Fact, Fiction & Folklore – The Zorro of California
Joaquin Murieta, as the legends depict him, was a product of California’s 19th century cultural clash between Californios, Anglos and Mexicans. The gold rush of 1849 is a convenient and obvious focal point for this clash, but its origin extends deep into California’s past.
From these roots it is important to understand how the Murieta legends emerged, and why they did. The laws of the time may have been written on paper, while being interpreted by whim and circumstance. Racial intolerance and ethnic hatred were fueled by the “wild-west mentality” of swift and often fatal justice.
The Murieta lore contributes significantly to that folk history. Joaquin lived in an era when absolutes were absolute; when good was good and bad was bad and a man could feel right in obeying laws higher than those made by men. Joaquin was gallant and chivalrous because in those days a man could be gallant and chivalrous and be admired for it. Joaquin was a hero because in those days, a man could be a hero.
No understanding of Joaquin Murieta can be complete without examining the “other Joaquin.”
Beneath the romance of Joaquin, however, lurks another figure; commonplace, unsmiling and vaguely sinister. This is Joaquin Murieta too, but he is not dressed like the Cisco Kid and he cares little about gold, buried or otherwise. He is a different folk hero entirely, forged in the heat of Mexican-Anglo racial conflict and perpetuated not by the Anglos but by California’s Mexican American community.
Americans have always enshrined the individual, whether as rugged frontiersman or shrewd Yankee trader. Joaquin is clearly a master and an emblem of individual survival and triumph against long odds. Both Joaquin’s robberies and the extent of his benevolence support this idea; he is admired not only because he robbed from oppressive corporate entities, but because helped the poor.
If the Murieta lore supports the belief in a lost romanticism, it also points the way to a bright future through individual effort. Joaquin is as much Horatio Alger’s “Ragged Dick” Hunter as he is a charismatic Robin Hood while also an impassioned protester against racial injustice, despite the odds. He asked no favors and expected no special treatment, and through the strength of his individualism, he overcame formidable handicaps and in the narrative he succeeded. Little wonder he has become so much a part of California folk lore; little wonder his lean figure, brandishing a rifle in exuberant defiance from astride a rearing horse, beckons the entryway of an ultra-modern California housing development named “Rancho Murieta.”