions impacted Mexican women and land rights amid a shifting U.S. border

The year 1848 marked two notable moments in U.S. women’s history. The suffrage movement was formally born at Seneca Falls, New York, where activists proclaimed women’s equality in a manifesto titled “The Declaration of Sentiments.” Earlier in the year in Mexico, another document, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, was signed and ceded 55% of Mexican land (including southern Colorado) to the United States. As the border moved south, Mexican women who lived on this land lost rights as their homes became part of the United States.

Dawn DiPrince

This is an interesting juxtaposition. As American women asserted their rights in the eastern United States, Mexican women in the newly annexed American territory faced “a loss of autonomy as individuals capable of contracting and holding property [and] became wards of their husbands, on whom they were legally dependent,” writes María E. Montoya, in “Translating Property.”

As English colonists crossed the Atlantic, they brought with them the law of coverture. Coverture demanded that women surrender to their husbands their legal claims and their rights. This meant that women themselves, their property, and their material belongings were considered the property of their husbands. Meanwhile in the lands out west, Spanish colonization imposed different cultural and legal traditions. Women in these lands did not necessarily have social or cultural equity, but under Spanish and Mexican civil law, they were allowed to own property.

For all of these reasons, the post-Treaty era of the borderlands is marked by intermarriage. Anglo American men married Mexican landowning women to acquire swaths of property. At the same time, through intercultural marriage, Mexican women married Anglo American men to ensure that their multiracial descendants would inherit their property. On December 11, 1847, the Philadelphia Public Ledger speculated on the process of territorial acquisition in the event of a US victory and illustrated the power of marriage in the Americanization of the borderlands: “Our Yankee young fellows and the pretty senoritas will do the rest of the annexation, and Mexico will soon be Anglo-Saxonized.”

Rebecca Lopez was among the women living in the borderlands who provided medical care for those in need when the nearest towns were miles away. (Provided by Minette Church)

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo destabilized Mexican property rights as the ideological differences of Mexican and American property law collided. In the borderlands, “as in so many other imperial histories of this period, the move to disenfranchise colonized men came at the expense of traditional rights of colonized women,” writes Karen R. Roybal in Archives of Dispossession. “A double violence marks this history: Mexican American women lose their herencia and their fathers and husbands suffer the indignities of feminization in front of the Anglo American man.”

There is often a mythology of empty land that fuels and justifies colonization. This shows up in US territorial policy in the form of “the mythic belief that the West was an expanse of unsettled, unsocialized natural wilderness waiting to be converted to the use of national capitalist markets,” writes Montoya. The US government sought explicitly to overlay an economic system based on individual property ownership in an effort to eradicate what it deemed a feudal land system. But, in this transformation of legal structures, Mexican women who once had some forms of independence were forced to live as feudal subjects to their husbands.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Yet, even within this complex landscape of shifting empires, Mestiza and Indigenous women were often at the heart of intercultural collision and coalescence in the borderlands. They served as agents of cultural exchange, spoke multiple languages, sometimes owned property, and possessed important survival knowledge about the landscape and local practices. These women often made practical decisions to marry or assist colonizing men in order to protect the economic survival of their children and descendants. In doing so, they helped to define the lasting culture of the borderlands.

Explore more about the women of the southern Colorado borderlands in exhibitions at the History Colorado Center, El Pueblo History Museum, and Trinidad History Museum.

Dawn DiPrince is the Chief Operating Officer for History Colorado and lead developer of the Borderlands of Southern Colorado initiative.


Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Winter 2021 issue of The Colorado Magazine. You can read more articles about strong women and others who have shaped Colorado in The Colorado Magazine online from History Colorado. 


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