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Zorro Matters: How a One-Hundred-Year-Old Icon Speaks to the Pursuit of Justice in America

Guest post by Stephen J. C. Andes

The Mark of Zorro turns one hundred years old this fall.

On November 29, 1920 the silent film debuted in New York City to throngs of clamoring patrons. Photos from the time show crowds of hundreds, if not thousands, outside the Big Apple’s Capitol Theatre. The movie absolutely blew viewers away. With its mix of derring-do stunts and romance, Zorro’s filmic premiere provided fantasy and escapism at time when many Americans were sorely in need of these. World War I, and the Great Influenza that followed in its wake, had taken the lives, and soured the horizons, of millions. Perhaps it sounds familiar to us at present, as we find ourselves still in the grips of a global pandemic and looking ahead to November general elections with a mix of fear and dread. We’d all like a little fantasy and escape.

But, here’s the important question: Why should we care about The Mark of Zorro on its one hundredth anniversary?

The movie certainly made a splash. It heralded the rise of the action-adventure genre. Douglas Fairbanks, the actor who played Zorro in 1920, was a mash-up of Tom Cruise and Jackie Chan—he did his own stunts and had a gorgeous smile. He skylarked and jumped; he rolled and tumbled. Viewers of silent-era film had never seen anything like Fairbanks as Zorro.

One reviewer for the New York Times admitted “there couldn’t be another hero like Fairbanks.” Fairbanks’s Zorro was a hero, bigger, faster, stronger than other heroes, mainly because the medium of film transformed expectations of how stories were told. Movies could literally project fantasy onto projector screens. Fairbanks became a hero, almost super.

The creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, pointed in part to Fairbanks’s Zorro in crafting their Man of Steel in 1938. Bill Finger, co-creator of Batman, was known to paste film stills of Fairbanks doing stunts as art direction in his Batman scripts. Zorro matters, of course, because the character became a blueprint, and archetype, for later superheroes like Superman and Batman.

But there’s more.

Beyond all the talk about Zorro being America’s first superhero—which I argue in Zorro’s Shadow: How a Mexican Legend Became America’s First Superhero—Zorro matters because he was real.

Now, before you write me off as, perhaps, one panel short of a finished comic book, hear me out. Was Zorro real in the sense that a guy named Don Diego de la Vega actually lived?

Did Zorro actually flit and strut about Old California carving his retribution into the foreheads of his enemies like a character from Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds?

No. Nope. Of course not. Zorro wasn’t real in that sense. Zorro and his Don Diego alter ego were made up in 1919 by pulp fiction writer Johnston McCulley.

Zorro was real in another sense, one that makes the character relevant and compelling for our times.

In the course of my research for my book on Zorro, I discovered that a real-life prototype existed for Zorro. Johnston McCulley drew on the legend of Joaquín Murrieta in fashioning his fictional character. It should be noted that much of the legend of Murrieta is almost as fictional as the fiction written about Zorro. Murrieta lived in the age of the California goldrush and, after his wife was raped by Anglo prospectors, and after his brother-in-law was lynched, Murrieta, according to most tales, became a bandit. To Mexican Americans he became an avenging ghost, ready to repay the wrongs done to his people.

Joaquín Murrieta / Art via True West archives

To Anglo Americans, he was a scourge, a figure maligned. The famous wanted poster that appears in many Zorro films and in the Disney TV show of the 1950s, can be traced to Murrieta. A bounty was raised on Murrieta, as the story goes, and when Murrieta saw that the bounty was too low, he unsaddled his horse and wrote on the poster “I will give 10,000,” and signed it “Joaquín.” Zorro’s ubiquitous “Z” is an echo of Joaquín Murrieta’s own boasting signature.

Time ran out on the real Zorro.

The California governor set a reward for the capture, dead or alive, of Murrieta. A contingent of California Rangers mustered for the pursuit and capture, claimed to have killed Murrieta and cut off his head in order to claim the reward. Whether it was actually the real Murrieta, historians—including myself—have not been able to establish. It could’ve been just a hapless young Mexican twenty-something who fit the bill. That possibility makes the decapitated head of Murrieta all the more gruesome. For, indeed, whatever the truth or fiction of the actual Murrieta, Mexican Americans suffered under Anglo American settlement of West.

One historian notes that there are 871 documented cases of Mexicans who were lynched in some thirteen states in the American West after the Civil War. The story of Murrieta is the story of a lived history of racism and terror against Mexican Americans in the United States. Murrieta first, and later Zorro as Murrieta’s whitewashed literary offspring, preserve the real history of persecution, survival, and resistance of Latinx folx in the United States. “It isn’t just ‘one man,’ damn it. It’s Zorro!” as the villain says in the 1998 film The Mask of Zorro starring Antonio Banderas, Anthony Hopkins, and Catherine Zeta-Jones.

In an age when Latinx people are once again maligned, threatened—put in cages on the U.S. border—and called foreign to the American body politic, Zorro can become a symbol of resistance. Zorro matters because, after one hundred years, America still needs inspiration from forgotten legends. Murrieta, and Zorro after him, reveal the rootedness of the Latinx contribution to what makes America, well, America.

Latinx history and experience helped birth the superhero in America—masked avengers who stand up for the oppressed and speak truth to power.

It’s as plain as Zorro’s famous calling card.

Zft Zft Zft.


Stephen J. C. Andes is a history professor at Louisiana State University. He writes about history and pop culture, and is the author of The Mysterious Sofía, The Vatican & Catholic Activism in Mexico & Chile, and most recently Zorro’s Shadow, which is now available in print and digital. Originally from Portland, OR, he lives with his wife and three kids in Baton Rouge, LA.

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