QUAINT #2 Buena Rejon from “The Mexican Ranchero” by Charles E. Averill

Rejon the Ranchero from The Mexican Ranchero. Image from "American Sensations." Click for link.

Buena Rejon was created by Charles E. Averill and appeared in The Mexican Ranchero; or, The Maid of the Chapparal (1847). Averill (?-?) was a popular dime novelist. He is best known for his Kit Carson, Prince of the Gold Hunters (1849).

The Mexican Ranchero is set in Mexico in the aftermath of the Mexican-American War, after the American troops have occupied Mexico City. The truce between the Mexicans and the Americans is broken when Raphael Rejon attacks a squad of American soldiers. Raphael Rejon is the “Lion of Mexico,” the “mortal foe” of Americans. The American soldiers burned his home, his parents died in the fire, and he and his sister were left both orphaned and homeless. Since that time Raphael and his sister, Buena Rejon, the “Maid of the Chaparral,” waged a guerrilla war against the occupiers; “hundreds of Americans…have become the victims of her unerring lasso.”

But during the battle between Raphael and the American soldiers one of the American officers, Herbert Harold, makes a connection with Raphael: Herbert and his sister were orphaned in a similar fashion to Raphael and Buena. Raphael responds to this story by vowing not to kill Herbert, and even pins a silver star on Herbert. The star is Raphael’s symbol, and as long as Herbert wears the star, no harm will come to him in Mexico. But Raphael makes no such commitment to the other American soldiers, and he attacks another group, scrawls “Vengeance on the Invader” in blood on an American flag, and then leaves. The next morning Harold and his men are crossing the chaparral on their way to Monterey when they are attacked by Buena Rejon and her men. Most of Herbert’s men are killed, but once Buena sees Raphael’s star on Herbert’s chest, she lets him and the surviving Americans live. When Herbert explains why he bears Raphael’s star, Buena declares herself Herbert’s friend. The rest of the The Mexican Ranchero is about Herbert, Raphael, and Buena fighting against the evil schemes of Raleigh, an Irish deserter and leader of a group of bandits, and “Montano the monster,” a Mexican “half-breed” who is ugly enough to be compared with an “ourang-outang” and has superhuman strength.

The Mexican Ranchero is a “novelette,” the 1840s precursor to the dime novel of the 1860s. Although there were relatively few novels written immediately after the Mexican-American War which made use of the War as a backdrop (see: Henry Haller) this was not the case in the magazines, which saw an upsurge of such stories both during and after the war, similar to British story paper and penny dreadfuls during the Crimean and Afghan Wars. The Mexican Ranchero is very much a dime novel and is told in theatrical language.

While the story of The Mexican Ranchero is typical for its time and place, it has several elements which will interest the modern reader. Buena is an almost archetypal example of the crossdressing Mexican heroine motif which was common in the story papers of the 1830s and 1840s and was still appearing a generation later. A much-used plot in the novelettes was what was called the “race romance,” in which an American man fell in love with and eventually married a woman of another ethnicity, usually Mexican but often Native American or even Asian. In race romances involving Mexican women, a surprisingly common plot development was for the women to pose as men for some or much of the story. Disguised as men these women would act heroically and independently before the story’s end, when they would be conquered by the marriage plot and end their days as the wife of an American man.

This takes place in The Mexican Ranchero. Buena Rejon fights against the Americans in female dress, but her brother is overprotective and limits her freedom. So Buena pretends to “Miguel Morena,” one of Raphael’s lieutenants, which allows her to act as “fearlessly and perilously” as she wants. Buena carries the pretence off so well that not only is Herbert surprised by the revelation that Miguel is Buena, but Raphael is shocked by it. However, the sexual politics of The Mexican Ranchero go beyond the standard race romance plot. Buena is forthright, aggressive, and in some ways quite masculine. This description also applies to Alfredine, Herbert’s sister. Herbert, on the other hand, is passive, and Raphael is often described as “small” and “womanlike.” Averill describes the two male leads in feminine terms and the two female leads in masculine terms. Further complicating the sexual and racial politics of the novel is its ending. When Buena and Herbert marry they move to Virginia to live in Herbert’s “old family plantation.” But Herbert’s sister Alfredine marries Raphael and stays in Mexico. This allows Raphael to set aside his war on America, on the grounds that he has “learned to love our race, instead of hate.” A Mexican man marrying an American woman was extremely rare in the story papers of this time.

The Alfredine-Raphael union is unusual not just because of it contravenes the standing American bias against white women marrying non-white men, but also because of the biases within The Mexican Ranchero itself. Like The Rifle Rangers and the majority of the novels published before, during, and after the Mexican-American War, The Mexican Ranchero differentiates between the Mexican elite, who are portrayed as light-skinned and the direct descendants of the Spanish aristocracy, and the Mexican people, who are portrayed as the product of centuries of interbreeding between the common Spanish soldier and the conquered native peoples. But unlike The Rifle Rangers et al., The Mexican Ranchero’s sympathies are with the aristocracy, not the masses, on the grounds that the aristocracy are racially pure and the masses are racially degenerate. Raphael himself agrees with this point. It is revealed that one of his parents was an American, and he says that it is this “mingling of the American with the Mexican blood” which explains why he has “escaped the taint” of most of Mexico’s “degenerate sons.” The “mingling” lends him his “noble and manly” bearing and also explains why he carried on a brave resistance
against the Americans while most of the Mexicans surrendered. (The Mexican Ranchero views the Americans as liberators, but it also expresses admiration for Mexican soldiers like the Rejons who did not surrender).

Most important to The Mexican Ranchero is the fact that Raphael’s father was “pure American.” The fathers of the other characters were not pure, and in the world of The Mexican Ranchero this is important. The ethnicity and descent of the villains is repeatedly stressed. The reader is told several times that Montano is half-Mexican, which is given as one of the reasons for his wickedness and ugliness. Raleigh, the central villain of the novelette, is an Irish immigrant.

When The Mexican Ranchero was written, the United States was experiencing its greatest wave of Irish emigration. The Irish Potato Famine had begun in 1845 when the potato blight destroyed most of the Irish crop, leading to widespread famine and death and the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Irish, many coming to the United States. (By 1854 between 1.5 and 2 million Irish had emigrated abroad). In 1847 Irish immigrants made up one third of the population of Boston; by 1850 the Irish made up a quarter of the population of Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Baltimore. The American reaction to the Irish immigrants was predictably racist. The Irish were forced to compete with free blacks for the same jobs and were made to live in the same urban areas as free blacks, and most middle-class white Americans equated the Irish with the free blacks.

To most readers of The Mexican Ranchero Raleigh’s Irishness was the reason for his villainy. It is eventually revealed that Buena Rejon’s mother is the daughter of the niece of Jose Joaquin Herrera, the former Mexican president. Buena Rejon’s father is Raleigh. The dying Raleigh’s statement is that “the blood of all of ye will bear the taint [of Raleigh’s Irish blood], for foreigner and Irishman though I am, I was yet the relative of your father’s race, which originally was of European stock; so I triumph at the last.” Through Raleigh, The Mexican Ranchero places the Irish in the same racial family as white American but suggests that Irish blood is nonetheless tainted, and that Buena, as a product of that blood, is similarly tainted.

Buena is a heroine, despite what Averill implies in The Mexican Ranchero. She is angry at the Americans and hates them for what they did to her family, but she is otherwise not evil. She can be forthright, but she also blushes when Herbert first looks at her. She is a good horseman and is deadly with the lasso.

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