Candy Moulton: Reading the West 3-14-11
I don’t generally like books about outlaws, in part because most of the bad men written about are, well, a bit overdone. You know, how many books do you need about Billy the Kid? But sometimes, I get a book that is at the edge of ordinary … which you might interpret as being extraordinary.
Such is the case with “Bandido: The Life and Times of Tiburcio Vasquez” by John Boessenecker. What sets this biography of an outlaw apart, aside from good narrative writing, is the subject himself. Vasquez is quite probably California’s most well-known folk hero, a man who had a bad streak, a man who killed more than one person who got in his way when involved in a robbery. He is a man who could charm the women, who helped the poor, disenfranchised Californios, who wrote poetry, played guitar and liked to sing.
Author Boessenecker, best known for his books about lawmen, has spent most of his life researching Vasquez. He told me he did his first primary research at the San Francisco Public Library when he was just 16-years-old, ultimately writing a magazine article (that was never published). He went on to become a police officer (eight years) and an attorney, but continued gathering information about Vasquez across the decades ultimately seeing his book in print under a University of Oklahoma imprint.
I recently had an opportunity to interview Boessenecker and asked him how he compared Vasquez with that other well-known California outlaw, Joaquin Murrieta. His response:
Well, Joaquin Murrieta has a huge amount of myth about him and because his exploits were all done between 1850 and 1853, during a time when California Society was very unsettled, there weren’t that many newspapers so information about him is uncertain. His life is totally enmeshed in myth and it would take a governmental commission to unravel it all. There were hundreds of bandits in the gold rush, and all would be inflated and related to Murrieta, and that did not happen with Vasquez.
The difference with Vasquez is the info in very certain. We know who he robbed, we know who he shot, we know about his illegitimate children. People actually left recollections and reminiscences that are authentic.
You researched Vasquez for years, what kept you going?
I knew that nobody had ever written a full length biography of him. He is a famous character to western aficionados, and to Latinos. There are high schools and hospitals named after him. He is the only outlaw for which a public park has been named in California – Vasquez Rocks County Park, where everything from “Zorro” to “The Flintstones” has been filmed.
There were several paperback books about the time he was captured and hanged. There had been a lot of crazy myths that were written about him. It is difficult to know what happened to him. The last years of his life it is easy to find out what he was doing, but it is more difficult to learn about his early life.
How did you sort through the “embellishments” to find the real man?
I’ve been interested in Western history since about 1967 or 68. After a while you get a feel for what is true and what isn’t. Many of the stories were told by Vasquez himself. He is not really one of the most reliable reporters. You get a sense of his personality, his truthfulness, his character, and how he colored his life. I had to track down all these obscure newspaper interviews with him, some of which have never appeared in print before.
How does he rank among other California characters?
The most famous Californio was Vasquez. When people are oppressed, people will hold on to something that they can look up to. He said, “I will die as a man and a Californio.” It was that kind of character, coupled with the fact that he was not really a low life in many ways that … combined to make him this huge folk hero for Latinos. In reality he was a bad man, the fact that he was held up as a hero thumbing his nose at the gringos tells you a lot about his role as a Californio.
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