Monday, April 30, 2012

Z is for Zorro

One of the rituals of growing up in California is the fourth grade mission project. Every fourth grader in California learns the history of the twenty-one missions built by the Spanish in Alta California. In our school, we each built a model of a mission - the building materials of choice were sugar cubes and popsicle sticks - and we went on a field trip to Mission San Fernando Rey de España, where we learned about life at the mission, or at least its material culture and subsistence practices - instruction on the forced conversions of the disease-ravaged indigenous Tongva by the Franciscans was notably absent in hindsight.

The missions are frequent tourist destinations, to break up long drives up and down the state. We visited Mission San Juan Capistrano on a camping trip to Mission Bay in San Diego, and Mission Santa Barbara on another camping trip to Morro Bay. Our church youth group visited Mission San Gabriel Archangel on an outing. It's a pretty common experience for anyone growing up near the California coast.

The missions are California's most significant architectural vestige of our colonial history, as a part of New Spain. Nearly all of them have been restored to one degree or another - in a land of wildfires, floods, and earthquakes, buildings made of mud bricks tend to be ephemeral. Adobes from the Spanish era in California are vanishingly rare.

Perhaps that's why I so strongly associate the missions with Zorro.

I saw Tyrone Power's The Mark of Zorro for the first time around the same time as our mission projects - either the autumn before or the autumn after - on a Saturday tee-vee matinee. Up to then, swashbucklers were musketeers in Paris or pirates in the Caribbean, but now here were dueling swordsmen right here in California! Even to a guero from the suburbs - unless you grew up here, you'll never really understand "Mexican Radio" - it was filled with names and places that were intimately, immediately familiar in a way that The Three Musketeers or Captain Blood couldn't be.

I eventually found The Curse of Capistrano in either my school or community library, but though Johnston McCulley wrote scores of Zoro stories, most were buried and largely forgotten in the magazines where they were first published. Still, Zorro remains my swashbuckler.

One of these days I'll show my kids The Mark of Zorro on dvd. They'll get to see two great movie swordsmen - Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone - in a classic duel, and hear all those names that were new and yet familiar to me.

But first I'll take them to Mission San Juan Capistrano.


  1. I grew up in San Antonio, TX, which boasts four or five missions in the immediate vicinity. Last year, I toured Mission San Jose (the largest) for the first time since I was a kid. It really brought home the tenuous existence the missions supported and how (forced conversion notwithstanding) they really were little outposts of civilization in a hostile wilderness.

    It's easy for folks in the US to feel removed from European history at times, but the American Southwest was on the sharp end of the Age of Exploration, and it's cool to see the tangible remains of the period.

    1. Hey! I'm in San Antonio too!

      Before moving to Texas when I was 11, though, I lived in Topeka, KS. That might seem like the whitest white place in whiteyworld, but it was the '70s. There was an openness to Hispanic culture then that bloomed briefly before wilting in the jingoistic '80s.

      Also, I got to see a revival showing on the big screen of a movie Disney had put together out of Guy Williams episodes. Zorro is the great American swashbuckler.

    2. Hey, Sean. I'm in Houston now, but lived in SA from '70-'93.

  2. Great Z posts. Congratulations on finishing the A-Z.

  3. Zorro is the greatest of them all!


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