Sometimes you want the bad guy to win. Of course, the bad guy's victory works best when confined to specific fables; we don't want the bad guy to win the girl, the war, the Presidency. But we all love an anti-hero, wax poetic about the deep emotional complexities of Huck Finn, Don Draper, Scarlett O'Hara, and Severus Snape. We who are ordinary with soft midsections, passive aggressive tendencies that mask our fear of being deeply known and loved despite our many faults, want to know brawn and iron will are not always destined to come out on top. After all, escaping the possibility of being bested is what makes these beloved characters heroes, could make us heroes. For this reason I picked up a copy of John Rollin Ridge's old dime store novel, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta.
I remembered the story of Murieta existed when Penguin Classics rereleased a copy of the book with an updated cover and a forward by Outlander's Diana Gabaldon.* The new cover is beautiful—all bright light and purple desert sky and shimmering stallion—but if I'm honest I much prefer the wild gleam in Murieta's eyes in the original art over the smile he dons on the Penguin Classics cover. I want my vengeful bandits hungry to spill the blood of racists who did them wrong, not giggling while doing pony tricks.
The book is the basis for the story of Zorro, making it one of the most influential and invisible novels in American history. Zorro, the dashing and dark masked vigilante who defends commoners against corrupt and tyrannical government officials, is a fictitious character created in 1919 by American pulp writer Johnston McCulley and played by a series of very handsome but very white actors in over forty film and television adaptations. The first Spanish speaking (though not Mexican) actor to play Zorro in an American film was Antonio Banderas in The Legend of Zorro, the 2005 sequel to the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro, where he played sidekick to Anthony Hopkin's Zorro. If the idea of Anthony Hopkins as Zorro horrifies you (which it absolutely should) I suggest watching the 1959 Mexican Western Zorro films which star hot daddy Luis Aguilar. We will now break for a gratuitous photo of Luis Aguilar holding a chicken while wearing a silk polka dot neck tie.
Though the tales of Murieta's raids, murders, and daring escapes are quite possibly the stories of several different bandits cobbled together into one narrative, the real Joaquin Murieta did endure horrifying abuse at the hands of the white Californian frontiersmen he grew up admiring. After leaving his childhood home in Sonora Mexico to make it big in California's Gold Rush Murieta was driven from a rich mining claim by white miners who raped his wife, lynched his half-brother, and horse whipped Murieta, who they had bound to a tree. Of the ordeal Rollin Ridge writes, "It was then that his character changed, suddenly and irrevocably. Wanton cruelty and the tyranny of prejudice had reached their climax. His soul swelled beyond its former boundaries, and the barriers of honor, rocked into atoms by the strong passion which shook his heart like an earthquake, crumbled around him. Then it was that he declared to a friend that he would live henceforth for revenge and that his path should be marked with blood. Faithfully did he keep his promise."
White America prefers the moral and good hearted Zorro of course, the Guy Williams bandito stripped of his suffering and nattily dressed in expert swordsmanship and a passion for justice. Our love for spaghetti westerns is driven by the same mechanism that fuels the war on terror: the idea that criminals and barbarians are born and not made. In the early 1920s when Zorro first appeared on the big screen America was busy creating the FBI in order to get to the bottom of the serial murders of Osage Native Americans and could not have been less interested in the righteous fury behind the real Zorro or the man who wrote of him. John Rollin Ridge was Cherokee after all, and The Life and Times of Joaquin Murieta was the first book ever published by a Native American.
Meanwhile, while Joaquin was being mass marketed as Zorro in America, The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta was being translated into French and Spanish, and became particularly popular in Chile after translator Roberto Hyenne changed every 'Mexican' reference to 'Chilean,' giving the book an air of nationalistic pride in a time when the country, fresh out of a revolution, was expanding its territory northward. As is so often the case, the labeling of hero or villain depends entirely upon which culture is doing the naming. There is particular violence however, in America’s stripping a vengeful Murieta of his justifications and then marketing him as a Hopkins faced Robin Hood to the very spaghetti-fed John Wayne Americans who whipped the tree bound miner only generations earlier.
The Life and Times reads like a chuckwagon fireside chat story, full of grandiose cattle thefts and men named Three Fingered Jack. Women are described as having “rich, luxuriant hair which falls around him like a cloud.” Everyone is oversexed considering they were all likely battling serious wound infections while on the lam. Still, in a country where the Administration was ordered to reunite children separated from their families at the border and has yet to do so—indeed, in many cases, is still actively abusing detained children—it is essential that we identify with the violence that may come from victims pain, much of it long after this Administration’s end. As Hsuan L. Hsu points out in his introduction to the Penguin Classics version, The Life and Times of Joaquin Murieta is “a classic American story of anti-racist insurrection” and vital reading during a time of “intensified militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border fueled by racial stereotypes such as President Trump’s invocation of ‘bad hombres’.”
Justice and revenge are never clearly defined and in a country still run by calloused cowboys we who are keen to remember this may find ourselves living on the outskirts of San Luis Obispo County, awaiting direction from our anti-hero on who to rob next. Like The Mask of Zorro ominously warns us, when freedom is a memory and justice is outlawed, the just must become outlaws.
*I purchased my copy from Vintage Books for about three bucks, in case you'd rather not drop eighteen on the Classics version.