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The events of The Pearl take place on an estuary (the mouth of a river) somewhere on the coast of Mexico, in the fictitious town of La Paz. If you look at a map, you'll see a long peninsula descending from the U.S. state of California. The peninsula, called Baja California, is part of Mexico and is separated from the rest of Mexico by the Gulf of California. (Another name for the Gulf of California is the Sea of Cortez, or Cortes.) Steinbeck traveled in this area with his friend Ed Ricketts in 1940 and described his experiences in The Sea of Cortez (1941).
Geographical features mentioned in The Pearl give clues to the setting. In a relatively short time, Kino walks from the estuary through desert scrub to mountains. This would be possible in Baja California.
Steinbeck doesn't tell you exactly when the events of the novel take place because they came from a legend. Although no date is given, you are told that the witnesses of Kino's return were the grandfathers of the present villagers. If Steinbeck heard the legend in 1940, that would set the story somewhere around 1900.
In order to understand Steinbeck's story, it will help you to know that Indians of Mexico had been under the domination of people of Spanish descent for some three hundred years at the time of the legend. A civil-religious hierarchy governed; although church (Roman Catholic) and state were outwardly separated, they worked together in many aspects of Mexican life. You'll see in the story how the priest and the pearl buyers act as allies in the social hierarchy, with the Indians at the bottom of the ladder. In many cases the Indians could not attend school or own land.
Although Spanish culture was imposed on Indians, the ancient religions and other aspects of the culture of the various tribes survived. Watch for places where you can see that Kino and Juana have merged both traditions-for example, Juana's combination of Catholic Hail Marys and ancient prayers.
One aspect of Mexican culture that plays a part in the novel is that of mi tierra (my land). The birthplace of an Indian had enormous significance. Many Mexicans, especially Mexican Indians, believed they were meant to stay where they were born, and they developed a special attachment to their birthplace. Knowing this concept might help you understand what a huge step Kino takes when he decides to leave La Paz for the capital.