Westward Expansion

 

 

Zorro: Fiction and Fact

 

H

e was Hollywood’s first swashbuckling hero.  He wore a mask, wielded a cape and a sword with panache, and announced his presence by slashing the letter Z on a wall. Like the legendary English outlaw Robin Hood, Zorro robbed from the rich and gave to the poor—but with a crucial difference: he was Hispanic.  In more than a dozen feature films and a long-running Walt Disney television series, Don Diego Vegas, the son of a prominent wealthy California alcalde (administrator and judge), adopts the secret identity of Zorro, robs tax collectors, and returns the money to California’s peasants.

 

Zorro was a fictional character (created by a popular novelist named Jonathan Culley. But the figure he portrayed—the social bandit protecting the interests of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Southwest--was based on reality. In Texas and California, figures like Juan Nepomuceno Cortina and the legendary Joaquín Murieta, turned to banditry as a way to resist exploitation and avenge injustice. Though called bandidos, they did not rob banks or stage coaches; instead, they sought to protect the economy and traditional rights of Mexicans and Mexican Americans.

 

Until recently, American popular culture presented the story of America’s westward expansion largely from the perspective of white Americans. Countless western novels and films depicted the westward movement primarily through the eyes of explorers, missionaries, soldiers, trappers, traders, and pioneers.

 

Theodore Roosevelt captured this perspective in a book entitled The Winning of the West, an epic tale of white civilization conquering the western wilderness. But there are other sides to the story. To property understand America’s surge to the Pacific, one must understand it from multiple perspectives, including the viewpoint of the people who already inhabited the region: Mexicans and Native Americans.