The Monterey that Tiburcio Vasquez was born into, the mid 1800s, had two disparate distinctions: as the Capital it was considered the most important town on the Central Coast; on the flip side it was also known as one of the most violent communities in the country. Historical records show it had some of the highest murder rates in US history, out gunslinging towns like Dodge City of Gunsmoke and Matt Dillon fame, and Tombstone, the site of the famous shootout at the O.K. Corral.
Against this backdrop of unbridled violence the tumultuous life of Tiburcio Vasquez unfolded. At the height of his relevance, he was considered America’s most famous Hispanic bandit.
Murderous bandit or colorful celebrity — as always, it depends, of course, on perspective.
California, in Tiburcio’s time, was a state in transition and Monterey was feeling the impact. The native born Californios were facing a changing society, one dominated by a wrenching shift out of old habits and into new customs. Cattle raising, for years the mainstay of the local economy, was in decline thanks to one insurmountable obstacle — drought. The influx of gringos, relocating to the Central Coast after striking it poor during the Gold Rush, led to the displacement of many in the Spanish speaking community.
The effect of these changes instilled in Tiburcio a deep hatred for gringos, who he blamed for relegating his people to second-class citizens in their own land. With a heritage that began when his great-great grandfather came to California with the De Anza expedition in 1775, this was a bitter pill he could not swallow. Not even his loving family could soothe his anger.
Tiburcio spent his childhood in his beloved mother’s home in Monterey. He was charming, good natured and full of mischief. He learned to read and write, but of more importance to him was the city’s social life. Always well-dressed and well-groomed, he played guitar, sang, danced and, above all else, flirted with women and girls. At 17 he opened a saloon, gambling parlor and dance hall, a quick-step to a lifestyle that ended for him with empty pockets and a noose around his neck.
Along the way, though, traveling on horseback through his stomping grounds in the Salinas Valley, over the Santa Lucia mountains into Carmel Valley and across the Gabilan Mountains into San Benito County, his thieving ways were seen by many of his compadres as emblematic of their desire for social justice. His courage and daring were legendary.
As with all Robin Hood-type figures his persona took on mythic qualities, for both sides of his ardent followers. He did, indeed, rob people, he outwitted the law many times, he hid out in secret spots known only to him and he had a band of men who pledged allegiance to his ways.
This analogy is compromised, however, by that fact that he killed people, too. Lots of them, without any apparent remorse. And he didn’t give much back to the poor Californios that would help lift them out of poverty.
What he did provide, though, and what apparently rallied his supporters, was that he was a larger-than-life folk-hero who managed to get away with being a horse-thieving, cattle rustling bandit who stole from the very people they felt oppressed by.
Life is never as tidy as we might want. As so often happens with heroes, subversion is everpresent. Tiburcio was betrayed, caught, tried, found guilty and hanged. He was only 39.
Photographs taken while he was in jail near the end of his life depict a somewhat somber, albeit dashing figure. He maintained his composure even as they covered his head with a black hood on the gallows. His last words: Pronto. And with that, he met his fate and those Californios who revered him endured theirs.