If I were to tell you that a Mexican Bandido named Tiburcio Vasquez, born in 1835, stands as the inspiration behind one of the most popular modern-day superheroes of all time, you probably wouldn’t believe me. And you’ll believe me even less when I tell you that the superhero in question is Batman. I know, I know, the caped crusader is a white, upper-class, American male who gallivants around in a bat costume throwing down vigilante justice on Gotham’s grimy underworld– there is nothing Latin American about that. But something very few people know about our less-than-friendly neighborhood Batman is who inspired him to done a black cape and mask: Zorro. That fateful night in young Bruce Wayne’s life when he lost his parents, the family had just walked out of a screening for The Mark of Zorro. Now imagine Batman standing on a rooftop, silhouetted against a flash of lightning; see the pointed ears, the cape flowing in the the wind, the piercing eyes ever watchful. Now see Zorro standing on a rooftop silhouetted against the open blue sky; iconic hat, black billowing cape, with the same eyes peering from behind a mask. The resemblance is certainly eerie.
Now, the character of Zorro was in turn inspired by a Robin Hood like Mexican-American outlaw named Tiburcio Vasquez. He was an outlaw-for-the-people as he found great favor with the general Mexican populace. History is ripe with heroic figures and it is not uncommon for these real life heroes to become immortalized in popular mythology. And that is what we find with Zorro, the vigilante masked rider. So if this chain of figures is followed, I argue that it becomes evident that a the very American Dark-Knight himself was inspired in part by Tiburcio Vasquez. And what I find most compelling about this is the deep irony of a romanticized Mexican-American outlaw serving as the seed for one of the most iconic fictional figures in American history. After the mess of colonization on both the part of the British and the Spanish that devastated the thriving local cultures, it’s a beautiful thing that a Mexican-American heroic outlaw has a lasting impact on future American pop culture.
For the sake of the argument, lets look at and compare the figures of Batman, Zorro, and Vasquez. But lets be brief on Bruce Wayne because the recent popularity of the character has ensured that we are very familiar with him already. As mentioned before, Bruce Wayne was orphaned at a young age when his parents were killed in front of him as they left a screening for the 1920’s silent film The Mark of Zorro. Swearing to avenge his parents, he dishes out vigilante justice under the moniker of Batman. He inhabits a world full of Superheroes who have all sorts of phenomenal powers. But Batman is armed with nothing but his sharp and cunning intellect which makes him more than a match for any one of them. Recognized for his utility belt full of all sorts of gadgets to supplement his mind, Batman is one of the most widely popular Superheroes. His alter-ego of Bruce Wayne comes off the complete opposite: a selfish, light-minded, rich playboy, who never comes off as the smartest person in the room. A lot of these attributes are taken straight from the character of Zorro. So now lets turn to the Fox himself.
The fictional Zorro was created in 1919 by Johnston McCulley for the All-Story Weekly pulp magazine. Arguably one of the first superheroes, Zorro is certainly the first Hispanic superhero. His first tale was The Curse of Capistrano which takes place in the Spanish missions in California as well as the surrounding countryside. In essence, Zorro is the Hispanic version of Robin Hood whose goal is to avenge the helpless, punish the cruel, and to aid the oppressed. But he is one man situated in a world ruled by the powerful upper-class. Because of this it is through trickery, mockery, and deceit that Zorro often gains the upper hand over his much stronger enemies. Even the name Zorro is actually the Spanish word for fox and gives the impression of victory through cunning rather than brute strength (sounding at all like Batman yet?). He brandishes a rapier as his signature weapon and is ridiculously skilled with it, often carving a signature Z in three quick strokes in villainous cheeks. He is assisted by a whip in his acrobatic flights through alleyways and rooftops. And perhaps one of Zorro’s most defining traits is being incredibly charming and having the women swoon over him and on top of that, his dancing could melt butter. In fact, he may even be the codifier for the maxim of “tall, dark, and handsome”. And all of this stands in stark contrast to Zorro’s secret identity, the man behind the mask, Don Diego de la Vega. A nobleman living in California who is basically everything Zorro isn’t. He is a soft spoken man who abhors violence, keeps a perfumed lace hanky on hand in case things get smelly, and is terrible with the ladies. Diego, or Zorro, qualifies as a Crouching Moron, Hidden Action Hero.
Now to say that only one man, in Tiburcio Vasquez, is the inspiration for the myth of Zorro would be an injustice to the Character. Zorro’s name literally means Fox which is the archetypal symbol for trickster heroes of any kind in cultures around the world. And there are a handful of real life Hispanic Bandidos whose legacy’s have all contributed to the character; Joaquin Murrieta, Salomon Pico, and Manuel Rodríguez Erdoíza to name a few. But I chose Vasquez because his personal character seems closer to the swashbuckling Zorro we think of.
Born in what would become Monterey, California on 11 August 1835, Vazquez had a proper upbringing. He had a slight build and sat at a rather unintimidating 5’7” but when he was 17 he came under the influence of one of California’s most ruthless bandits, Anastacio Garcia. After a charge as an accomplice to murder, Vasquez chose to become an outlaw, denying that he had committed any such crimes– claiming that he was fighting for Mexican-American rights. After a mildly criminal run, Vazquez was eventually caught and spent time in prison where he was a key orchestrator in numerous prison breaks. He was released in due time but soon resumed the life of an outlaw and formed a gang to plunder, pillage, and steal from every bank they could find, aiming to liberate California from American rule. Vazquez had hideouts all over Southern California and Northern Mexico and became infamous far and wide. Posse after posse was formed for the sole purpose of bringing him to justice but all of them pretty much failed. Finally though, he was captured when he was 39 after he was betrayed by a fellow outlaw to the Army Corps. As he stood on the gallows the only word he uttered was “Pronto” before being hanged for his crimes. Though being involved in many crimes that were murderous, Vasquez went to his death saying he had never actually killed anyone. This didn’t matter, however, as no judge or jury would believe him.
During his time as an outlaw Vasquez could only be described as a romantic; he was intelligent, attractive, and musical. His popularity spread amongst the Latina women of California and Mexico. He had many lovers wherever he went and had many affairs with married women. Vasquez would write poetry to his lovers which only cemented the tall, dark, and handsome stereotype. In fact, when he was in prison awaiting trial to be hanged, female admirers flocked to his barred window and would pay to have him autograph pictures of himself. Part of me wonders if things like this were cliche back then or if it was things like this that makes it cliche now.
Vasquez’ legacy will forever be split– he was either a Mexican-American hero who stood against discrimination and for Mexican-American rights, or he was devious womanizing ne’er-do-well who only murdered and robbed to support his frivolous lifestyle. Although, today he is widely accepted as a cultural hero and even has a health center named after him. But such is the legacy of all would-be-heroes who stood for something they believed. Zorro is only seen by the audience and a few members of his fictional world as a hero where the authorities see him as a bandit who needs to be brought to justice. And the same could be said of Batman for that matter; it isn’t until later in his career as Batman that he is at all popular. Before hand he was just a weirdo in a bat costume who had a hobby of chasing bad guys.
While the ‘superhero’ may be an American invention, it is not without its roots in real world people. After centuries of discrimination on the part of the colonizing countries, a native hero sneaks like a patient fox to the top of the dominant culture’s contemporary mythology. Tiburcio Vasquez, though a convicted outlaw and criminal, served as part of the inspiration for one of the first Hispanic superhero in Zorro. Who in turn inspired the creation of our very own Batman. Reality into myth, and myth into reality.
“Batman.” DC Database. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. <http://dc.wikia.com/wiki/Batman>.
Boessenecker, John. Bandido: The Life and times of Tiburcio Vasquez. Norman: U of Oklahoma, 2010. Print.
McCulley, Johnston. Curse of Capistrano: The Original Adventures of Zorro. Akron, OH: Summit Classic, 2013. Print.
“Tiburcio VasquezHealth Center Inc.” Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center About Us History. Web. 16 Feb. 2015. <http://www.tvhc.org/AboutUs/History.aspx>.