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Behind the Mask : A Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum exhibit illuminates media stereotypes of Mexican Americans.


Opening June 18 at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, "The Mask of Zorro: Mexican Americans in Popular Media" documents some of the stereotypes about Chicanos that have a long, deplorable history in American media.

Consider just one such image, the ruthless bandito who has been depicted in everything from countless Westerns to an ad campaign for corn chips. But the upcoming show is not just about negative images. It also documents how members of minorities can fight back and turn hurtful stereotypes upside-down. Thus, visitors to the exhibit will see the Frito Bandito, with his bandolier and drooping mustache. But they will also learn that, during the 1960s, Chicano activists decided they weren't going to take it anymore and protested the offending Bandito into advertising oblivion.

The show is the museum's first bilingual exhibit, according to John P. Langellier, the Autry's director of publications and productions. All signage for the show will be in Spanish as well as English. The show will also feature Post-It stations so that visitors will be able to post comments about what they see.

In Langellier's view, Zorro's mask is the ideal image for a show that examines fiction and reality, legend and fact. "What's under the mask is real," Langellier says. "The mask is a disguise." The show also reminds that, while myths can be dangerous, they can also be undone. He cites the case of the Cisco Kid as an example of how images of Mexican Americans have evolved in American media. Cisco is one of the most popular Mexican Americans in all the American arts.

As Luis Reyes, author of "Hispanics in Hollywood," points out in a short book being published in connection with the show, the Cisco Kid initially appeared in a 1904 story by O. Henry (really William Sydney Porter) called "The Caballero's Way." In Cisco's first incarnation he was not Mexican American at all, nor was he the charming Latino Robin Hood he would become when played by Duncan Renaldo in the 1940s and '50s.

Instead, the original Cisco was an Anglo gunfighter, so cold-blooded he tricked a Texas ranger into shooting his faithless girlfriend. It wasn't until the first movie version in 1914 that Cisco became Latino. And it wasn't until Cesar Romero won the role in 1940 that Cisco was actually played by a Latino. Romero wasn't Mexican American, he was Cuban American, but it was an early step toward the laudable goal of having Latino actors play Latino roles.

One of the least offensive depictions of a Mexican American in American movies, Cisco became even more sympathetic when the role was taken over by Renaldo, who later made Cisco one of the best-loved characters in the new medium of television. It was Renaldo who recast Cisco with the idealistic, if slightly foolish, character of Don Quixote in mind. Renaldo also gave Cisco's knight errant a faithful squire in the Sancho Panzo mold. Called Pancho, the sidekick was played by Leo Carillo.

Carillo's experience as a pioneering Latino actor is reminiscent of some other minority ground-breakers such as African-American actress Butterfly McQueen. Carillo had had trouble breaking into show business because some Hollywood producers looked at him and assumed he couldn't speak English. As Reyes reports, the irony was that Carillo was actually from an aristocratic Californio family and spoke five languages in addition to English. Carillo's career slumped and never fully recovered in the '60s when Chicano activists condemned his Pancho as perpetuating the stereotype of the Mexican peasant as slow and lazy.

According to Autry curator James Nottage, artifacts in the show include guns and a photographic portrait of Tiburcio Vasquez. Hanged in 1875, Vasquez was a well-educated Californio who fled respectability and took up a life of crime after he was involved in the killing of a sheriff during the 1850s.


Nottage compares Vasquez to Joaquin Murietta, another Mexican-American outlaw who may or may not have actually existed (many historians think Murietta was a composite figure). Depicted as wild-eyed criminals in the Anglo media, Vasquez and Murietta were regarded as courageous defenders of their people by many Mexican Americans. "To one group they are bandits," notes Nottage. "To the other they're folk heroes."

The tension between the two views of Vasquez is currently being explored on stage in "Bandido!," a new musical by Luis Valdez now playing at the Mark Taper Forum in Downtown Los Angeles. The Autry is cross-promoting its "Mask of Zorro" exhibit with the theater, offering anyone who buys a ticket for one show a discount on a ticket to the other.

A film series that features screen versions of Zorro and other movies with Latino protagonists begins July 7 at the Autry and continues throughout the summer.

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