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The bandido who’s also an American hero

Photo from SCVTV

A news story raises the important question of what is American history and for whom:

“Still under construction, the new elementary school in Salinas is already embroiled in controversy over the school board’s decision to name it after Tiburcio Vásquez, one of the state’s most notorious Old West bandidos.

Critics say he was a 19th century outlaw who robbed and terrorized Californians before he was convicted and hanged for murder. They say naming a school after him glorifies crime.

In a city where two-thirds of residents are Latino, some Mexican-Americans say Vásquez was defending his land, culture and Spanish-speaking community from greedy white settlers who overran the state in pursuit of Manifest Destiny and gold. …

‘It’s a question of who writes history,’ said Gary Alan Fine, a sociologist at Northwestern University who has written about the reputations of historical figures. ‘And the writers of history change over time.’ “

American history is brimming with controversial figures — Fine points to the example of Thomas Jefferson, who owned over 200 slaves — so it’s no surprise that Mexican American history has it’s share of shady characters. Unfortunate as it may be for the sake of narrative, human beings tend to be much more complex than the normal good guy-bad guy dichotomy most people are used to.

Knowing as little about Vásquez as I do, two things nonetheless seem clear to me: one, he was a proud Californio who defended his birthright claim to the land and its resources during a time of increasing and unrelenting Anglo encroachment and discrimination; and two, he was a criminal who probably murdered innocent people, or at least was involved in their murders.

Yet, can a person have both the greatest of qualities and the ugliest of traits at the same time? (Can a figure, say, become our nation’s colossus of liberty and equality while also keeping hundreds of his fellow human beings in bondage?) If you’re as American as I am, your answer must be a definitive “Claro.”

America was born of a revolution. Our founding fathers were all lawbreakers. Ol’ King George tried to treat us as second-class citizens, and we responded with a declaration of independence and armed insurrection. As Americans, it’s in our nature to do right even when doing right means breaking the law. Just ask Sam Adams or Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks.

Better yet, ask Tiburcio Vásquez.

While acting as a defiant Californio, Vásquez was doing something uniquely American when he disregarded the law in order to defend himself and his fellow Californios from wanton discrimination. Admittedly, he openly confessed his desire to see his beloved California returned to Mexico, but even Honest Abe Lincoln, the Great Emancipator himself, initially thought deporting the freed slaves better than granting them equal citizenship. And must I mention how one of the country’s most popular presidents placed over 100,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps during the Second World War?

American history is not black-and-white, pun semi-intended. America is a stirring of ideas and people. Some clash. Others create a harmony.

Naming a school after a figure as controversial as Tiburcio Vásquez merely underscores the turbulent tale of America.

About Hector Luis Alamo, Jr.

Hector Luis Alamo, Jr., is the associate editor at Being Latino and a native son of Chicago's Humboldt Park neighborhood. He received a B.A. in history at the University of Illinois at Chicago, where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States. While at UIC, he worked first as a staff writer for the Chicago Flame and later became the newspaper's Opinions editor. He contributes to various Chicago-area publications, most notably, the RedEye and Gozamos. He's also a cultural critic for 'LLERO magazine. He has maintained a personal blog since 2007, YoungObservers.blogspot.com, where he discusses topics ranging from political history and philosophy to culture and music.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author and should not be understood to be shared by Being Latino, Inc.

Comments

  1. Maximiliano Torres says:

    History has been too one-sided and it has been designed to reflect White preference and history. That’s why our Latino children are disinterested and uninspired in school; because they read about White history and can’t relate. The contributions and history of others has been marginalized over the years in order to maintain a sense of White supremacy. It is important for our Latino children to learn more about their own history and culture. Especially as they go from being the largest minority to the majority population in the coming years. Regardless of how White people see this man, he was clearly a hero during that era. During a time when Mexican heroes are despised because they refused to bow to the White man. Name the school after him. He fought for his people and lost his life for it and that alone should be respected. “Que Viva Vasquez!!!”

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