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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Interpreting Chicano History: The World-System Approach to 19th Century California

  • Author(s): Almaguer, Tomás
  • et al.

The focus of this working paper is to suggest the outlines of an alternative theoretical approach to Chicano history. In doing so I summarize Immanuel Wallerstein’s ‘world-system perspective” and propose ways in which this approach might be useful in interpreting our past history. The arguments presented in the application of the “world-system” approach to Chicano history are still speculative in nature. Much of the historical sketch that I present here is yet to be fully developed. Needless to say, the primary purpose of this working paper is not to present a completely detailed study but merely to suggest one new approach to the question of theory in Chicano historical interpretation.


In approaching the issue of interpretation in Chicano history, I focus my discussion on 19th century California. This historical period is particularly important since the entire southwest was to undergo during this century the political and economic dominance of three different countries: Spain, Mexico, and the United States. Analyzing the distinctive features of economic life in these political “periods” raises a number of vexing questions for one doing Marxist historiography in this century. By focusing on this century-long history of California I show that one of the most crucial problems that arises in defining the type of society that existed during the “Spanish”, “Mexican”, and “American” periods is whether the social and economic organization of California was basically “feudal” or “capitalist.” In examining this issue in the last part of this paper, I tie my interpretive discussion of the 19th century California into the broader Marxist debate on the “transition from feudalism to capitalism.”

Note: This working paper was originally published in 1977 by the Institute for the Study of Social Change, which became the Institute for the Study of Societal Issues.

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