Zorro vs. Tarzana

How the masked avenger taught a white kid from the suburbs that California's past -- and its present -- was older, darker and more soulful than he had ever dreamed.

Published June 30, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

It's Halloween 1958 in suburban Los Angeles. With mounting excitement, a 9-year-old dons a black cape, fastens a plastic sword to his belt and slips a black mask over his pale face. Instantly he's Zorro, "the fox so cunning and free."

Pausing a moment before a mirror to adjust his black hat and affect the requisite cavalier smile, he grabs his empty bag and sets forth in pursuit of precious candy. His confidence reveals itself in an outlaw swagger, which he savors until he steps into the street and notices that fully half the boys in his neighborhood are wearing an identical costume. Without warning, this October evening has become "The Night of a Thousand Zorros."

Forgive me, but as soon as I hear the word "Zorro," I am instantly transported to that rude awakening of my childhood. It is the first time I can recall falling prey to mass marketing, having (inexplicably) forsaken the earlier Davy Crockett coonskin cap craze. I was a fashion victim, that fall's fashion for kids being a popular Walt Disney television series about a masked crusader in Spanish California of the 1820s.

Who knew? I thought they'd all be Bozo the Clown or Superman or Elvis, and I'd be the really cool, dangerous guy with the sword. Alas, my perspective was too personal. I lacked an ability to spot the market trends. And Zorro, believe me, was big that season.

First, there was the obvious appeal -- the dashing disguise, the black stallion, the avenging sword. Like Robin Hood, another of my favorites, Zorro was a good outlaw, a rebel with a cause, which appealed to my incipient sense of social justice. He bedeviled greedy despots and clearly enjoyed himself in the process. He was sly and mischievous, and sometimes (to keep the kids laughing) broadly farcical, especially with his overweight sidekick, Bernardo. Plus the name was perfect -- one word, the essence of cool, like a Brazilian soccer star, with that dazzling, slashing "Z."

But there was something else. Unlike all-American heroes Daniel Boone or John Wayne, Zorro was exotic. Dark and mysterious. Not too dark to frighten children -- this was after all a Disney version. But compelling. It was the attraction of the other: men in black, men in masks -- like Batman, another hero with a double life and a hint of the forbidden.

For me, there was an equally significant precursor to Zorro, the Cisco Kid. Nothing on TV captured my 5-year-old imagination more than the syndicated adventures of that debonair Mexican bandit and his comical companion, Pancho. They were the Don Quixote and Sancho Panza of my preschool years.

I was living then in the anonymous tracts of Tarzana -- this was Southern California, remember, fantasyland, and the town was named for Edgar Rice Burroughs' fictional lord of the jungle. But Tarzana was as bland as Wal-Mart. It was whiter than New Hampshire. And even for a 5-year-old, it was dull until the Cisco Kid rode into my life on his horse, Diablo.

Played by the dashing Duncan Renaldo, the Cisco Kid was immaculately dressed -- in black, of course -- and exuded Latin charm. Cisco cut an adventurous, swashbuckling path across the rugged Southwest. His sidekick, Pancho, was an entertaining buffoon who spoke in ludicrously accented English. But he also could fight, especially with his trademark bullwhip. The actor who portrayed Pancho was Leo Carrillo, a descendant of an old California landowning family. I remember watching him lead the New Year's Day Rose Parade on a magnificent horse with a silver-studded saddle.

I loved the way these buddies greeted each other each week on TV, yelling: "Hey, Ceesco!" "Hey, Pancho!" Then the Kid ordered, "Away!" and they rode off in swirling dust. I confess that on the rare occasions when I ride a horse, I always shout, "Hey, Ceesco ..." to the dismay of my South African-born wife who grew up without benefit of TV.

As an adult I learned that "The Cisco Kid" had a long cultural tradition, originating in an O. Henry short story, "The Caballero's Way," and generating many movies starring the likes of Douglas Fairbanks and Cisar Romero. One indication of how influential the TV series was with my contemporaries, both Hispanic and white, is that the Latin-tinged rhythm and blues group War scored a funky No. 2 hit in 1973 with "The Cisco Kid" ("The Cisco Kid he was a friend of mine, he drank whiskey, Pancho drank the wine").

Discovering the Cisco Kid, and later Zorro, was for me the equivalent of venturing out from Tarzana to visit Olvera Street in downtown Los Angeles during "Feliz Navidad" celebrations -- the piqatas, the smell of fresh-cooked tortillas, the Virgin of Guadalupe replicas. It all seemed so appealingly exotic, and yet it was my home, too.

In the Southern California of my youth, when almost everything seemed new, I liked the idea that there was an older, pre-Yankee California. That before freeways, Lockheed and shopping malls, there were haciendas and rancheros. The proof existed in the crumbling missions of Father Junipero Serra, who we studied in the third grade. After field trips to San Juan Capistrano and Santa Barbara ("the Queen of the Missions"), I vowed to visit all 21 missions -- an ambition I have tried, and failed, to instill in my own children.

Watching Zorro on TV at the same time, I was enamored of the adobe missions that allowed me to enter an imaginary world of romantic California: Spanish aristocrats, Mexican rebels, beautiful seqoritas. Born into a family of blonds, I lusted after the black-haired actresses on "Zorro," even the Mouseketeer Annette Funicello, who once made a guest appearance as "Anita." You laugh, but hey, to me at the time, even Catholics were exotic and captivating.

It's almost impossible to imagine now, but Los Angeles was once the whitest, most uniformly Protestant city in the United States -- a desert oasis of stolen water and orange groves populated by Midwesterners lured by real estate speculators. I grew up in that city's postwar boom years when the Beach Boys still dominated airwaves. I remember the difficulty gringos had with the local Spanish names. My grandfather from New Jersey pronounced the name of his new home as "Las Angle-eeze," an attempt I think to split the difference between Spanish and English.

The first racial divide I encountered was not between whites and blacks -- blacks were so far removed from the San Fernando Valley where I lived that I barely knew they existed in Los Angeles until the Watts Riots of 1965. No, for me the tensions were linguistic, English and Spanish, and the antagonists were Anglos and Mexicans. The first racial epithet I heard was "greaser." When my virtually all-white high school football team ventured into East Los Angeles -- by the mid-'60s the vast center of L.A.'s Hispanic community -- our coaches warned us to get back on the bus immediately after the game, especially if we won, to avoid a riot. Lurid rumors spread that in a pile-up on the field some "greaser" might pull a switchblade.

I was not immune from the racial prejudices of my peers, but it was hard to sustain any real animosity. I mean, I thought the Cisco Kid was a friend of mine, and Zorro, well, I wanted to be Zorro.

When I saw Luis Valdez's masterwork, "Zoot Suit," in the '70s, I had the same reaction. Maybe these pachucos in the barrio of East L.A. should not have been rioting during World War II, though lord knows the L.A. cops provoked them, but man, was Eddie Olmos magnificent in his black leather coat and broad-brimmed hat, or what? He was a stunning reincarnation: Zorro as angry young man. He commanded respect.

All this came back to me when I saw the new "Zorro" movie last weekend in San Francisco. It was a sold-out, date-night audience -- the kind where no one stays to read the credits -- and it mirrored the profound demographic shift that has transformed California. There were lots of young Anglos, but they were outnumbered by Californians of Filipino, Chinese and Mexican ancestry. An African-American guy and his Middle Eastern girlfriend from Coventry, England, stood next to me in line. There were, in fact, quite a number of mixed-race couples.

This is the future of California, and the nation -- increasingly Hispanic, multilingual and bound, for the moment at least, by a Hollywood culture that must keep expanding (even against its will) to tell the stories of all the diverse potential customers.
I'm not sure why this San Francisco crowd was drawn to "The Mask of Zorro," but they seemed to like it, even though I found it to be a less satisfying genre movie than, say, "Indiana Jones." The sword fighting was exciting and Anthony Hopkins was surprisingly convincing, despite his illogical English accent. My only real complaint was the dreadful song at the end -- why didn't they use a group like Los Lobos?

Frankly, though, once I saw the impossibly beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones it was hard to remember anything else. That's what happens when you grow up: The steamy tango scene seems a lot more appealing than dispatching the bad guys.

By Stephen Talbot

Stephen Talbot is a producer for ITVS / Independent Lens, based in San Francisco.

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