This week I’m looking into a rather different kind of novel, albeit one much more in line with my usual taste. Often considered the first novel by a Native American writer, John Rollin Ridge’s The Life and Times of Joaquín Murieta: The Celebrated Californian Bandit is a remarkable account of the life of one of America’s most infamous outlaws. I have no misgivings in making such a claim: Joaquín Murieta may not be a household name like Butch Cassidy or Billy the Kid, but as the primary inspiration for Zorro, and by proxy Batman, the Californian bandit’s legacy is alive and kicking.
As might be expected of a bandit narrative, Joaquín’s tale is a tragic one. Ridge paints a picture of a man who set out with honest intentions but turned to villainy after being wronged once too often on account of his being a Mexican in an increasingly intolerant America (a situation that still resonates painfully across the ages). Finding himself on the wrong side of the law, Joaquín sets out on a career of vengeance against the nation that would not let a man like him earn an honest living. Along the way he gathers about him a colourful cast of characters, including his sweetheart Rosita, his brother-in-law Reyes Feliz, his nemesis Captain Love, and his bloodthirsty second-in-command, the unforgettable Three-Fingered Jack. The end is never in question – millions before and after Murieta have paid the price for defying the might of the United States – but such is the degree of Joaquín’s panache and gallantry that you might be forgiven for willing him to succeed, no matter how many bloody crimes are committed in his name.
To the modern eye, Ridge’s account comes across as half-story, half-history. This is not altogether untrue: the events within the narrative have been, to a greater or lesser extent, subjected to a fair degree of fictionalisation. An overarching narration of events takes precedence over dialogue and character development, and though Joaquín is very much the star of the show, this is as much the tale of his friends and foes as it is his alone. There are elements of the story that make for some hard reading in the twenty-first century – namely, the casual racism employed towards the Chinese, who fall before Joaquín’s men like wheat in the wind. Where Mexicans and Americans stand their ground and fight to the death, all of Ridge’s “Celestials” (an outdated slur used frequently in the narrative) are cowardly weaklings who habitually grovel and flee at the first sign of danger. They feature as a nameless swarm, fodder for Three-Fingered Jack’s bloodlust and a lawless whetting stone for the sorties of Joaquín‘s gang, since their slaughter rarely if ever provokes any reaction from the Americans. Ridge is, of course, speaking with the voice of his time, but given how evergreen the anti-Mexican sentiment of the narrative remains a century and a half later, it is hard not to draw comparisons to the present. Joaquín’s vendetta is in many respects a racial one, but it is rationalised through his personal tragedy. The xenophobia of his enemies cannot be so easily waived, and the indifference of the Americans upon his slaughtering of the Chinese miners speaks volumes.
I have been passionate about bandits since university. I am not entirely sure why. There is something raw about the idea of banditry that appeals to me, as it must have appealed to the Romantics of the nineteenth century. I chose to study Spanish bandit legends for a research project in my third year at university and I have been hooked ever since. I suppose it could be summed up as follows: the further removed one is from violence, the more exciting that violence appears. Some travellers in the 1800s came to Spain with the express purpose of seeking out an encounter with the bandit chiefs they had read about, leaving bitterly disappointed when they returned home unharmed. As I sit down to write of the legend of Joaquín in the comfort of my study, with the faces of surly Andalusian highwaymen staring down at me from the framed Doré prints on the walls, I am no less afflicted than my predecessors. Joaquín Murieta joins their ranks as a fearsome commander, standing tall alongside other such legends: Serrallonga and Roque Guinart; Diego Pernales and El Barquero de Cantillana; Tragabuches, Pasos Largos and El Tempranillo.
It is easy enough to conjure up a fantasy in one’s mind of the lawless world of Gold Rush-era California, but to do so with any degree of accuracy from the niceties of the present day would be no small feat. To write convincingly about the past, one must ignore the attitudes of the present and fully espouse the zeitgeist of the era in question. Therein lies the pitfall, for where is the storyteller who writes for an audience long since dead? And where is the book that is totally free of the truths and prejudices of the day? The very act of putting work into the public domain is to subject it to the scrutiny of the present-day readership, and it is upon this anvil that a story’s success may be made or unmade. To tell Joaquín’s story with more than a kernel of truth today would be to wind the clock back beyond one hundred and fifty years of social change, to a time when it was not essential to take into account the sensibilities of every featured demographic. Ridge’s account sounds so very believable because it was written not long after the events in question occurred, but even then his account is not unbiased: the author’s sympathy for Joaquín bleeds through his writing, for Ridge, a Cherokee, had plenty of reasons of his own to hate the Americans, having lost his father at an early age at the beginning of the events which would lead to the infamous Trail of Tears. History is warped by the age in which it is scrutinised, like a kaleidoscope that twists with each passing year.
August 3rd, 2019. A lone gunman walks into a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, and shoots twenty-two people dead, supposedly in retaliation for the Hispanic invasion of Texas. Within forty-eight hours, a Mexican spokesperson calls the attack “an act of terrorism” against Mexicans living in the US. The men who assaulted the young Joaquín Murieta and raped his wife got the sticky end they richly deserved in Ridge’s account, but in reality they were merely the heads of a greater hydra; the intolerance and hatred they represent is with us to this day. The story of Joaquín Murieta is all the more important now than it ever was. Here is the legend of an ordinary Mexican who was made into a monster by the land of opportunity, but who, like countless bandit heroes before him, rose above the darkness in the hearts of his people to become something eternal: a folk hero.
The parallels between Joaquín Murieta and his illustrious descendants, Zorro and Batman, are mostly subtle ones, drawing largely on the bandit’s sense of nobility and his fight for justice. But there is one scene in particular that is especially poignant in its cultural impact. Having met with an old acquaintance on the road, Joaquín warns him to tell nobody of his presence in the state. The traveller swears he will be true to his word and goes on his way, but upon arrival at the nearest town, he hears talk of the bandit chief and talks of his recent encounter. Unbeknownst to him, Joaquín has friends up and down the country and, hearing of this betrayal from one of his spies, takes the matter personally. He comes to town in disguise, seeks out his old friend and, before dispatching him with a single shot, removes his disguise and declares the immortal line “I am Joaquín!”. It becomes a recurring staple of the legend of Joaquín that he fearlessly reveals himself before making a kill, and it would not surprise me in the slightest if Batman passed over Zorro and got his line directly from the Ridge’s book.
Murieta is a man worthy of three legends in one lifetime, but there’s another man in his saga who towers above the rest, and that’s Manuel García, more commonly known as Three-Fingered Jack. Next to Joaquín, Jack is easily the most memorable character, serving as a gruesome foil to Joaquín’s nobility and a grim reminder of the reality of the nature of banditry. Three-Fingered Jack’s unfettered violence is truly galling whenever and wherever it occurs and casts a long shadow over the villainies of his compadres, whose handiwork seems almost gentlemanly in comparison. There seems to be nothing at all redeeming in his character, and yet there is something immensely appealing about the monster – I honestly expected more of the wolverine in his last stand than he actually got.
They might as well have attempted to catch the red-winged spirit of a storm.
“If you betray me, I will scatter to the winds all that you have and all that you love.”
That terrible, three-fingered hand, which had dyed itself in many a quivering heart, had torn with its ruthless talons the throats of many an agonised victim, and had shadowed itself forth upon the horrified imagination of thousands who only knew that it existed.