Thursday, August 04, 2016

Chicanonautica: Original New Mexico Gangster

by Ernest Hogan

In these strange times when bookstores are becoming rare, I find a lot of reading material in antique stores. I was with my wife, cruising a section of Phoenix that is coming back to life, when I found something interesting not far from a faded Diego Rivera print. It was little pamplet: Vicente Silva: The Terror of Las Vegas by Carlos C. de Baca (research revealed that the “C” was for Cabaza – Cabeza de Baca? Cabeza de Vaca? Any relation?). The illustrations showed shootings and hanging in a dime novel style, and had captions in Spanish.


Part of the Wild and Wooly West Books series from Filter Press of Palmer Lake, Colorado. 1978 was on the title page. The copyright was 1968. The illustrations were from de Baca's 1896 Spanish account. The last page dates “the present writing” at 1938.

This puts the story of Vicente Silva well before Hollywood, and the “bandito” stereotype. Maybe it's one of the sources.

Silva isn't romanticized. There's no Robin Hood shades to his image in the manner of Billy the Kid. He was a mean guy, who liked money and had a genius of organizing ways of getting it, and he didn't have anything against killing anybody who got in the way.

He organized a gang of desperadoes with colorful nicknames like El Romo (The Roman), El Lechusa (The Owl), El Moro (The Moor), El Mellado (The Dull One), El Candelas (The Icicles), Piedra Lumbre (Hot Rock), Patas de Mico (Pussyfoot), El Indio (The Indian), El Galivan (The Hawk), and El Menguado, (The Shrunken One).

They robbed and killed across Northern New Mexico, and were the reason for the creation of the Sociedad de Mutua Proteccion Unido (Society of Mutual Protection), a group along the lines of the Vigilantes of California.

It's hard to like Silva or his gang – de Baca uses the then-new term “gangster” to describe them -- so it's no surprise that American pop culture hasn't celebrated him. He was more a villain than hero, and was eventually killed by his own men.

And the criminal career of his gang went on afterwards. Prices were on their heads, and people collected – a Manuel C. de Baca, received $30,000.00 for his part in the investigations -- and the gangsters “walked the thirteen steps” and “have gone to face the Great Judge.”

Except for El Moro, AKA Martin Gonzalez y Blea, who ended up in the New Mexico State Hospital for the Insane at Las Vegas, New Mexico where, “At times he seems to live again the scenes of his horrible crimes, his awful wailing through the long night, sticking terror to the helpless inmate of the somber institution.”

The story would make good material for a western, echoing that crime does not pay.

But then I remember how my father would quote his grandfather, who was a genuine New Mexico cowboy, that who the good guys and bad guys were depended on who was in power.

Or maybe the election is getting to me.

Ernest Hogan is a law-abiding citizen who wrote High Aztech and Cortez on Jupiter.

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