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Borderman: The Memoirs of Federico José María Ronstadt
by Bernard Fontana
Federico José María Ronstadt, known throughout most of his life to his legion of Tucson friends simply as Fred Ronstadt, was the exemplar of a borderlands person. In this instance, the border is a line that, since 1854, has separated Sonora from Arizona and thus Mexico from the United States. But as in border regions throughout the world, the men, women, and children who grow up in them and live there manage to devise their own social, cultural, economic, and even political accommodations to match the realities of their daily lives. They are often less constrained by broader regional and national considerations than are their countrymen farther away from either side of the line. Given enough time, border populations evolve a peculiar subculture, frequently with its own language, music, mores, expectations, and world view. Such border subcultures are also partly the result of familial relationships that ignore international boundaries. Kinship bonds, especially among kinsmen in close geographical proximity, remain as strong as those of nationality.
Federico Ronstadt was born in 1868 in the state of Sonora, Mexico. His mother was a Mexican and his father a German who had become a naturalized Mexican citizen. Fred spent his childhood and early adolescence living in Sonora and Baja California. He came to the United States and Arizona Territory as a young man to learn a trade, eventually becoming an American citizen. Fluent in Spanish and English, he was bicultural in outlook. Proud to be an American, he was unashamed of his Mexican heritage. With many relatives, or parientes, on both sides of the international boundary, he was at home equally in Mexico and in his adopted country.
There is a flavor of Horatio Alger in the Fred Ronstadt story, but it would be an exaggeration to imply his tale is altogether one of rags to riches. His father was a highly educated man who for much of his life enjoyed considerable political influence and social prestige. His mother, Margarita Redondo, was a member of an extended family whose forebears had arrived in Sonora in the first half of the eighteenth century and who had acquired land and attendant wealth. That such a life -- even for nineteenth-century Sonorans of high social status and property -- could be harsh and demanding, with death and deprivation commonplace, is one of the images to emerge from the Ronstadt memoirs. Difficulties of existence notwithstanding, Federico Ronstadt's parents respected and fostered literacy and education among their children, and they did their best to provide them with the skills and intellectual tools needed to succeed in their chosen endeavors.
Federico Ronstadt's memoirs largely concern the first forty years of his life. They include the last three decades of the nineteenth century in northwestern Mexico and in southern Arizona. Later portions of his memoirs, including passages that provide details of his Tucson and El Paso business ventures and that describe later visits to San Francisco and Los Angeles, have been omitted here. The information has already appeared in print, or those sections are less cohesive and lack a sense of immediacy that characterizes the major section published in this volume. Editor's note: the electronic version is the full transcription of the original manuscript.
These memoirs offer their reader an extraordinary portrait of the culture of northern Sonora and Baja California during the late nineteenth century. No amount of reading in of ficial documents or standard histories can provide this richness of detail and insight. The hardships of mining in Baja California, for example, with Yaqui Indian laborers and primitive means of extracting and hauling ore come to life through Federico's pencilled words. He also brings to life the travails of pearl divers in the Gulf of California and of a black family mining salt in the blinding glare of Isla Carmen.
Turbulence was a hallmark of Sonora in the decades of the 1860s and 1870s. In 1871 Mexico celebrated its first half century as an independent nation, and during those fifty years political unrest and instability were constant on the far northwestern frontier where various personalities, principally Governor Ignacio Pesqueira and Governor and General Manuel Gándara, competed for political and military control of Sonora. [see note 1] Moreover, Sonora remained a frontier at war with Apache Indians, at least until the defeat of Geronimo in 1886. Cattlemen, small farmers, prospectors, and miners had to contend with the threat of Indian attack as well as placate opposing Mexican military factions.
Through Federico Ronstadt's memories of his childhood we glimpse one such Sonoran episode, an insurrection led by Francisco Serna, administrator of the customs house at the coastal landing in Libertad on the Gulf of California in the Altar district. In 1875, Serna and other Sonorans became enraged by Ignacio Pesqueira's stealing of the gubernatorial election. The sernistas rebelled, but Pesqueira had foreseen the eventuality, had already mobilized the National Guard, and was able to triumph over his enemies in the subsequent military encounters, though not in the political ones. In 1876 the Mexican federal government was forced to intervene in the unrest and appoint an interim governor, even ordering Serna's troops to serve as auxiliaries to the federal force. [see note 2]
Through the Ronstadt memoirs as well, we are better able to understand the sense of independence and self-reliance found even today among many lifelong residents of modern Sonora and Baja California. In the nineteenth century, diseases and injuries were commonplace, and professional medical care was next to nonexistent in the largely rural areas of the state. Recovery was an act of providence. Death, a frequent result, engendered grief tempered by a sense of resignation.
Sonorans and Californios typically were a people isolated from major sources of supply and remote from the centers of federal, political, military, and economic power in Mexico City or other centers of industrial production. Sonorans and residents of Baja California had to depend largely on themselves for their livelihoods. They raised crops and cattle for themselves, and they searched for minerals that could be sold elsewhere for processing and converted to cash. Ronstadt's description of the time he spent with his mother in a remote Baja California mining camp while his father left them for a year reminds his readers how different life is for most children in the United States today. What Ronstadt may have regarded in hindsight as a character-building experience might today be branded as child abuse. But such separations and hardships were commonplace on the Sonora Desert frontier.
Not all of Ronstadt's experiences were rugged or harsh. Much of the considerable charm of these memoirs derives from his accounts of how children amused themselves: playing games, making toys, putting on circuses, and getting into mischief. Through it all, too, there were schooling, both public and private, and music. Imagine an eight-year-old boy literate enough to read Alexander Dumas's Angel Pitou aloud in Spanish to his mother as she, confined at their Baja California mining camp, waited to give birth to her fourth child. Or imagine the impression left on a boy by the 1870s wedding of his half-sister in the Baja California coastal town of Mulege during which a local quartet sang arias from Friedrich von Flotow's opera Martha to the accompaniment of a piano played by a Mexican mining engineer.
Fred Ronstadt reached Tucson fewer than three years after the arrival there of the Southern Pacific Railroad, an event that more than any other shifted the orientation of southern Arizona from north and south to east and west. The railroad was the link that brought products of the booming American industrial revolution, as well as an influx of Anglo Americans, to Tucson. In that sense, he arrived just as an economic and social volcano was about to erupt. His career ultimately took advantage of the boom, and he became founder and proprietor of the largest hardware store in southern Arizona, one that did a huge business in neighboring Sonora. He recalls for us the leaner years of the end of the nineteenth century, a preamble to his later success in achieving the American dream.
It is to the retirement and subsequent hard work of Edward Frederick Ronstadt, one of Federico's sons, and to the untiring efforts of his wife Mary Catherine and their daughter Mary Theresa Carter that we owe our thanks for the preparation of these memoirs for publication. It is they who transcribed them; it was Edward, the family historian, who located and copied the historic photographs. Borderman is a tribute to their perseverance, to their knowledge, and to their love.
note 1 For details concerning the lives of these two men, see Rodolfo Acuña, Sonoran Strongman: Ignacio Pesqueira and His Times (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1974), and Francisco R. Almada, Diccionario de historia, geograía y biografía sonorenses (N.p.: Chihuahua, 1952), pages 288-94 and 574-83. [back]
note 2 Stuart F. Voss, On the Periphery of Nineteenth-Century Mexico: Sonora and Sinaloa, 1810-1877 (Tucson: The University of Arizona Press, 1982), pages 284-87. [back]