The Marketing of Zorro Masks History
By Benjamin Ortiz
With the North American Free Trade Agreement in high gear, the most recent Zorro adaptation seems oddly relevant. Not that the filmmakers wanted audiences to draw comparisons between an imaginary 19th century crusader and a band of contemporary masked guerrillas in Mexico (Los Zapatistas) who share the same initial.

In a telling displacement, the film’s villain, Don Rafael Montero (Stuart Wilson), proclaims “Welcome to the future of California,” when he returns from exile in Spain and takes over a gold mine through kidnapped slave labor, with plans to buy the state from Mexico’s Gen. Santa Anna. The movie was filmed entirely in Mexico – this scene, in particular, at a former cement quarry that aptly reminds us of exploited labor – with lots of Mexican extras standing in as the workers who Montero plans on sealing in the mines after securing his profit.
In effect, the film revisits the Spanish colonial system of indigenous peonage, the underpinnings of why the Zapatistas find themselves fighting against the gold mines of the 20th century – the foreign-owned factories, or maquiladoras, along the U.S.-Mexico border – and against continued indigenous genocide.
But The Mask of Zorro cloaks these resonances in romantic nostalgia and noble Spanish panache, set on the eve of the biggest act of banditry in the region: the violent acquisition by the U.S. of the entire Southwest from Mexico between 1846 and 1848.
At least this time the masked avenger is not the Lone Ranger, that perverse embodiment of frontier justice in the wake of Indian and Mexican uprisings. Instead, the audience can feast its eyes on the more hygenically pleasing Antonio Banderas and Catherine Zeta-Jones, instead of the Zapatistas’ Subcomandantes Marcos and Ramona.
The movie itself is caught between the fictive license of historical romance and the demands of historical realism, and as a period-placed adaptation of an originally serialized novel, it does justice to neither realm.
Starting in 1821, the movie flashes forward 20 years to the main action, though it is derived from events that happened afterward, when the Gold Rush began in earnest and the Foreign Miner Tax of 1850 was enacted to discourage poor Mexicans and Chinese from making a living.
As a result, bandits began rustling livestock and sometimes robbing or even killing miners. In California, five renowned bandits allegedly shared the name JoaquÃŒn, though accounts seized on the surname Murieta as a composite character. Whether or not JoaquÃŒn Murieta really existed, he was rumored to run with such infamous companions as Three-Fingered Jack.
On May 11, 1853, the California State Legislature authorized a special ranger force under the leadership of one Capt. Harrison Love to capture the five JoaquÃŒns, with $1000 offered as reward for Murieta. Love brought back a head and pieces of a hand, claiming them to be the appendages of Murieta and Jack. Though no positive ID was established, Love earned the $1000 reward (with a $5,000 bonus granted by the Legislature), and the preserved body parts became lucrative trophies for a travelling show.
The Mask of Zorro gets its updated bite from incorporating Joaquin Murieta (Victor Rivers) and Three-Fingered Jack (L.Q. Jones), with Banderas playing Joaquin’s brother Alejandro and Matt Letscher standing in as their nemesis, Love.
From a tradition of dime novels popularizing legends based loosely on historical figures, a half-white half-Cherokee San Francisco journalist named John Rollin Ridge (aka Yellow Bird) immortalized Murieta in 1854 with his account titled The Life and Adventures of JoaquÃŒn Murieta. Mixing obvious racial resentment with coin-turning sensationalism, the book fulfilled the essentially commercial mission of novels as they originated.
With Indian resistance long demolished and Texas-Mexican uprisings recently destroyed, it was safe enough in 1919 for a police reporter named Johnston McCulley to create a Spanish hero named Zorro, which was based on Murieta and other Robin Hood-type characters. McCulley probably didn’t know he’d inspire at least 50 feature films and various TV shows, stage productions, cartoons, theme park spectacles, and bedroom fetishes.
Aside from one female and one gay Zorro, most adaptations have stayed true to the formula – as The Mask of Zorro does, though with recognition of growing U.S. Latino population and moviegoers. Where Douglas Fairbanks Sr. played the first filmed Zorro (1920), this movie was originally slated to have a Mexican American director (Robert Rodriguez) to mold the Latinoid lead.
Regardless, Latino-audience marketing – aggressive in some cases (per profit potential), and indifferent in others (per ignorance) – means that film companies will do their best to take our money but won’t necessarily give back better representations of Latinos in the medium.
Robert Rodriguez, by the way, left after demanding more than the $44 million budgeted for the overall production. When Martin Campbell (GoldenEye) came on, the budget eventually reached $65 million.
The San Antonio Current, July 1998

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