Click photo to enlarge
Construction at Tiburcio V squez should be finished by June 30 and classes are expected to begin for the 2013-14 school year.

A decision by Alisal Union School District trustees to name their newest school after a controversial historical figure is angering community members who believe school officials could have made a better choice.

Trustees voted unanimously last week to name their yet-to-be-completed school Tiburcio Vásquez, after the Monterey native convicted of murder and hanged in 1875.

Vásquez was a robber and murderer, detractors say, and he shouldn't be branded a role model. Supporters say Vásquez swore he was innocent of the killings and was reacting to discrimination against people of Mexican and Spanish descent.

The Monterey County Deputy Sheriffs' Association and Salinas Police Officers Association have joined their voices to the chorus deploring the choice.

"The city of Salinas sees more than its fair share of gang violence, and it's a shame that the Alisal Union District board of trustees would even consider honoring a man whose name is surrounded in controversy that revolves around murder and gangs," the groups said in a joint statement.

But Vásquez's life should be placed in perspective, say Chicano history scholars and district representatives.

"Those were unusual times," said Gregorio Mora-Torres, professor of Chicano studies at San Jose State University. "It was three years after the Anglos arrived and a lot of injustices were being committed against Mexicans all over the place. There was mob justice and nobody takes that into account."

Ground was broken for the school in the Montebella development in March. Construction is scheduled to be finished by June 30 and classes are expected to begin for the 2013-14 school year. Enrollment in the mostly Latino district has been rising in the past few years, with about 200 more students this year than in the past, district officials said.

Trustees approved the process to name the new school in April, and notices went out to all schools to participate, said former Alisal teacher Francisco Estrada, who sat on the naming committee.

"The deadline to submit a name was Aug. 28 and there were 10 or 11 names submitted," Estrada said.

Among the names suggested were La Hacienda, Foothill, Trini Rodriguez, Anastacio Cabral and Tomás Rivera.

The committee whittled down the list based on criteria approved by the board: If the school was to be named after a person, he or she would have to be dead for more than a year, and would have to be native to the Salinas Valley or Monterey County. By process of elimination, only the names of Trini Rodriquez, a former principal who died of cancer, and Tiburcio Vásquez were the final submissions.

In choosing Vásquez, trustees relied on scholarly information provided by Ramón Chacón, associate professor in the history department and ethnic studies program at Santa Clara University.

Those protesting the name of the school don't understand the history of the times — or Vásquez, Estrada said.

"Mexicanos, Californios had begun to lose all their lands, their houses," he said. "In my opinion, he united all the qualities that people feared, the mainstream feared: He was handsome, brave, he was educated. And he fought for social justice, he fought for his people."

Vásquez was first accused of having participated in a murder in 1854, seven years after the Mexican-American War ended with Mexico ceding more than half of its territory to the expansionist United States.

It was a time of tension and turmoil. Though Mexicans were assured they would have double nationality and their language respected, in practice many atrocities were being committed, historians say.

"In 1860, in that decade, there were more Mexicanos lynched than blacks were lynched in the South," said Alisal Superintendent John Ramirez.

In 1854, an Anglo constable was killed at a party. Vásquez was 19 years old and was blamed for the incident. He would have turned himself in the next day, Estrada said, but two of his friends were lynched in jail, so he decided to escape.

"Tiburcio ran for his life," Estrada said. "Since then, the law went after him."

Vásquez was sentenced by an all-white jury and condemned to hang in 1875. There was only one gallows, in Sacramento, which took a long time to disassemble and transport. The gallows arrived in San Jose a month before the verdict was issued, Estrada said, meaning his fate was a foregone conclusion and not an act of justice.

Folk hero?

Controversies like this often erupt with folk heroes who fight a system they consider unjust, said Maria Villaseñor, adviser for the Chicano studies program at CSU Monterey Bay.

Nelson Mandela. Martin Luther King Jr. César Chavez. These are heroes who were at one point singled out for defying existing laws. Eventually, history vindicated them, Villaseñor said

But Alisal school teacher Clifford Gilkey doesn't see Vásquez fitting in that category. Whether or not he committed the crimes he is accused of, Gilkey said, Vásquez admitted he did things he shouldn't have.

"He doesn't admit to killing anybody ... but he himself concedes he did wrong," said Gilkey, who said he has been reading up on Vásquez's life. "He knows he went against his parents, how he was raised, that he did wrong."

Gilkey laments the dearth of Latino role models and has asked his students to interview lawyers and doctors and teachers so they can have people to look up to.

Vásquez "is a complex person and I just don't know if he's the best role model," Gilkey said.

Others disagree.

"We want handsome kids — they're already beautiful — and we want them to be brave, we want them to be educated, we want them to like the fine arts," Estrada said. "We want kids who stand up for their rights — above all, that they have a consciousness of social justice just like Tiburcio did. That's the reason why many of us support Tiburcio Vásquez."

Alisal officials have no plans to change the school's name, Ramirez said.

Claudia Meléndez Salinas can be reached at 753-6755 or cmelendez@montereyherald.com.