by Ernest Hogan
Sometimes stereotypes can be appealing -- take that of the dashing, romantic swashbuckling hero who defeates bad guys and sweeps women off their feet. If the media loves anything, it’s heroic sex symbols, and add a bit of Latin spice, and ooh-la-la! There’s something that can sell.
That’s what happened with Zorro. But taking a good look at Zorro, just what is his ethnicity? Latino? Hispanic? The story is long and complicated.
It widely accepted that the fictional Zorro was inspired by the real Joaquin Murrieta. The legend of Murrieta, the Robin Hood of California, has been popularized since the dime novel days. There have been a few movies, and even spaghetti westerns, but the tale of a man becoming a bandit/avenger after his wife is killed by Anglos, who then is killed and decapitated by ex-Texas Ranger Captain Harry Love, never quite fit the formula of Hollywood success.
The legend of Joaquin Murrieta -- that inspired Rudolfo “Corky” Gonzoales’ iconic poem I am Joaquin -- remains an oddity, like his head that was preserved in alcohol and put on display.
The more commercial character Zorro came out the imagination of Johnston McCully in The Curse of Capistrano, serialized in All-Story Magazine in 1919. Johnston pushed the story back in time to California’s Spanish Colonial period. Murrieta was a Mexican -- though Pablo Neruda claimed him as a Peruvian in his play The Splendor and Death of Joaquin Murieta -- while Zorro, and his alter ego Don Diego Vega, are Spanish nobles, safely white enough for the readers of pulp magazines. Spanish words are all in italics. Unlike Murrieta, no motivation is given for Don Diego’s becoming a masked vigilante -- it’s as if he just thought it would all be fun.
I wonder if Carlos Slim and Bill Gates put on masks and fight evil when things get dull . . .
The only mention of race in the novel is of the “natives” who magically appear when ever someone needs food or drink.
I imagine a Nollywood version with an all-black cast . . .
In 1920 it was adapted into The Mark of Zorro. McCully must have been pleased. The 1924 Grosset & Dunlap edition of the novel takes the title of the movie, and is dedicated to Douglas Fairbanks, THE “ZORRO” OF THE SCREEN, and is ILLUSTRATED WITH SCENES FROM THE PHOTOPLAY.
In one of these scenes Zorro defends the fair Lolita from some scruffy-looking “natives.”
So Zorro, though based on a Mexican --whose banditry was a response to racially-motivated injustice -- was a white Hispanic. White actors like Tyrone Power played him. But a strange thing happened. He became more “Latino” over the years.
In the Disney-produced 1957-1959 TV series, he was played by Guy Williams, whose real name was Armand Joseph Catalano, of Italian/Spanish heritage. There have been South American and Filipino versions, along with the Antonio Banderas movie and the Isabel Allende novel. There’s just no stopping this masked man.
Meanwhile, Joaquin Murrieta is still around, outside of the corporate pop culture machine. Disney has expressed no desire to appropriate him. Like his head that mysteriously disappeared in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, his legend will haunt cyberspace and inspire outlaw cultures of the future.
Ernest Hogan, father of Chicano speculative fiction, is working on a secret project about a masked Mexican.