Tiburcio Vásquez 1835 – 1875
It’s been almost two months since the Alisal School Board voted to name a new elementary school after Tiburcio Vásquez and, rather than dying down, outrage over the choice (fanned by headlines like “Officials Defend Decision to Name School After Murderer”) only seems to be growing. Concerned commentators and citizens declare themselves saddened and perplexed that school officials would hold out a gangster and criminal as a role-model for Alisal’s overwhelmingly Latino children. There are even attempts being made to strip the Alisal School Board (democratically elected by the Alisal community) of their power to determine the name.
Rarely have so many in Monterey County demonstrated so little ability to view an historic figure from any perspective other than their own.
From a British perspective, George Washington was a murderous criminal who committed treason against King and Country. And it’s undeniably true. Washington broke the law, he killed people, and he clearly committed treason. But from an American perspective, he’s not only a hero, he’s our country’s all-time greatest hero, and we’re proud to name innumerable elementary schools after him.
Tiburcio Vásquez, from an Anglo perspective, was (and remains for many) nothing more than a murderous outlaw. And it’s undeniably true. Vásquez and his friends did rob and kill people. But from a Californio perspective, Vásquez was, and remains, a hero for giving Anglo society a badly needed taste of its own medicine.
Vásquez lived at a time when intensely racist Anglo Californians were actively stealing millions of acres of Californio land (including from Vásquez’s own family) and murdering innocent Californios with impunity. Against this backdrop, it shouldn’t be hard to see why this cultured and articulate son of a well-respected family, who not only spoke out against the injustices being suffered by his people, but repaid Anglo lawlessness in kind, is considered a hero. His ritualistic execution, and the dignity with which he faced his death (following what was widely recognized, even at the time, as nothing more than a show trial), only enhances his status as a martyr to the cause of Latino rights.
Anglo-Americans, we think, would be better off re-examining their own heroes than attacking those of others. As long as there are hundreds of elementary schools in the country named after people like Andrew Jackson – who owned slaves and killed thousands of Native people through his ethnic cleansing campaigns – Anglos are in a poor position to criticize the Alisal School Board for naming a school after Tiburcio Vásquez.