The face of Zorro

For 50 years, screenwriter and El Teatro Campesino founder Luis Valdez has been looking under Zorro's mask, trying to figure out who the romantic Latin hero really was.

Published July 23, 1998 3:17PM (EDT)

Back around 1948, when I was just a kid, Zorro rode into my life across the flat cotton fields of the southwest San Joaquin Valley like a silent dream. Going to the movies in those days meant paying an extra dime to catch the Greyhound bus to Delano with my brother. We lived in Earlimart, you see, 11 miles to the north on Highway 99. Our funky, dusty little migrant farm worker town didn't even have a Catholic church. How could it rate its own show?

One day an old man pulled into town in a rattling panel truck, hauling a battered trailer. He offered me and my brother a quarter each if we'd help him clear an empty lot of broken glass. Then he hired a couple of men to help him erect a small, worn-out circus tent and we helped him
set up his benches, his screen and his kerosene projector.
As it turned out, the old man was part of a dying breed from
the '20s, the traveling picture show, barely surviving
in the rural backwater barrio towns of California.

That night Douglas Fairbanks Sr. rode into our town in "The Mark of Zorro," made in Hollywood in 1920 in glorious black and white, and totally silent. It was unforgettable. It was like being at the birth of the movies, when the myth of the romantic Latin hero itself was born. To an 8-year-old migrant Chicano kid, it was a revelation, and the start of a strange mystery: Who is this guy who's supposed to be me? And for the last 50 years, as a playwright, activist and filmmaker, I have been looking under his mask.

To his countless legions of fans all over the world, Zorro is pure fictional fun and unmitigated entertainment. In raising the old western movie and TV icon to late '90s standards of amazing action, gender balance and digital effects, the producers of this latest effort no doubt hope to turn Zorro's legend into pure gold again. Reality has nothing to do with it -- this is serious worldwide show business. Zorro and his distant Hollywood cousin, the Cisco Kid, are the only two enduring Hispanic franchises in the entire history of the movies. So if they aren't broke, why fix them?

It is no surprise that "The Mask of Zorro," the new Antonio Banderas movie, evokes that hero's favorite disguise. Over the last 80 years, Hollywood has constantly titled and retitled its latest Zorro adventures by oblique references to his mark, his son, his ghost, his whip and even his gay blade. Yet it is his black half-face mask, like his rapier Z slash, that forever evokes the caballero with classic intrigue and simplicity. One can only wonder, after four generations of cinematic reincarnations, if Zorro's real face is any closer to reality. Does it matter?

If you look closely under the mask, you might discover another identical mask, starting to crack with age. Under that is an even older mask, followed by still older replicas dating back to silent days. There is no real face. The legend of Zorro
(Spanish for "fox") was born fully formed in 1919 in the conquest fiction of Johnston McCulley -- who, with only a cursory knowledge of California history, penned an original story called "The Curse of Capistrano."

With a rapier stroke of his fictive pen, McCulley established the pedigree of his fox so unerringly that the legend of Zorro has remained basically unchanged, providing the last four generations of Americans with their only lasting exposure to Spanish California "history." Yet, historically accurate or not, the tale was the soul of political correctness in an era that saw D.W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation" (1915) extolling the virtues of the Ku Klux Klan. And this is the enduring mystery of the masked avenger: Just who was McCulley's hero avenging, and what was he masking? Could it be real California history?

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McCulley's first imaginative slash was the time frame. He carefully set his plot somewhere near the end of Spanish rule, when California was a distant frontier still controlled by corrupt, dictatorial Castille. His second slash was to join the rancho period and the mission period, which enjoyed their heydays many years apart, into an amalgam of both. And his third and final slash was to create a fictional character: a heroic, freedom-fighting Californio called Zorro, who is really the son of a Spanish don and thus part of the land-granted rancho-owning aristocracy of noble European blue bloods. It would only take Hollywood to throw in some flashy swordplay and an appealing hot-blooded señorita or two, and an irresistible franchise was born.

Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was there to godfather. As the first top movie actor to recognize the cinematic potential in Zorro, he purchased the screen rights in 1920. His feature film, "The Mark of Zorro," not only launched his overwhelming success as a swashbuckling screen star in a series of adventures, it also created the classic Anglo Latin Lover mold from which all subsequent masked avengers would be cast. Fairbanks' silent action flick, cinematizing McCulley's story with clever verve and humor, set the style and plot for most of the screenplays to follow.

The basic plot is a 19th century American morality play in which the hero saves a family from ruination and thereby wins the daughter. Young, aristocratic Don Diego, having completed his studies in Madrid, returns to find tyranny running rampant in California. As El Zorro, he begins to wage a one-man war against villainous captains and corrupt governors. In order to divert suspicion from himself, Diego takes on the air of a foppish dandy, deceiving everyone, including his father, the old noble Don, and his lady love, Lolita. With minor variations, this has been the basic story of the continuing saga for 80 years.

Yet the question remains: What is the secret of his enduring appeal across generations? Could it be that underneath all the masks, in the dark recesses of fictional denial, lurks the twisted visage of Manifest Destiny? Zorro is, after all, the shining star of a mythical California, set in a time and place that never existed. It is a California under insufferable Spanish rule, before 1820 and the advent of Mexico's short-lived (and equally undesirable) republican hegemony, and certainly long before the arrival of the Americans. In real historical time, the Spanish colonial period lasted hardly more than 50 years (1769-1821), followed by the Mexican Republic period (1821-1848), which in turn barely lasted a quarter of a century, before the Mexican-American War ceded fully half the national territory of Mexico, including newly discovered gold in California, to the United States.

This crucial historical juncture, a cultural schism for Mexican-Americans, is what underlies the Zorro myth and makes
for much Chicano discomfort with its hypocrisy. The fictitious Zorro cannot comfortably survive beyond an 1848-50 story time line without provoking embarrassing questions. By the time California is part of the United States, his foppish usefulness as a critic and foe of corrupt Mexican and Spanish ways is irrevocably gone. There is no place for a Hispanic masked avenger in the new American context. In 1940, 20th Century Fox released a remake of "The Mark of Zorro" starring Tyrone Power and directed by Rouben Mamoulian (also starring Basil Rathbone as the villainous Captain Esteban and Linda Darnell as his lady love) that shifted the time frame into the Mexican period. Yet in this version, Zorro's Mexican antagonists are as corrupt and pernicious in their lazy incompetence as their Spanish predecessors. Perhaps even more so. After all, since the mid-18th century, Mexico has been a more serious threat than Spain all along its 2,000-mile border with Anglo America.

As one of Hollywood's first Castillian caballeros, Zorro often matched his impeccable pedigree against lesser members of his race in the settling of Spanish California. When he wasn't opposing the mestizo mobocracy of the half-breed Cholos, he was defending the upper-class landed gentry of pure-blooded noble hacendados. He was both simpering dandy, thus satirizing the comic incompetence of his pretentious class, and secret freedom fighter for the wealthy white Californios (almost always portrayed by non-Spanish-speaking Anglo actors). In later versions, the black-clad masked wonder with flowing cape and flashing blade single-handedly defeated the Mexican canaille. Waiting in the wings, of course, were the Americans -- who, as diligent, honest and industrious Protestants, represented the very antithesis of lazy, immoral and untrustworthy Spanish or Mexican Catholics.

In 1925, Fairbanks was so loath to let the Masked Avenger go that he filmed the successful sequel "Don Q., Son of Zorro." In 1936, with the advent of sound, Republic pictures resurrected the Fox as "The Bold Caballero," then launched him again in 1937 in a series of five 12-part serials called "Zorro Rides Again." His appeal was not lost on the larger studios, but throughout the '40s, due to increasingly cheaper remakes capitalizing only on the marquee appeal of his name, Zorro barely remained box office.

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Then came television, and sudden rebirth. In 1957 Disney produced the top-rated "Zorro" television series starring Guy Williams as the Masked Avenger in 39 half-hour shows. The success of the first season led to an additional 39 for the second season, and the show spawned a Zorro mania among young Americans. Yet for young Mexican-Americans, the recurring character of fat, stupid Mexican Sergeant Garcia was a humiliating stereotype. Like the Frito Bandito, Garcia helped to launch an entire generation of enflamed Chicano activists in the 1960s.

Even so, it was increasingly evident that Zorro was serious worldwide show business. Zorro inspired not only merchandising, but also other duel-identity crime fighters. Bob Kane, the creator of "Batman," credits Zorro as the inspiration for his masked, caped crusader.

Does it matter that, in real historical time, there were a number of early Californios who might well have served as inspirations for the masked avenger? Three young Monterey natives and intellectuals rush to mind, namely Mariano Vallejo (the namesake of the city of Vallejo in the San Francisco Bay Area), Juan Bautista Alvarado (one of California's few native-born Mexican governors) and Tiburcio Vasquez, the last of the California bandits and the last man publicly executed in the state, in San Jose in 1875.

Vasquez is particularly intriguing, given his self-proclaimed flamboyant stance as a freedom fighter (alas, against the Americans) and his gentile penchant of dressing in black and wearing a cape, though never a half-face mask. He was hanged for the murder of three men in a holdup at Tres Pinos, south of Hollister, in 1873, but it took a statewide manhunt to finally trap him in Cahuenga Pass near Los Angeles, close to what is today the Sunset Strip. Even more amazing, while Vasquez was recovering from gunshot wounds received from a zealous posse member, Samuel Piercy, an astute theatrical impresario, met with the accused felon in his jail cell and then staged a wildly successful melodrama called "The Capture of Vasquez" to overflow crowds.

Only one other Spanish California bandit shares the honor of having his exploits staged as purest melodrama, and that was the infamous Joaquin Murrieta of the Gold Rush. Hollywood, in fact, has honored him time and again in films paralleling Zorro's own cinematic sojourn, from silent days to cable TV, but Murrieta also started his career in print. Virtually culled from the real-life legend of seven bandit Joaquins -- who appeared and then disappeared in California from 1849-1853, creating fear, loathing and mayhem -- the Murrieta myth was published as a dime novel in San Francisco by John Rollin Ridge (alias Yellowbird) in 1952.

This quickly led to further embellishment and fabrications, each trying to outdo the other in retelling the familiar tale of Murrieta's bloody revenge on all Americans for the murder of his lovely Rosita (or Carmencita) at the hands of the greaser-hating '49ers. He was, however, a foreigner, like everybody else in the Gold Rush, and Murrieta's nationality was proudly proclaimed in the very first Mexican corrido ever written, in 1850, "The Ballad of Joaquin Murrieta." According to his persistent legend, Murrieta easily rode into cinematic history because of his blue eyes and light skin, even inspiring the character that made Clint Eastwood an international star in "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."

By 1981 the legend of Zorro appeared to be played out, until
George Hamilton breezily starred in "Zorro, the Gay Blade,"
spoofing the title role in the film that brought the masked
avenger to the level of ridicule. This cartoonish treatment
was followed by a real animated series on Saturday morning
TV, featuring the voice of Henry Darrow, the first Latino
to play the role in any medium.

From 1990 to 1993, Darrow appeared again in a new "Adventures of Zorro" series filmed in Spain for New World Television and the Family Channel. Unfortunately, Darrow was not called upon to play the title role, but rather the part of Zorro's father. The masked avenger once again reverted to a non-Latino actor, Duncan Regehr. If one can detect a pattern here, it obviously
has to do with the casting of our hero. Now in 1998 along comes Antonio Banderas, the first "Spanish guy," as he puts it, to play the role on film.

I wish it were possible to affirm that the latest Hollywood remake finally reveals a true Californio face. Alas, it does not. As the masked avenger, Banderas is a true heir to the Fairbanks legacy, with more swashbuckling legerdemain and macho sex appeal than any other Zorro since, well, Fairbanks Sr. Banderas is,
of course, a true Spaniard, born and bred, and his casting is
inspired box office, but he appears in the movie as a bogus
Zorro -- who, as a scruffy Mexican bandit, is really the brother of
Joaquin Murrieta! Anthony Hopkins, with his refined
Shakespearean British accent, is the real McCoy, and he takes
it upon himself to transform the sow's ear of Banderas' Murrieta into the black silk purse of a new Zorro. What emerges is more like the clown prince of California; but it is all meant in good fun, and Murrieta is, after all, a Mexican. The trouble is that by mixing history with sheer fantasy, the new Zorro only serves to further obfuscate the legend.

It appears that the filmmakers, with Steven Spielberg at the helm as an executive producer, were attempting to deal with
just enough political correctness to make their new concoction
palatable in the '90s. The villain, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart
Wilson), is thus an evil Spanish grandee on the rebound, trying to revive the good old days, scheming to buy California from Santa Ana by jump-starting the Gold Rush with Mexican labor. This is why Hopkins, the English Don Diego, recruits Banderas, the Spanish Murrieta, to save the faceless masses of unwashed Mexican victims from utter slavery. Beyond that, all of the
Mexican characters are the usual Hollywood buffoons.

There are some interesting shifts in the casting of other
characters that bear mention. Catherine Zeta-Jones, a British import who plays Don Diego's daughter, is beautiful, athletic
and heroic -- but one can only wonder whether her hyphenated last name is real or just part of the hype. (Zeta, after all, means "Z" in Spanish.) Then there is the strange reincarnation of
Three-Fingered Jack as an Anglo. The historical Juan Tres Dedos was a Californian named Juan Duarte, born at Tejon Pass, near present-day Bakersfield. No less strange is the rebirth
of Harry Love, the historical hard-drinking California Ranger who reputedly killed and beheaded the real Joaquin Murrieta
in the coastal range west of Fresno. He is reborn as Harrison
Love, an unmistakably American type, who appears to me to be a cross between Gen. John C. Frémont and Gen. George Custer. I could go on, but you catch my drift.

In one more commercial twist on its fictitious California history, the latest Zorro remake is apparently attempting to save the Masked Avenger from the
fictional obfuscations of the past. But in the final analysis,
we shall have to wait for future Zorros to unravel the distortions. While the plot line careens dangerously close to the beginning of the American era, the story is still a condemnation of Spanish/Mexican/Hispanic venality and corruption. I wish I could have enjoyed it more, but in this
era of Props 187 and 227 and other Mexican immigrant bashing
initiatives, I can only laugh till it hurts. Banderas is the first Spaniard (as opposed to "Hispanic") to assume the black cape, mask and sword -- but in the end, all the swashbuckling cuts through nothing but the old hot air of racist, Eurocentric yesteryears.

By Luis Valdez

Luis Valdez wrote and directed the film "La Bamba" and the play "Zoot Suit," the first play by a Chicano to appear on Broadway, and co-wrote and directed "The Cisco Kid" for Turner Pictures. He is the artistic director of El Teatro Campesino, the farm workers' theater he founded on the picket line of the Great Delano Grape Strike in 1965.

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