The Santa Clarita school board recently voted unanimously to name the new high school in Agua Dulce after Tiburcio Vasquez. Agua Dulce, 45 miles north of Los Angeles, is the site of Vasquez Rocks, where Vasquez often hid out.
But a storm of controversy erupted: Tiburcio Vasquez! The scourge of 19th-Century California! A horse thief and stagecoach robber!
Mention Vasquez, Joaquin Murieta or Gregorio Cortez of Texas to history buffs of the Old West and you will be duly informed that these were "bad hombres," outlaws or, at best, colorful folkloric characters.
But many Chicanos, Latinos and progressive biographers see these figures in a different light: as avengers, natives of formerly Mexican territory who resisted the Yankee invasion from the 1840s through 1890s.
Luis Valdez, a Chicano playwright and film maker, wrote a play about Vasquez, "Bandido!" The late Nobel laureate for poetry, Pablo Neruda of Chile, wrote an epic poem on Joaquin Murieta and claimed him as a Chileno. The likenesses of Vasquez and Murieta are found in countless murals across the state.
Vasquez was different from bandits like Billy the Kid or Jesse James, whose crimes were against their own social communities. Whatever grudge those Yankee outlaws had against society were not based on injustices perpetrated by an invading people. Rodolfo Acuna, Chicano studies professor at Cal State Northridge and author of "Occupied America," wrote, "When the colonized cannot earn a living within the system, or when they are degraded, they strike out."
More than any other bad hombre of that period, Tiburcio Vasquez left a wealth of information through interviews, newspaper reports and memoirs by his victims. He is quoted as having said, "As I grew into manhood, I was in the habit of attending balls and parties given by the native Californians, into which the Americans, then beginning to become numerous, would force themselves and shove the native-born men aside, monopolizing the dance and the women. . . . A spirit of hatred and revenge took possession of me. I had numerous fights in defense of what I believed to be my rights and those of my countrymen."
Vasquez not only had a grudge but a distinguished family lineage. His grandfather rode with Juan Batista de Anza to help found the presidio that later became San Francisco. This same grandfather was the first settler and mayor of San Jose. Born in Monterey in 1835, Tiburcio Vasquez was a well-educated bilingual Californio with beautiful penmanship, a penchant for poetry and a weakness for women. His decision to live outside society came after a fight at a dance in which a constable was killed. Three Californios, including Vasquez, were accused. His friends were quickly caught and hanged without trial. Vasquez escaped and began his life as an "outlaw."
With his leadership, intelligence and charisma, he eluded capture for 20 years. Californios hid and protected him.
"He has no band or gang, unless the entire Mexican population of the mountain regions of Fresno, Kern, Tulare, Monterey and Los Angeles counties can be called such," one law-enforcement authority complained.
If today's protests defeat the naming of Tiburcio Vasquez High School, then perhaps we should also take a look at other notorious characters in California history who have been so honored. Leland Stanford Jr. University was named after the son of a "robber baron." Leland Stanford Sr. made his fortune the old-fashioned way, through wheeling and dealing land and building a railway with cheap imported Chinese and Mexican labor.
Lt. Col. John C. Fremont, one of the first Yankee settlers, was graciously welcomed to California by Mexican Gen. Mariano Vallejo. But Fremont betrayed his friend, took the Vallejo brothers prisoner, adopted the bear flag and helped swindle land from Californios. Fremont has a whole city named after him, along with schools and streets.
An old-timer once recalled Tiburcio Vasquez as Tiburon, which means shark. It is not known whether the old-timer erred by calling him Tiburon or if Vasquez was actually nicknamed Tiburon because of his many quick escapades up and down the coast. Would the Sharks be a perfect team name for Tiburcio Vasquez High?
Naming a high school for Vasquez is a sign of these times when many of us are reaching out to reclaim a part of our history that has been repressed for more than 100 years. A history written by the victors eventually has to be corrected so that it can belong to all of us.