Let's just say this right out loud, without attribution, without whining about the caprice of historians or the ugly legacy of oppression.
Tiburcio Vasquez was a crook. And naming a school after him, as the Alisal Union School District has done in Salinas, reveals profound ignorance of his bloody record.
An Associated Press story last week described the fight over naming a new elementary school in a gang-ridden neighborhood after one of the most notorious bandidos of the 19th century.
The school district's superintendent, John Ramirez Jr., says that people should have the right to name schools or streets after their heroes. He calls it "cultural citizenship.''
Right. Maybe we ought to open a Lance Armstrong School of Sportsmanship. Or a Gavin Newsom School of Friendship. What about a George Shirakawa Jr. Academy of Accounting?
Tiburcio Vasquez was a crook. A literate and bilingual crook, yes. A suave dancer and ladies' man who understood public relations. But still a highway robber, a horse thief, a convicted murderer and a man who slept with the wife of his top lieutenant.
What makes this story compelling locally is that in many ways, Vasquez was our crook. Although he was born in Monterey, his family had been prominent in San Jose. His great grandfather was on the 1776 DeAnza expedition.
Hanged in San Jose
Most notably, Vasquez was hanged in San Jose in 1875
The last word of the 39-year-old bandit was "Pronto,'' an admonition to the hangman to perform his task swiftly. Vasquez is buried in the Santa Clara Mission Cemetery.
(A side note: The Associated Press' rules on attribution make for caution that verges on obtuseness. The story said he was convicted and hanged in San Jose, "according to news stories.'' No, it happened.)
In the years since, a Robin Hood myth has grown up around Vasquez. True, he was an educated Californio who was upset when the Americans seized power in the Mexican-American war. His dislike of the gringos formed the early backbone of his career as a highway robber.
He was not a Robin Hood. He was vain, egotistical and brutal. "Vasquez did not rob from the rich and give to the poor, nor did ever claim to have done so,'' wrote his biographer, John Boessenecker, in his book "Bandido.''
Boessenecker concludes that Vasquez was involved in one way or another with nine murders. For almost a quarter of his life, his home was San Quentin Prison. "He caused his family untold grief and heartache,'' Boessenecker wrote.
And this is the guy whose name we want to adorn an elementary school? What happens when a teacher -- call her Ms. Sassafrass -- demands that kids memorize their grammar and they rebel? Do they hold her hostage? Rob her?
The Associated Press story quoted a Northwestern University sociologist as saying that our judgments reflect who writes history — and that the writers change over time.
And while this might be true in the big sense -- certainly our views on various presidents have changed -- it does not change the criminal record of a man like Vasquez.
Tiburcio Vasquez was a crook, not a role model. "Naming a school after a criminal promotes violence,'' one parent, Rosalina Ramos, told the Associated Press. "And our district already has a lot of problems with bullying and other issues.''