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'Bandido!' Steals Truth of Early L.A.

Counterpunch

July 18, 1994|ROB ESHMAN | Rob Eshman is a Santa Monica-based writer and a contributing editor to the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. His article about Emil Harris in Los Angeles Magazine was optioned for the movies by FTM Productions

During intermission at a recent performance of Luis Valdez's new play "Bandido!" at the Mark Taper Forum, I noticed that only about half the audience had left their seats. The other half remained bent over their copies of the performance's program, looking less like happy theatergoers and more like students sweating out a blue book exam.

When I opened my program, I saw page after page of historical chronology, long excerpts of Valdez's rehearsal notes, an interview with the playwright and a "Chicano perspective" on the life of Tiburcio Vasquez, the 19th-Century outlaw on whose life the play is based. Not to mention the artist bios, an introduction to the play by Taper director Gordon Davidson, explanations of the Taper's programs for Latinos and an exhibition mounted just outside the theater, displaying facsimiles of old photos and documents from the life and times of Vasquez.

I can't recall ever seeing a play accompanied by such annotation. It was like having to pass through the Museum of Natural History just to catch a screening of "The Flintstones."

Why did the Taper bookend Valdez's play with so much history and analysis? The answer is evident in Davidson's introduction. "Bandido!," he writes, "serves to explore and explode the myths about our complex relationship with our cowboy bandit heroes . . . by digging deeper into our cultural history, we are once again trying to further our understanding of the specifically Mexican-American roots of our area's history, and to therefore better understand the relationships we all have to one another and to Southern California."

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This is a noble goal. Unfortunately, "Bandido!" doesn't achieve it. Instead of giving us a better accounting of our city's past, the play offers up Valdez's own parochial, ethnocentric version. Vasquez doesn't exchange the Manifest Destiny myth that infects our understanding of the Old West for a more accurate and inclusive perspective. He merely replaces age-old Anglo-centrism with hipper Latino-centrism.

It's true that the pre-Statehood Mexicans (Californios) who settled, farmed and ranched these lands were victims of Anglo greed. Valdez tells us as much, repeatedly. What he leaves out is that those noble rancheros--and the conquistadors and missionaries who preceded them--slaughtered, enslaved and force-baptized the \o7 native\f7 native Californians who were here first.

Civilized diseases brought here by these proto-Latinos wiped out whole Indian villages, including, some historians claim, the Indian village of Yang-na, where settlers sent by the Spanish governor built the first adobes of Los Angeles.

Those first 11 settlers weren't just Spanish, either. They included two blacks, two Indians and four mixed bloods. And they were followed, beginning in the early 1800s, by ranchers, merchants, farmers and miners from Western and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, China and, of course, North and South America. A complex mix of races and religions made up early L.A., not just whites and browns.

Time and again, Valdez glosses over this diversity in order to smooth out the edges of his morality play. Many of the merchants that the bandit Vasquez terrorized were European, Chinese and black, not the all-American, line-dancing land grabbers that Valdez depicts. If these immigrants were opportunistic newcomers, so were the Mexicans and Spaniards who preceded them.

In any case, the most vicious discrimination at the time was directed not at the Mexicans but at what the papers then called, "the heathen Chinee." On Oct. 24, 1871, at least 17 innocent Chinese were lynched by a mob composed of whites and Mexicans. But Valdez will allow no other victims to his party. And as for villains, he represents the posse that tracked and captured Vasquez as a monolith of Marlboro Men--white Anglo-Saxon males, all dressed in Stetsons and prairie dusters.

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In actuality, the Vasquez posse was largely led by a Polish Jewish immigrant, Deputy Emil Harris, who prosecuted the landed and the landless alike, protecting many accused Mexicans and Chinese from the lynch mobs. For his role in the Vasquez capture, the Yiddish-speaking Harris was made L.A.'s first chief of police.

Given these complex historical facts, it's easy to understand why Valdez opted to retell Western history in such an oversimplified manner, substituting cowboys with \o7 caballeros\f7 and Billy the Kid with Tiburcio Vasquez. What's hard to understand is how Valdez's misrepresentation of early Los Angeles can, in Davidson's words, "further our understanding" of the city in which we live.

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