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.