Taking Zorro Back from the Gringos! One Guest at a Time. (Such a Lovely Place).
THE POOLSIDE PATIO LIGHTS dim as I sip at my Don Julio Silver.
The show’s about to begin.
There’s about forty of us sitting at tables that skirt the blue waters of the pool. Cabana thatch shades the last rays of dusk. We eat river lobster and fresh fish from the nearby Rio Fuerte. We’re tourists. From Venezuela. From all over Mexico. Some Canadians. Recently retired schoolteachers from Mexico City titter and laugh at one table.
And then there’s me and Jason. We’ve been on a road trip through Mexico. Searching for the Mexican origins of Zorro. It’s brought us here, to El Fuerte, Sinaloa, a little colonial town in northwest Sinaloa. La Posada del HidalgoHotel, it’s called. And its main attraction is Zorro.
Don Diego de la Vega, Zorro’s alter ego, was born in this very hotel — well, before it was this hotel, but you get the point — according to the legend being promoted. (It’s even fully written out on one wall, this legend). You can stay in the room of Zorro’s birth, they say. (It was booked. We got the Governor’s Suite). At night, as the legend goes, you can hear the defiant cackles of el Zorro, the fox, the famed bandit hero of El Camino Real. His spirit (conveniently enough for the Balderrama Hotel chain which owns La Posada del Hidalgo) has returned to the place where he first drew breath.
I friggin’ love this place.
The rest of the Don Julio goes down in one long, delicious pull.
Lights flicker. Rumbles come from an overwhelmed speaker system. Fuzz and Feedback. Simulated lighting and thunder. A strong flamenco guitar sounds its opening thrumb-thrumb, all open E chord, then a rack-a-tat, rack-a-tat-tat, rhythm — other chords follow so sad and so minor.
Ah, sweet pathos, I think. It’s everything you want in music, booze, and romance.
A haughty laugh comes from somewhere in the shadows of the now-darkened poolside patio.
It’s Zorro, it’s Zorro! I start to squee internally.
And then the kicker. I almost faint. A thin layer of stage fog fills the poolside. (Stage fog! I know, right?!).
Out of the shadows and the smoke comes the capped avenger. Spanish rapier in hand. There’s the flat-rimmed bolero; there, the mask, the disguise tied around flashing eyes; there the pencil-thin mustache! Another haughty laugh escapes as el Zorro runs the length of the pool. He stands, now, in full power pose. Hands on hips — very pelvis forward, I should add — chest puffed, head cocked back in mirth, abandon, mischief and…dare I say it? I’m really feeling this moment…pure goddamn sex appeal.
The stage smoke whisps away, the music fades, and all eyes are riveted on this man.
Listen up, pinche gringos! I tell myself, This is the REAL Zorro!
Now, this might be a good spot to point out that Don Diego de la Vega was not actually a historical person.
I mean, yes, did someone, perhaps, born in El Fuerte have a name that combined Diego + de la Vega? Well, yes, it’s a sorta common Spanish name. But, what I mean — and I’m trying to ponder this as el Zorro stands in front of us like some mythic archetype of beauty, sex, and death — is that no one actually believes or, like has ever argued, that Diego de la Vega was a real dude. But that’s exactly what the hotel is, indeed, arguing.
Diego de la Vega is literally a character of fiction. In 1919, Johnston McCulley, an American pulp fiction writer, penned the first Zorro story called The Curse of Capistrano (later renamed The Mark of Zorro, following the success of Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 film of the same name).
But what the hotel has done has created a so-called real backstory for Diego de la Vega. He was born in 1795, the hotel’s promotional pamphlet tells us. (It’s in Spanish and English). He was born in a room in the Casa Vieja, or the old part of the building structure, it says, which was later remodeled and expanded into the hotel we are now in, and in which we are now, this minute, watching el Zorro stand backlit with concert fog.
It’s as if the owner of a New York hotel decided Bruce Wayne, Batman’s alter ego, was actually a real guy and said, “Yup, Bruce Wayne was born here, motherfuckers, and we own his ass!” And then, added to this, there’s not even a hint of irony, anywhere. Like, no winks. No nods. Just pure credulity.
Ok, I think, I can dig it — that just adds to the charm!
Did I say I friggin’ love this place?
Yet the historian in me wants to know how all this happened. I’m like really curious and, of course, really entertained, but I’m trying to wrap my head around it.
I try a really long how question: How did an American pop culture/pulp fiction star (Zorro, that is), who then became a comic-book character, then a TV-show icon, then a late-90s movie reboot (true, with a nod to Hispanic heritage in Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones) — but all, in the main, examples of classic cultural appropriation — how, in other words, did Zorro get reintroduced in Mexico, sold as a hotel attraction, then packaged as authentic history, then promoted back to tourists who first became aware of Zorro by the aforesaid media cultural appropriation bonanza just described?
I’m severely out of breath and I really have no clue. But as Zorro stands before us I decide to do some investigation. Because this Mexican Zorro strutting here is real. He’s got a sword, a debonair mustache, and he’s not going away.
Later, after the Zorro show, I will do this: I search the Zorro hotel. There’s a wall covered in historical documents, I’ll find out. Like, completely covered. Some docs are from the 16th century, describing the original settlers to El Fuerte. Some are documents listing all the workers who helped build the structure that has become the hotel — from the early 1900s. There are some old newspapers as well. Nothing historically verifies the “legend” purported by the hotel — that Don Diego de la Vega was born here. I suspect the wall of documents is supposed to add an aura of historical authenticity. It’s a nice touch, but really proves nothing.
But, again, later, I will discover the prime mover to the whole thing: the Hotelier Roberto Balderrama Gómez. His family has been an institution in Sinaloa for 100 years. I find a photo of the family patriarch, Próspero Balderrama. Roberto, one of his sons, inherited his father’s enterprises and expanded them into a chain of six hotels. In the 1990s Roberto received a national tourism prize from the Mexican president. In 2008, “el Zorro” was named the emblem and symbol of El Fuerte. All thanks to Roberto, his savvy marketing, and his desire to make sure El Fuerte stayed on the touristic map. In one 2008 newspaper article framed on the wall, a local business person says: “I plan to go to the hotel soon to get information so I can orient tourists better, as right now I don’t have Zorro merchandise, but it really interests me to sell it and to learn about our history so we can educate our visitors.”
I will be struck, later, with sheer wonder thinking about how no one questions the Zorro backstory. Local business people, the town mayor, employees, guests — everyone WANTS TO BELIEVE Zorro was born in El Fuerte. And it makes sense. I can’t blame them. Why shouldn’t Zorro be owned by this little colonial town of El Fuerte, instead of a major media outlet in the United States? Or, why shouldn’t it be the identity of a Mexican hotel employee instead of the product of an Anglo American pulp fiction writer?
As Zorro struts before us poolside, it feels like justice. Zorro is Mexican! Our Zorro begins to speak. He’s got one of those nifty headset mics so his voice carries. He tells us the legend. That Zorro was born in this very hotel. His mother died when Dieguito was 10 years old. Diego’s father, Alejandro de la Vega, moved with his son to Alta California. Years later, the citizens of El Fuerte heard of the exploits of el Zorro in California, never knowing that their native son was the one fighting for justice in the land to the north. But now, as our Zorro tells us poolside, this history has become known by an unknown chronicler!
Who this unknown chronicler is, I’ll never be able to uncover. Was it Roberto Balderrama himself?
Before ending his speech, our Zorro comments: “The man in the mask represents all those who work in this hotel and the working person of Mexico.” I’m taken off guard by the statement. He’s self-consciously using Zorro as a symbol for justice in Mexico.
I really love this friggin’ place.
As the show ends, the man playing Zorro begins to take pictures with the audience. He flirts with the retired schoolteachers. Jason, my traveling companion, forces me to take a picture with Zorro.
And then it’s over. People return to their drinks, to their rooms, to the pleasant evening that stretches over El Fuerte. Me and Jason have to move the Sprinter van. We’d like to find secure parking so we ask at the front desk. The nice woman at the desk calls an attendant. A man appears dressed in his hotel uniform. Unruffled, and with pencil-thin mustache, the attendant helps us move our van. It’s totally the guy who played Zorro at the show. He doesn’t let on at all that it was him. I want to say something, some acknowledgement of his absolutely baller performance as Zorro — that I’m glad he’s taken Zorro back from the gringos, made the symbol his own. But the moment passes.
Ten minutes later, outside, we see him, Zorro, the hotel employee, leaving work for the evening. I call to get his attention.
“You know, it’s weird,” I tell him. He looks at me puzzled. “When Zorro appeared at the show,” I tell him, “I didn’t see you. You were nowhere to be found.”
He smiles. He realizes the pencil thin mustache gives him away. He stands for a moment in the same power pose. He spins on his heals, laughs, and walks off toward his early 2000s Nissan Sentra. Another day of work done. He’s headed home.
Zorro in the flesh.
(Originally posted on Medium).