Saturday, October 1, 2016

Who Is That Masked Man?

I spent part of my week discussing literature with a colleague who is also recently retired from Enema U.  Jesus Barquet is probably the most knowledgeable person I know when it comes to Spanish literature.  I say this even though he dislikes my favorite Mexican author, Carlos Fuentes.  I think it is a high mark of our friendship that Jesus is willing to be completely wrong about Fuentes just to appear humble.

We were discussing the story of El Cid and how the tale of this eleventh century hero shapes the story of other heroes in so much of Latin American literature.  Usually loners, these heroes fight against impossible odds and against an unjust officialdom; their cause is eventually triumphant, (although that triumph occasionally comes after the hero's death).  You can find certain similarities between the story of El Cid and the stories of many of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution.  (Well, we did, but we may have been slightly influenced by some Cuban rum).

Note.  I’ll give a quick example just to prove it wasn’t all rum.  Among the stories of El Cid is a tale that after his death, his body was tied upright on Babieca, his white stallion, in order to confuse the Moorish army.  In Morelos, decades after Emiliano Zapata had been assassinated, the local peasants maintained that the revolutionary could still be seen riding his white stallion along the mountain ridges, still waiting for land reform.

After we had discussed Mexican literature for a while, it was only natural for us to wonder whether this same medieval literature had influences north of the border.  Could we find a similar example in the stories and literature of the borderlands?  In fact, I have a strange candidate for you, but let us start at the beginning. 

Salomon Pico was only ten days old when Mexico won her independence from Spain.  Born in California, he was the son of a prominent family and was a cousin to the last Mexican governor of California, Pio Pico.  When his father died, Pico returned to Monterrey, the capital of Alta California, where he received an education and was introduced to society.  He married well, and received a land grant from the government for 58,000 acres in the San Joaquin Valley.

No one is certain about all the details ok, but Pico probably fought in the Mexican-American War on the Mexican side.  Family stories indicate he might have been a military scout.  Whatever his role, the brief fighting in California ended long before the war was over, so Pico was probably home with his family by the time the war was over and California was annexed by the United States.  At that time, the population of California was very low, and Salomon Pico’s family would probably have been left alone—had not someone discovered gold at Sutter’s Creek.

Overnight, Americans stampeded to the territory and poured onto Pico’s land.  Exactly what happened is disputed, but one story is that a party of miner’s raped and killed Pico’s beloved wife, Juana.  Another story is that the miner’s brought disease with them, and when Juana became ill, Salomon took her to Monterrey where she died in late 1848.

Pico could neither farm nor raise cattle on his land grant as he had no way of forcing the trespassing miners off his land.  Harboring a powerful hatred of Americans, Pico moved southward, out of the gold country and into cattle country.  As with every other “gold rush”, the people who became wealthy were not the miners, but those who sold food and supplies to the minters.  Suddenly, the cattlemen of Santa Barbara were becoming rich selling meat to the hungry miners.

By the same token, Salomon Pico and his gang got rich by robbing the miners as they rode south into cattle country.  Some of the miners were never seen again, though years later, bullet-riddled remains were found in the countryside.  According to one source, Pico began taking souvenirs from those he robbed:  he would cut an ear off his victim.  Another story held that his favorite weapon was his riata, or lariat, that he used to break the necks of his victims.

Pico enjoyed the admiration of the local people and obviously no small amount of unofficial protection from the local authorities.  Since the Hispanic population, the ‘Californios’, were still in the majority in the Southern part of the state, the locals who were arrested and tried could usually depend on a split jury.  Pico became so popular with the locals—who felt he was defending his people from injustice—that it was frequently said that locals would allow him to ride his horse into their homes in order to hide from a posse.

Salomon Pico quickly became notorious—partly because of his new-found wealth, and partly because of his distinctive dress.  Pico rode a black horse and was dressed all in black except for the scarlet sash around his waist, into which he tucked a Colt revolver. He was also armed with a shotgun in a scabbard and a long knife that was only partially concealed by his elaborately stitched boots..

Unfortunately, fame eventually was Pico's undoing.  He was flamboyant, so he was too easy to remember and identify.  Vigilante gangs were formed and they vowed to lynch the bandit if they caught him.  Pico fled south, from California into Mexico.  Whether he was executed there when the Mexican government began arresting local bandits in an effort to pacify the border region is still debated, but there is one more story about Pico that is fairly well established. 

In 1857, four American businessmen were arrested in Santo Tomas, Baja California, and placed in jail.  Pico had accepted the position of Captain of the Guard for the local presidio, and it was his job to guard the prisoners.  Tensions along the border were high, and many thought it was only a matter of time before a race war broke out between the Americans and the Californios.  Around midnight, a mob of angry Mexicans marched to the jail with the intent of hanging the four Americans.

Salomon Pico, placing himself between the mob and the jail cell, talked the mob into going home.  Somehow, Pico had evolved from defending just his own people to defending justice for everyone.

Four decades after his death, his story was resurrected.  A police reporter from back east, Johnston McCulley served as a public affairs officer in California during the first World War.  During his spare time, he studied local history and began writing short stories for pulp magazines.  Using over a dozen pseudonyms, he made up stories about an incredible list of characters:  The Spider, The Mongoose, Thubway Tham, The Thunderbolt, The Crimson Clown, and Black Star—and you are forgiven if you have never heard of any of them. 

But one story, The Curse of Capistrano, which was written in 1919 and serialized in Argosy Magazine, featured a character you probably have heard of—Zorro.  A masked vigilante of justice who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, he fought injustice and left his mark, not by cutting off ears, but by engraving a ‘Z’ into the clothing of the hapless army of the corrupt local governor.  Zorro was quite obviously patterned after Salomon Pico.

The story is a quick and interesting read.  Similarities with the Story of Salomon Pico—including an account in which Zorro rides his horse, Toronado (tornado), into the home of a peasant to avoid a posse—can be found in every chapter. 

Within a year, Tyrone Power and Mary Pickford made a movie based on the story which was re-released as a book with the same title—The Mark of Zorro.  McCulley, over the next three decades, wrote dozens more stories and novels about Zorro, who has been in over forty movies (two are in the works as I write this with one somewhat improbably set in the future) and a dozen television series.

Bob Kane credited Zorro as the inspiration for Batman, and to make sure that no one missed the point, had Bruce Wayne’s parents murdered as they came out of the theater after watching Tyrone Power in the movie, The Mark of Zorro.  But should it really have been titled, The Mask of Pico?  Or The Mask of El Cid?


  1. I always like Zorro's flamboyance. He was kind of the first superhero. I see the influence of Zorro in the Batman stories. Thanks for the history lesson. Very cool.

  2. Written with your usual flair. NMSU has experienced a loss and I don't think they are aware yet. The English and Sociology departments are about it the same quagmire you described to me. Go easy on the rum!