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The Face of Zorro

By Luis Valdez (excerpt)

Back around 1948, when I was just a kid, Zorro rode into my life across the flat cotton fields of the southwest San Joaquin Valley like a silent dream. Going to the movies in those days meant paying an extra dime to catch the Greyhound bus to Delano with my brother. We lived in Earlimart, you see, 11 miles to the north on Highway 99. Our funky, dusty little migrant farm worker town didn't even have a Catholic church. How could it rate its own show? One day an old man pulled into town in a rattling panel truck, hauling a battered trailer. He offered me and my brother a quarter each if we'd help him clear an empty lot of broken glass. Then he hired a couple of men to help him erect a small, worn-out circus tent and we helped him set up his benches, his screen and his kerosene projector. As it turned out, the old man was part of a dying breed from the '20s, the traveling picture show, barely surviving in the rural backwater barrio towns of California.

That night Douglas Fairbanks Sr. rode into our town in "The Mark of Zorro," made in Hollywood in 1920 in glorious black and white, and totally silent. It was unforgettable. It was like being at the birth of the movies, when the myth of the romantic Latin hero itself was born. To an 8-year-old migrant Chicano kid, it was a revelation, and the start of a strange mystery: Who is this guy who's supposed to be me? And for the last 50 years, as a playwright, activist and filmmaker, I have been looking under his mask.

Original story

The legend of Zorro (Spanish for "fox") was born fully formed in 1919 in the conquest fiction of Johnston McCulley -- who, with only a cursory knowledge of California history, penned an original story called "The Curse of Capistrano." McCulley's first imaginative slash was the time frame. He carefully set his plot somewhere near the end of Spanish rule, when California was a distant frontier still controlled by corrupt, dictatorial Castille. His second slash was to join the rancho period and the mission period, which enjoyed their heydays many years apart, into an amalgam of both. And his third and final slash was to create a fictional character: a heroic, freedom-fighting Californio called Zorro, who is really the son of a Spanish don and thus part of the land-granted rancho-owning aristocracy of noble European blue bloods. It would only take Hollywood to throw in some flashy swordplay and an appealing hot-blooded seņorita or two, and an irresistible franchise was born.

Silent film debut

Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was there to godfather. As the first top movie actor to recognize the cinematic potential in Zorro, he purchased the screen rights in 1920. His feature film, "The Mark of Zorro," not only launched his overwhelming success as a swashbuckling screen star in a series of adventures, it also created the classic Anglo Latin Lover mold from which all subsequent masked avengers would be cast. Fairbanks' silent action flick, cinematizing McCulley's story with clever verve and humor, set the style and plot for most of the screenplays to follow. The basic plot is a 19th century American morality play in which the hero saves a family from ruination and thereby wins the daughter. Young, aristocratic Don Diego, having completed his studies in Madrid, returns to find tyranny running rampant in California. As El Zorro, he begins to wage a one-man war against villainous captains and corrupt governors. In order to divert suspicion from himself, Diego takes on the air of a foppish dandy, deceiving everyone, including his father, the old noble Don, and his lady love, Lolita. With minor variations, this has been the basic story of the continuing saga for 80 years.

Historical setting

Yet the question remains: What is the secret of his enduring appeal across generations? Could it be that underneath all the masks, in the dark recesses of fictional denial, lurks the twisted visage of Manifest Destiny? Zorro is, after all, the shining star of a mythical California, set in a time and place that never existed. It is a California under insufferable Spanish rule, before 1820 and the advent of Mexico's short-lived (and equally undesirable) republican hegemony, and certainly long before the arrival of the Americans. In real historical time, the Spanish colonial period lasted hardly more than 50 years (1769-1821), followed by the Mexican Republic period (1821-1848), which in turn barely lasted a quarter of a century, before the Mexican-American War ceded fully half the national territory of Mexico, including newly discovered gold in California, to the United States.


Then came television, and sudden rebirth. In 1957 Disney produced the top-rated "Zorro" television series starring Guy Williams as the Masked Avenger in 39 half-hour shows. The success of the first season led to an additional 39 for the second season, and the show spawned a Zorro mania among young Americans. Yet for young Mexican-Americans, the recurring character of fat, stupid Mexican Sergeant Garcia was a humiliating stereotype. Like the Frito Bandito, Garcia helped to launch an entire generation of enflamed Chicano activists in the 1960s. Even so, it was increasingly evident that Zorro was serious worldwide show business. Zorro inspired not only merchandising, but also other duel-identity crime fighters. Bob Kane, the creator of "Batman," credits Zorro as the inspiration for his masked, caped crusader.

Real Banditos

Does it matter that, in real historical time, there were a number of early Californios who might well have served as inspirations for the masked avenger? Three young Monterey natives and intellectuals rush to mind, namely Mariano Vallejo (the namesake of the city of Vallejo in the San Francisco Bay Area), Juan Bautista Alvarado (one of California's few native-born Mexican governors) and Tiburcio Vasquez, the last of the California bandits and the last man publicly executed in the state, in San Jose in 1875. Vasquez is particularly intriguing, given his self-proclaimed flamboyant stance as a freedom fighter (alas, against the Americans) and his gentile penchant of dressing in black and wearing a cape, though never a half-face mask. He was hanged for the murder of three men in a holdup at Tres Pinos, south of Hollister, in 1873, but it took a statewide manhunt to finally trap him in Cahuenga Pass near Los Angeles, close to what is today the Sunset Strip. Even more amazing, while Vasquez was recovering from gunshot wounds received from a zealous posse member, Samuel Piercy, an astute theatrical impresario, met with the accused felon in his jail cell and then staged a wildly successful melodrama called "The Capture of Vasquez" to overflow crowds.

Story and Song from the 1850s Only one other Spanish California bandit shares the honor of having his exploits staged as purest melodrama, and that was the infamous Joaquin Murrieta of the Gold Rush. Hollywood, in fact, has honored him time and again in films paralleling Zorro's own cinematic sojourn, from silent days to cable TV, but Murrieta also started his career in print. Virtually culled from the real-life legend of seven bandit Joaquins -- who appeared and then disappeared in California from 1849-1853, creating fear, loathing and mayhem -- the Murrieta myth was published as a dime novel in San Francisco by John Rollin Ridge (alias Yellowbird) in 1952. This quickly led to further embellishment and fabrications, each trying to outdo the other in retelling the familiar tale of Murrieta's bloody revenge on all Americans for the murder of his lovely Rosita (or Carmencita) at the hands of the greaser-hating '49ers. He was, however, a foreigner, like everybody else in the Gold Rush, and Murrieta's nationality was proudly proclaimed in the very first Mexican corrido ever written, in 1850, "The Ballad of Joaquin Murrieta."

End of excerpt.

Luis Valdez wrote and directed the film "La Bamba" and the play "Zoot Suit," the first play by a Chicano to appear on Broadway, and co-wrote and directed "The Cisco Kid" for Turner Pictures. He is the artistic director of El Teatro Campesino, the farm workers' theater he founded on the picket line of the Great Delano Grape Strike in 1965.