Here’s a fascinating story I worked on over the holidays. A school board in Salinas, California – a city with a high crime rate and gang problems – decided to name its new elementary school after Tiburcio Vasquez, an Old West bandido, aka gangster, who was hanged for murder. But there is another aspect to this historical figure: people in the Mexican-American and Chicano communities say the bandido protected Mexicans from white settlers during a time when Mexicans were widely discriminated in the territory that now makes up California.
Several things to consider: Historians do agree that Spanish-speaking people were crushed by white settlers as a result of the Gold Rush. And while historical records, including news reports, have a lot to say about Vasquez, it’s hard to say how accurate those are and how tinged with the anti-Mexican sentiment that was viral at the time. In other words, how you see the bandido all depends on whose version of history you happen to believe.
And here’s another question, which I hardly touched upon in this story: as the U.S. becomes a majority minority nation, will its history be rewritten and revised? Who are our heroes? These questions occupied my mind for days. I recalled a recent visit to a Multiplex, the previews oozing with violence. The films’ heroes killed and were celebrated for the killings. These are our pop culture heroes. What about more serious ones? Military generals, veterans, presidents who owned slaves, etc.
Truth be told, killing or other violent acts do not disqualify a person from heroism and admiration. Our heroes often embody violence with some aspect of their being and actions. It comes down to what you choose to disregard and what you choose to admire in someone — and those things are dictated by where you were born, your culture and ways of seeing. Here’s my AP story about the Tiburcio Vasquez controversy: Bandit School and la version en Espanol
Tiburcio Vasquez, photo courtesy of John Boessenecker