Thursday, June 11, 2009
He was an aristocrat, a poet, a ladies’ man and a bandit. He was born in Monterey in 1835, before Alta California was ceded by Mexico to the U.S. after the U.S.-Mexican War (or the “American Intervention in Mexico,” as it’s known south of the border) – so although he was born here, his nationality was Mexican.
Tiburcio Vasquez was Central California’s own Jesse James, a colorful rebel who lived a brief, fiery life, chronicled in newspapers and even – while he lived – a play that coincided with his detention in a Los Angeles jail while awaiting trial.
His story reverberated through the years, triggering the attention of playwright Luis Valdez, who became, in his words, “obsessed” with the lore. After extensive research, in 1981 Valdez wrote Bandido!, an American Melodrama of the Life and Death of Tiburcio Vasquez, the Notorious Bandit. As he did last year with Zoot Suit, Valdez has given over Bandido! to the All-Star Youth Outreach Program, which recruits high school actors from all over the county, who will perform the work at the Outdoor Forest Theater June 12-21.
Valdez describes Bandido! as a historical Western melodrama – with some clarification. “People think [a melodrama] means simplistic characters,” he says. “‘Melodrama’ means a play with music. ‘Melo’ comes from ‘melody.’
“With a lot of people born in the 1940s like me,” he adds, “as a kid you went to Saturday afternoon Westerns, [that starred] actors like Johnny Mack Brown. The Western is an accepted form of California mythology.” (He traces his fascination with the myths to his father, a migrant worker and history buff.) “Vasquez was a figure caught up in the changes from Mexican rule to American rule. His family came with the DeAnza expedition. They were one of the founding families of San Francisco. They had a lot of land, but not a lot of money.”
He describes the period, in which Californios (Spanish/Mexican founders of California) were losing their land, property and political power to “squatters and double-crossing lawyers.”
Vasquez ran a Monterey dance hall, but when a constable was stabbed to death on the property, he was blamed. Fearing lynch mob “justice,’’ he fled, falling in with bandits with whom he’d later rob stagecoached travelers. They made their hideout in the Pinnacles.
Vasquez was caught and locked up several times – once escaping San Quentin prison – until his mother, Guadalupe Cantua y Vasquez, moved the family to San Juan Bautista, opening a restaurant. Vasquez worked as a cowboy, but constant harassment by local authorities drove him again into “the life.”
When three people were killed in a shootout following a dramatic robbery of the Snyder General Store in Tres Pinos, 11 miles south of Hollister (now named Paicines), the ensuing statewide manhunt ended with his capture and subsequent death sentence – which only added to his legend. While in an L.A. jail, reporters interviewed him at length (Vasquez attributed Mexican nationalism for his actions) and a play, The Bandit, was written to capitalize on the sensational story.
“People – especially women – would see the play,” says Valdez, “then visit Tiburcio in jail. He was a gentleman bandit. He was Hollywood before Hollywood. [This play] is a learning play, and though it teaches people about real history, it doesn’t have to be boring.”
BANDIDO! runs 8pm Fri-Sat; 7:30pm Sun, June 12-21, at Outdoor Forest Theater, Santa Rita and Mountain View, Carmel. $20/adult; $15/senior (62+), military, teacher with ID; $10/student with ID, child 6-12; $50/family; group discounts. A wine and dinner reception with Luis Valdez is 6pm Sat, June 13, $35 (must RSVP). 626-1681, www.foresttheaterguild.org