Every year the National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS) awards the Antonia I. Castañeda Prize to recognize historical scholarship that examines the intersections of class, race, gender, and sexuality, as it relates to Chicana/Latina and/or Native/Indigenous women. This year, historian Yvette J. Saavedra received the award for her article “Speaking for Themselves: Rancheras and Respectability in Mexican California, 1800-1850,” published in the California History, Summer 2023.

Who is Antonia I. Castañeda and why is this award significant? 

Antonia I. Castañeda earned her degree from Stanford University and is widely recognized as one of the first Chicanas to receive a Ph.D. in History. A historian of eighteenth and nineteenth century Spanish Colonial California, her work challenged historical narratives that privileged race as the central factor in the projects of conquest and colonization. Centering the lives and experiences of Indigenous, Mexican, and Chicana women, Castañeda offered an intersectional analysis that showed how the racial and class politics and policies of conquest and colonialism were deeply imbued with the discourses of gender and sexuality. This intersectional analysis of power caused a foundational shift in historians’ understanding of Spanish, Mexican, and U.S. colonialism in California and the American Southwest. Additionally, her contributions were central to the development to Chicana History as a field of study. The Castañeda Prize is NACCS’s effort at recognizing work that continues her legacy of contributions to the field.

How does your research implement or embody the spirit of the Antonia I. Castañeda Prize? 

As a Chicana historian specializing in the U.S West, Chicana/o History, and the history of U.S.-Mexico borderlands my research is deeply influenced by Antonia Castañeda’s work. My article, “Speaking for Themselves,” as well as my other research, embodies the spirit of Castañeda’s work by illustrating how gender and sexuality were crucial to establishing power and control during colonial moments. By engaging the gendered elements of Californio ranchero culture, I examine how ideas of Californio liberalism influenced the definitions of respectable womanhood and feminine propriety. By recognizing women as active agents in the development and contesting of socio-cultural systems founded on ideas of gender and sexual heteronormativity, I disrupt historical narratives that privilege men as the center of nation-building to show the patriarchal power was not absolute.

What inspired you to write this article? 

Building on the work of my first book, Pasadena Before the Roses, where I examine how ideas of optimal land use were connected to the creation of socio-cultural power, I was inspired to write this article because so much of nineteenth century Mexican California’s history center on the actions and political thoughts of men. Disrupting a historiography often devoid—except for a handful of works, of an analysis of the roles that role gender and sexual discourses played in the formation of socio-cultural and political systems, I wanted to show how femininity and womanhood, not exclusively patriarchy and masculinity, delimited the boundaries of Californio citizenship and belonging.

How does this article fit in with other projects you may be working on?

Speaking for Themselves” is part of a larger book project tentatively titled Living La Mala Vida/Living the Bad Life: Transgressive Femininities, Morality, and Liberalism in Nineteenth Century Mexican California, 1790-1870, a work exploring women’s negotiation of the Californio oligarchy’s ideals of gender and sexual propriety and honorable womanhood within the context of a heteronormative, patriarchal process of nation-building. I am particularly interested in examining the designation of mala vida, or bad life,

I focus on how Californios’ categorizing of women as either ‘good women’ or ‘bad women’ served to enact the gendered and sexual discourses of Californio liberalism by policing women’s behaviors and subjecting them to narrowly defined roles as wives and mothers. For instance, women accused of promiscuity, extramarital affairs, prostitution, unmarried cohabitation, female outspokenness, and resistance to authority were subjected to social mistreatment and ostracization and labeled with the letters MV.  Critical of this designation, I reconceptualize it as a feminist space where women could contest imposed gender and sexual norms. I read their actions as a form of as transgressive femininity, that is, a form of femininity and womanhood that challenged heteronormative expectations of gender and sexuality and unsettled Californio patriarchy by reframing and reshaping gender norms through discursive and embodied acts of resistance, such as forming all-women led households or engaging in efforts to control their public reputations. Reading the MV in this way allows me to analyze how women worked within and against established social systems to live their lives on their own terms.

How do you see your work contributing to California historiography?

By centering women’s voices and experiences in the negotiation and enactment of patriarchy, my work illustrates the important role that women of all classes played in developing the socio-cultural contours of nineteenth century Mexican California. It shifts the discussion from the largely masculinist narratives of post-Independence California and shows women’s involvement in the assertion and contesting of power, liberal thought, and the building of socio-cultural system. Because “Speaking for Themselves” presents a nuanced examination of the interrelations between gender, sexuality, liberal discourse, and the historiography of Mexican California, I chose California History for this piece because of their dedication to publishing engaging and innovative work. Working with the editor and the peer-reviewers was very enjoyable and helped me further hone my argument.

In celebration of Yvette J. Saavedra’s California History article, “Speaking for Themselves: Rancheras and Respectability in Mexican California, 1800-1850,” winning NACCS’s Antonia I. Castañeda Prize, we are pleased to make the article free to read online for a limited time.

Print copies of issue 100.1, in which this article appears, as well as other individual issues of California History, can be purchased on the journal’s site. For ongoing access to California History, please ask your librarian to subscribe and/or purchase an individual subscription.