Forget Zorro: Joaquín Murieta is the Outlaw-Hero We Need
Diana Gabaldon on a Neglected Classic by John Rollin Ridge
My father loved Zorro. He also identified strongly with another Hispanic outlaw-hero, Speedy Gonzales, the Warner Bros. cartoon mouse with ADHD who ran rings around authority. Reading The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, I kept wondering what he would have thought of Joaquín.
My dad was the youngest of 13 children born to a New Mexican dirt farmer (hence the expression “dirt poor”). His first language was Spanish, and—having been born in 1930—he experienced a fair amount of discrimination, like most “Mexicans”* at the time. When my parents became engaged, in 1948, in Flagstaff, Arizona, public petitions against their marriage were circulated (my mother was not only Anglo, she was also the mayor’s daughter—you can see why my dad liked Zorro, who always put one over on the alcalde), and at one point, my mother’s high-school English teacher took her aside and said, “You can’t marry that man—your children will be idiots!”
In recent years, it has struck me as funny (both in an ironic way and just that it’s really funny) that both Zorro and Speedy are now perceived (by the sorts of people who spend their time thinking about such things) as racist stereotypes, because I’ve never personally met a “Mexican” who thought that. When does a positive identification with iconic virtue become a racist stereotype? I suppose it depends on the viewpoint of the person concerned.
Personally, as a child I liked the Zorro sword, but the hat with the dangly bobbles wasn’t me. Just as well: Given the crack about idiots, my dad wouldn’t have let me run around dressed like Zorro. I had a gender-appropriate Annie Oakley costume, complete with fringed skirt and pearl (plastic)-handled six-guns with holsters. The whole family liked Speedy Gonzales, though—especially Dad, an award-winning high-school athlete who became a state senator.
My dad liked outlaws, but he played it straight; he worked hard and was good at what he did. One reason for the popularity of outlaw-heroes is that they’re competent. Joaquín has that one down. Nobody outshoots, outrides, or out-flamboyants him, and the only man ever to get the drop on him (until The End) is an Indian chief.
But there’s got to be a bit more to it than the simple joy of seeing a job well done, even if said job is robbing and killing Chinese miners. I did a quick search for “Mexican folk heroes,” as, frankly, off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of any—unless you count Pancho Villa (in my youth, I could sing—in Spanish—all the verses of “La Cucaracha,” but that would be the sum total of my cultural associations with Señor Villa). I suppose we could include Don Quixote, for the sake of argument, but, really, there aren’t any Hispanic folk heroes to speak of until we get to the 20th century and Cesar Chavez (whom I met at the age of 16 or so—I was 16, I mean; he was in his fifties)—and he was an American, not a Mexican, and not generally an outlaw.
So we’re kind of back to the fictional Mexican/Latin/ Hispanic/whatever heroes. Most of whom seem to be outlaws. This is reasonable: A good folk hero defends common people against the oppression of the local (usually corrupt) power structure, and it’s generally the power structure that’s making the laws.
Likewise, nothing creates a sense of fellowship more than a joint sense of oppression by a common enemy. This is why outlaws often have a gang (or at least a sidekick to whom they confide their plans). And in most cases, these gangs share an identity, whether it’s based on race, social class, or merely having the sort of personality that keeps you from holding down a job.
Zorro and Speedy were pretty much loners, though they did have valets, sidekicks, or friends to help out with the incidental logistics of their plans. Don Quixote, of course, had Sancho Panza. Joaquín’s plans are a bit more grandiose, though, and he has a large gang, though he mostly operates with just a few close confederates—all of them Mexicans.
Now, we have certain requirements of heroes. They can’t be selfish; they must always be concerned for others. This means that outlaw-heroes walk a fine line; yes, we approve of (or at least sympathize with) them robbing, harassing, or even killing people we consider “oppressors” (whether of ourselves or others), but we don’t make heroes of outlaws whose chief motive seems to be their own enrichment. (Outlaws who are in it for the buck are fascinating and/or romantic—vide Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, etc.—but not usually heroic.)
In The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta, John Rollin Ridge finessed this one by introducing (rather belatedly, if you ask me) the notion that Joaquín was not stealing everything not nailed down for his own enrichment, but was in fact planning a great military action that would “sweep the Americans from his [Joaquín’s] land”—i.e., California. To this end, he was collecting horses—obviously a logical first move. Mind you, he never does anything else toward his ultimate goal, like collecting guns, organizing a militia, or recruiting men to feed—let alone ride—the thousands of horses he’s stashing away in his arroyo hideout, but occasional brief references to his grand scheme are theoretically sufficient to excuse the theme and variation of ambush, robbery, murder, and daring escape.
To me, one of the most interesting aspects of the book is its charmingly casual racism. Racism is Joaquín’s chief modus operandi. White people are Bad, Mexicans are Good. Chinamen [sic] are very industrious but stink at fighting, so naturally you should rob them whenever you come across them because they always have gold and it’s easy. Sometimes you kill them, too, but that’s not much fun.
Non-Chinese miners are usually tough, wary, and well armed—but lots more fun to rob and kill. Indians? They’revas tough as Mexicans, less well armed, but better organized. Worthy and honorable foes, but they don’t have any money. And, of course, they don’t have any money because they’re oppressed by the white intruders, thus forming a bond of fellowship with Joaquín and company. (It’s worth noting at this point that Ridge was himself half-Cherokee and considered himself an Indian, which may have had something to do with this distinction.)
Frankly, I’ve seen this kind of matter-of-fact racism all my life; most people my age probably have. There’s usually no particular animus to it; it’s just people calling it like they see it—and how (and why) they see it is really interesting.
Ridge’s book was published in 1854, slightly pre-Civil War. How old is the idea of the equality of all men before God? It’s not that old. Socrates, Aristotle, all the virtuous old Greeks and Romans kept slaves as a matter of course, and the writers of the US Constitution—their noble language notwithstanding—considered slaves to be not only legal but also a fraction of a free man, for census and taxation purposes.
I’ve always thought that the interest (and value) of a historical piece of fiction lies in its reflection of the prevailing cultural values. How did people think in this period? Why did they believe what they did, and how did those beliefs shape their lives?
Historical fiction, however, is different from fiction from an earlier era. We don’t like to think our heroes didn’t believe the same things we believe, so contemporary fiction written about an earlier time often reflects the perceived attitude of the intended audience rather than the actual cultural context of the period.
Frankly, the political ideology of the 21st century goes hand-in-hand with a deliberate ignorance of the past, and depends upon it. It’s interesting to note that for authors writing historical fiction today, there’s considerable pressure to avoid showing cultural attitudes as they actually existed—or, if shown, to attribute these attitudes only to characters clearly drawn as despicable.“I’ve always thought that the interest (and value) of a historical piece of fiction lies in its reflection of the prevailing cultural values. How did people think in this period?”
Ridge didn’t suffer from such considerations: He had nothing even faintly idealistic in mind, nor was he concerned with improving social values. It’s debatable—given his chronic poverty and lack of success in other endeavors—whether we might reasonably conclude that he wrote Joaquin Murieta for the primary purpose of making money, or whether we should accept his claim that the book is intended as a modest contribution to the history of California. In either case, the attitudes he depicts were almost certainly the attitudes he perceived his potential audience as having. Of course he wasn’t writing historical fiction, but in writing about his own time he offers a really good view of the cultural context he lived in and his own audience—which is now, of course, historical.
The book is remarkably readable and entertaining, despite the Victorian style. Ridge is a master of the art of theme and variation, so while every encounter ends the same way (until The End), we still enjoy the ride. If you want to read a little deeper, though, the story offers a window on the real social dynamics—race, culture, and prejudices—of the time, and may offer grounds for reflection on how much things have changed. Or haven’t.
In the end, I don’t think Dad would have approved of Joaquín. Not because Joaquín had attitudes characteristic of his times—my dad was a politician; he understood how people worked—but because he wasn’t responsible. True, he’d go rescue a friend who was about to be hanged, but he doesn’t take care of his woman, and in the end he leaves her penniless and bereft, living in her parents’ home. (Cf. attitudes of the times. Women weren’t interesting, beyond an occasional static role as a plot point.) And worst of all . . . he lets his pride get the better of him, and ends up with his head in a bottle.
In my dad’s view of things, the good ones don’t end up in a bottle. That sad end was apparently not only Joaquín’s but also the author’s. Ridge died at an early age of “softening of the brain” (i.e., probably acute alcoholism), but his novel lives on, both as rip-roaring entertainment and as social commentary that Ridge probably didn’t intend. But books are immortal, and have minds of their own.
* “Mexican” is an odd designation. Sometimes it has the traditional meaning: a person who either lives/lived in Mexico or is directly descended from the people(s)—note that plural—of Mexico. Most often in present times in the US, it’s a catch-all term for any person of Hispanic descent (even though a great many such people come—especially in recent years—from places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Chile; also Cuba, but Cubans are geographically localized and have a strong community with a distinct identity).
For what it’s worth, my nine-times great-grandfather traveled from Toledo, Spain, to Mexico City in 1679. His two sons traveled north to Santa Fe and settled there in 1705, and the family pretty much stayed in that area for the next 250 years. So . . . in 1679, Mexico (the entire territory, which included most of present-day New Mexico) was (politically) New Spain, and its inhabitants (whatever their genetic makeup) were citizens of Spain. They stayed Spaniards until the end of the War of Mexican Independence, in 1821. At this point, my paternal ancestors became Mexicans—for the next 30 years, at which point the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo (1848) ceded the New Mexico Territory to the US, and we became Americans, all without moving a step. (My maternal ancestors—mostly English, with one odd German branch—didn’t arrive in America until the 1700s, the laggards. . . .).
From The Life and Adventures of Joaquín Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit by John Rollin Ridge, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Foreword copyright © 2018 by Diana Gabaldon.