by Paul R. Spitzzeri
At yesterday’s Curious Cases presentation on the notorious and legendary bandit Tiburcio Vásquez, his twenty-plus year career (well, including ten years spent in San Quentin during three terms of sentence) was discussed in some detail, leading up to his execution after his fourth conviction, for the August 1873 murder of three persons in a robbery at the San Benito County town of Tres Piños.
Vásquez, who was captured at a ranch house in present-day Hollywood by a posse formed by Sheriff William R. Rowland, underwent his murder trial in early 1875 and then was executed at the Santa Clara County jail yard on 19 March 1875. As was customary, the bandit’s body was handed over to family and friends for burial. Because he was a Roman Catholic, a wake was conducted in a house in Santa Clara prior to the funeral service and interment.
One of the more interesting items in the Homestead’s collection is a letter, written on 22 March 1875 by Charles Brimblecom to his sister Fannie, most of which is devoted to Brimblecom’s description of the wake. The document is not just interesting because of that specific event, but because of his comments about Vásquez and his use of a common pejorative that Anglos directed at Latinos.
Brimblecom was on his way home in Santa Clara and wrote to his sister, residing with the family in Boulder Creek, a community in the Santa Cruz Mountains about thirty miles southwest of San Jose, when he happened to pass by where the wake was being held. A native of Illinois and son of a prosperous lumberman logging the gorgeous redwoods of the mountain range, the writer was about 20 years old when he wrote to his elder sibling.
His description of Vásquez and the wake are deserving of a lengthy quote because of what it contains:
The principal sensation around here lately was the hanging of Vasquez the robber and murderer, at San Jose last Friday. He went out with the greatest coolness. His relatives and friends brought his remains over here to the house of his relatives in town here. Great numbers of people went down there to see him and so after I finished work I went round there on my way up to grandma’s. A crowd of men and boys were looking in at the windows, and I stepped up, and looked in. On each side of the room sat a long line of greaser women and children, sitting very still and quiet. In the middle of the room, on a kind of bier, lay the body of Tiburcio Vasquez, the noted bandit and outlaw, with tall candles burning at the head and feet. He was a small man, face not very dark, black hair, black mustache, and very thin black whiskers. He did not particularly look like a hard case, in fact I did not see a horrible monster, but simply a dead greaser . . . I could have gone in if I wanted to, but I just wanted to take a look so I could say that I had seen him. His friends made a great parade over him.
Much of the conversation at the Curious Cases presentation yesterday was about Vasquez and his status to some, principally Latinos, as something of a hero, a revolutionary, a figure of admiration because of his daring, courage and abilities in defying the legal establishment, while others, mainly Anglos, looked upon him as a common criminal and, then, a murderer after the Tres Piños tragedy.
In a jailhouse interview at Los Angeles with newspaper publisher Benjamin C. Truman, of the Los Angeles Star, Vásquez claimed that he commenced his criminal career because of racism and oppression he encountered from Anglos. In particular, when he attended dances and balls at Monterey while a teen, the treatment he alluded to led him to manifest “a spirit of hatred and revenge.” This, in turn, he claimed launched him into an effort “in defence . . . of my rights and those of my countrymen.”
What is problematic in assessing how much of this was self-promotion, rationalization, and justification is that his criminal activities were often anything but defending Latinos in California. For example, he stated to Truman that “my first exploit . . . [was] robbing some peddlers.” Peddlers were itinerants who sold small goods and hardly could have representing the oppressors that Vásquez claimed to be responsible for his taking to a life of crime.
Moreover, in summer 1857, Vásquez was arrested and indicted for grand larceny for the stealing of horses from a Los Angeles County rancher. The victim? Luis Francisco, a native of Mexico, who had land along the Santa Clara River near modern-day Santa Clarita. Was this an example of defending the rights “of my countrymen”?
One of the three victims at Tres Piños was a Portuguese sheepherder and the last victim in the long career of the bandido was a native of Genoa, Italy named Alessandro Repetto. Even the Anglos that he robbed and the two killed in the Tres Piños affair, were, so far as we know, mainly common folks, not political figures, prominent ranchers or business people.
So, interpretations of Vásquez as a hero were significantly due to the work of Chicano historians of the late 1960s and afterward who were inspired by British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and his claims about the “social bandit” who took to crime as a revolutionary endeavor fighting against oppression and injustice. An interesting short article in The New Yorker on Hobsbawm’s theory can be accessed here.
For all of the inconsistencies of that interpretation applied to Vásquez given some of the points raised above, Brimblecom’s letter is illuminating when it comes to the pervasive racism that was manifested in many ways in 19th century California. His reference to “greaser women and children” and to the dead bandit as not “a horrible monster, but simply a dead greaser” are palpable instances of explicit racism.
Notably, there was a state law, commonly called the “greaser law” and enacted in the 1850s, that allowed for the arrest of any Latino deemed to be loitering and not engaged in some useful business. While there is no evidence that this heinous statute was enforced in greater Los Angeles, the fact that it was on the books is an example of the institutional racism that permeated California society.
There is no reason to doubt that the young Vásquez was the subject of racist treatment in the early 1850s, just a few years after the American conquest of Mexican California during our country’s first imperial war and during the ferment of the Gold Rush, in which ethnic and general violence was rampant.
Yet, we have to carefully measure the statements the jailed bandit offered to Truman (and others) with what we know of his criminal career when it comes to deciding whether he was a “social bandit” or merely a criminal whose gang committed cold-blooded murder.
The reality is that his image as a social bandit and revolutionary, fighting racism and oppression is not going away. Schools have been (and in one case in Salinas, renamed last year) named for him and there is a Tiburcio Vásquez Health Center in Hayward, south of Oakland, where, on its website, the center lionizes the bandit as a hero and fighter for social justice:
TVHC’s founders wanted to choose a name that evoked a sense of pride and fortitude in their community, and what better choice than the heroic character who—legend has it—defied authority in order to aid the downtrodden Californios?
The legend of Tiburcio Vasquez dates back to the late gold rush era of the 1800s—a tumultuous time in California. Vasquez was a bold, flamboyant risk-taker who won the hearts of many Spanish-speaking early Californians and Native Americans. Legends among the communities that loved him have painted a portrait of a romantic poet, a caring and giving man who often provided food and medical aid to the needy, and a passionate supporter of human rights. Hollywood has fictionalized Vasquez and captured his life on film many times. In movies, he is known as Zorro.
Yet, he was a criminal, who preyed on peddlers, small-town shopkeepers, ranchers, farmers, and even fellow Latinos. He was the head of a gang that killed people and for that he paid the ultimate price with his hanging. It seems incongruous to accept one aspect of Vásquez without acknowledging others.
But, that’s the challenge of reconciling myth and legend with history.