Tuesday, December 18, 2012

History is a battleground

The forever war to command historical memory rages in Salinas, California. 

I'm still in Big Sur. But this morning, on the front page of the Carmel Pine Cone, I read a news item headlined "Salinas elementary school named for murderer," by Kelly Nix. The provocative title caught my eye.

The murderer is Tiburcio Vasquez. I'd never heard of him before, but this is what wikipedia says about him:
Even today, Tiburcio Vásquez remains controversial. He is seen as a hero by some Mexican-Americans for his defiance of what he viewed as unjust laws and discrimination. Others regard him simply as a colorful outlaw. A more balanced view is that he was indeed a robber, but became a folk hero in his own lifetime to Mexicans and Californios, who were oppressed and would grasp at anything to give them hope, even a bandit.
Nix writes that the memory of Vasquez is contested territory. Some (mostly whites) argue that he was a convicted murderer and notorious bandit. Others (mostly hispanics) argue that he was a revolutionary, fighting against the new government of the United States. The position of the paper seems clear, given the headline.

I don't know anything about Tiburcio Vasquez, or the racial politics of Salinas. But this controversy is more evidence that history is a battleground. And once the battle is over (to the extent it can ever really end), won history is a weapon.

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