A New Documentary Narrates One Man’s Journey to Find the Decapitated Head of a California Bandit who inspired the Creation of Zorro.
Was Zorro, the masked man who left his trademark “Z” on evildoers, inspired by a real-life person from history?
I get asked this quite often, actually. I’m writing a new book on the caped avenger: Zorro’s Ghost: How a Mexican Legend became America’s First Superhero. So, answer: Yes, I do think there are several historical figures who helped inspire the Zorro legend. But, no, there was no historical guy named Don Diego de la Vega who put on a mask, or was a bandit, in Old Spanish California.
The Zorro character is fiction. But there’s a real history behind the mask! (Oh, the proverbial “behind-the-mask” turn of phrase! You knew it was coming…)
Zorro’s origins are both simple and complicated. Let me explain.
The simple part: Basically a pulp fiction writer named Johnston McCulley (1883–1958) wrote the first Zorro novella in 1919. That’s one hundred years ago. It came out in serial form, five installments, in a pulp mag published by the Frank A. Munsey company. It pulp was called All-Story Weekly. McCulley titled the story The Curse of Capistrano. It had most of the story elements we’ve come to attribute to Zorro. It had the double, secret identity thing — by day Don Diego the rich heir to a California fortune; by night, the masked man who was amazing with swords and whips and had a keen sense of justice.
McCulley set his stories, there would be 65 of them in print by the time he died in 1958, in a kind of fantasy Spanish California. The friars of the missions were good and cared for the Indians. The Indians were happy. Women really loved brave, heroic caballeros, which, incidentally, allowed Don Diego to almost never be suspected as masquerading as a vigilante at night. Although this California didn’t exist in history — missions often sucked; the friars could be both corrupt and good depending; and California’s native peoples suffered tremendously from successive waves of Spanish, then Mexican, then American pillage — McCulley’s Zorro was useful to building California in the early 20th century. The idyllic Zorro was good for Hollywood, in other words.
And that’s when Hollywood came calling. In 1920, Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., the first action star of the silver screen, picked up McCulley’s Zorro and they made a movie. It was a silent film, of course. And so Fairbanks as Zorro did all these acrobatics and became even more the Zorro we’ve come to know.
That’s the simple answer to Zorro’s origins. Now, the complicated story. Or, at least a tidbit. Or, at least the head…
There was a Wild West at one time. Sure, it didn’t look like John Wayne or like the legends we’ve seen on the screen. But, there was a Wild West. Read Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian and you come closer to the core of that Wild West. Or, read the book by Brian DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts, and you begin to understand the real Wild West.
It was bloody, dirty, and violent. And also mostly boring for a lot of folks. Working. Farming. Mining. Water. Food. Water. Food. Sleep. Repeat.
That Old West was also full of some pretty racist violence. Consider the history of Joaquin Murrieta, whose head wound up in a jar of pickling brine and was preserved for decades in a museum in San Francisco.
Trailer for the Documentary.
Murrieta allegedly came from Sonora in Mexico. Sonora is now Northwest Mexico, but at one time it was just Mexico — like middle-ish Mexico. Northern Mexico was Alta California back then and had small little towns we now call Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco. Then war came. The United States fought with Mexico (1846–1848). Mexico lost and also lost half its territory to the expanding United States.
That was in the 1840s. Sonoran people, Joaquin Murrieta and his wife — so the story goes — traveled back and forth from Sonora to the California valleys. Remember, it was all Mexico at that time. They weren’t crossing national borders. It was like traveling from New Orleans to Chicago. But then, the war. The territory transferred from Mexico to the US. California now belonged to the Untied States. The Mexicans who lived there, or migrated there, were now, all of a sudden, in a different country. And seen as foreigners.
That sucks, right? I mean, think about that. What if I’ve been traveling to Chicago for the last several decades — my family has — and now when I go to Chicago everyone sees me as a foreign invader. That’s super weird.
And so it was with Joaquin Murrieta.
To make matters worse, gold had been found in California. Competition for gold became racialized. Mexicans and Chinese were marked as alien not only because they weren’t white, but because by excluding them, Anglo miners had a better chance at their gold claims. The tale goes that Murrieta was attacked and his wife raped. It’s a classic set up for a revenge film. Murrieta, according to the tale, goes into a life of banditry. In 1853, the governor raises a posse of California Rangers to bring back Murrieta dead or alive. The trouble is no one really knows what Murrieta looks like. There’s no photos. And, the newspaper accounts — mostly sensationalized — put Murrieta in every new case of desperado robbery or horse-thieving in the state, even if they happened miles apart. There are five “Joaquins” , in fact, each with different surnames that the press talks about in the era.
It also sounds like a setup for a racial lynching.
The California Rangers just-so-happen to happen upon a gang of Mexicans and just-so-happen to kill four of them in the Arroyo Cantua. They claim one was Murrieta and another was the so-called Three-Fingered Jack, the nom-de-guerre of another notorious bandit. The Rangers, led by Captain Harry Love — does it get any weirder that the guy’s name was Love? — decapitates the head of one of the dead and cuts off the hand of another. They put them in alcohol barrels to preserve them. They brought them back to the governor’s men and collected $5,000, the bounty placed on Murrieta.
End of story.
Accept it wasn’t. The next year, in 1854, a Cherokee Indian author named John Rollin Ridge wrote a romanticized tale about Murrieta. It was called Life and Adventures of of Joaquin Murieta: The Celebrated California Bandit. (Notice the spelling change for Murrieta. There was like ten different variations!). It had the distinction of being the first novel published by a Native American and the first novel of California. And it was with Ridge’s Murrieta that we begin to see the first shades of Zorro. He was a Robin Hood. He was a code switcher, meaning he could speak and talk like a Gringo, but then reveal himself suddenly as the real “Murrieta out for revenge.”
The new edition of the 1854 novel by Ridge.
In later tellings, Mexican-Americans passed down the tale to their children and grandchildren. The novelist Richard Rodriguez writes that grandmother’s would say things like:
“Yes, he became a robber, but not a bad man maybe. He gave what he stole to poor people…He kept the blackest horse for himself. They said his heart was as black as his chin. He wore a black hat with a black feather, and a big black cape. And you could only see his eyes.”
The legend increasingly took on elements — the black hat; you could only see his eyes (a mask?); his black horse; giving to the poor — that would lay a foundation from which McCulley drew upon in creating Zorro.
McCulley wrote that Zorro, for him, symbolized “the spirit of the caballero of the times.” He said he was influenced by California history; that he read tons of books on the area. Ridge’s novel Life and Adventures was an important book in the canon of 19th century California. Murrieta was the first folk hero of the state. McCulley combined elements of Murrieta with other pulp genre tropes and 19th century romantic adventure novels. He added the Scarlet Pimpernel for good measure— disguises, rich guy coming to the aide of others — but Murrieta was still an important base in crafting the Zorro legend.
Murrieta was white-washed as Zorro. Zorro was an aristocrat, he was Spanish, and he represented the fantasy heritage McCulley and others wanted to believe about the California past. The fantasy heritage that everyone coming to California wanted to believe. It was built into their Spanish stucco rooves. It fit their laid back Spanish hacienda lifestyle. It felt good, in other words. But, of course, in touting Zorro as the symbol of the Old California, McCulley rewrote the history of actual Mexican people living there.
That’s the complicated answer. But, what about the head?
The head traveled for profit.
The head of Murrieta was kept in a glass jar after the bounty was collected. Captain Harry Love — again, crazy name for a dude that is famous for decapitating someone — traveled around California to brothels, mining camps, and saloons with the floating head pickle. They sold admission for a dollar. Eventually, the head — or was it another head, who knows? — wound up in San Francisco at Dr. Jordan’s Pacific Museum of Science and Anatomy. A three-legged chicken and the so-called Amazing Cyclops Child floated in their own jars next to the floating hair, like sea grass, of the head of Joaquin Murrieta.
But, wait. Remember that we don’t even know if it was actually the head of Joaquin Murrieta. If it was Murrieta’s head, that’s bad enough, right? But, consider: It could’ve been the head of some hapless Mexican kid who happened to be a convenient person to kill and claim as Murrieta. I’d like to remind you that there are documented 871 lynchings of Mexicans in 13 states in the American west after the Civil War.
The Head of Murrieta floating in a jar is important for us today. It symbolizes the racial violence that characterized the Old West, but also the way in which this history has been cut off from the broader stories we tell of American history. In the same way the history of Murrieta has been cut off from the history of Zorro and popular culture, the history of Mexican-Americans has been lopped off from the story of America.
John Valadez buries the head in his new documentary.
John J. Valadez is a Chicano filmmaker who has done the unthinkable. He, too, was captivated by the whole Murrieta legend. He even went to California to try and find the purported head that was said to be kept by one Walter Johnson of Santa Rosa, CA. Valadez offered the Johnson family $1,000 for the head. The family said it didn’t have the thing. They had gotten rid of it.
End of story.
Until, that is, John Valadez received a package in the mail! Yup. The head. Or, some other head — maybe it was fake? Valadez says he doesn’t know. I called him up and interviewed him about the whole thing.
“I know it’s weird, it’s quirky,” John says to me over the phone. “I’m telling the truth except for the parts that aren’t true.” He laughs.
“I decided to do what any respectable Chicano would do,” he says. A pause. “Go on a road trip!” He laughs again, this infectious hearty chuckle.
John Valadez tells me he shot the film as a journey. He visited the places in Texas and California where Mexican-Americans died in racial violence. He travels back to the Arroyo Cantua, the place where the original crime was committed, and buries the head.
And we actually see that head at the end of the film. It looks fake. But, then again, a decapitated head in a jar always probably seems mostly surreal.
“The story of Murrieta has haunted America. It’s like the Donner Party,” John tells me during our phone conversation.
As I say goodbye to John, I think about what Richard Rodriguez wrote regarding Joaquin Murrieta. “We are all bandits,” he writes. “We’ve stolen California from the Mexicans. And they stole it from the Spaniards. And they stole it from the Indians. We can deal with the guilt history places on us only when we free ourselves from the ghosts.”
Finding the origins to Zorro is about dealing with those ghosts, uncovering the painful history of the Old West, and perhaps allowing us to see American culture as a product of Mexican and Latino contribution. Zorro is often seen as America’s first blueprint for the modern superhero. It’s time to reclaim Zorro’s lost head and tell better stories.