Gary D. Keller
Noble Bandits in the Context of the Humanities and Media StudiesIn 1959 Eric Hobsbawm published an essay, "The Social Bandit," in his book Primitive Rebels: Studies in Archaic Forms of Social Movement in the 19th and 20th Centuries. In it he explored "the curious fact that exactly the same stories and myths were told about certain types of bandits as bringers of justice and social redistributors all over Europe; indeed, as became increasingly clear, all over the globe" (Bandits, ix). Ten years later, on the basis of further studies (particularly in Latin America), Hobsbawm expanded the 1959 essay into a book, Bandits (1969), that has been revised several times and translated into various languages.
The notion of social bandits has proved to be both controversial and enduring. Hobsbawm himself has been controversial and enduring, partly because he is Britain’s best-known Marxist historian, and partly because his work is conceived and executed on a grand scale. In a time when historians have been characterized as specialists, he has been an extraordinary generalist. Hobsbawm observes about Bandits that it "formed the starting-point of the rapidly growing contemporary study of bandit history, much of which . . . has not accepted the ‘social banditry’ thesis, at least in its original form" (Bandits, ix).
Controversial as the concept has been, it has launched a great deal of research about various figures around the world in numerous cultures and over vast time periods.Bandits inspired a whole new field of historical study and brought its author popular acclaim. In Hobsbawm’s analysis, social bandits transcend the label of "criminals"; they are robbers and outlaws elevated to the status of avengers and champions of social justice. Some, such as Robin Hood, Rob Roy, Jesse James, and Francisco "Pancho" Villa, are famous throughout the world, the stuff of story and myth. Others, from Balkan haiduks and Indian dacoits to Brazilian cangaçeiros, are known only to their own countries’ people.
The Bold Caballeros and Noble Bandidas educational project, including this Web site, owes an intellectual debt of gratitude to Hobsbawm and the legion of social science researchers whose work has been launched around social bandits. At the same time, the project makes a decided departure from conventional social bandit research. At the heart of the controversy that Hobsbawm initiated was the issue of the historical accuracy or legitimacy of specific social bandits. Thus, much historical and anthropological work has been devoted to whether a certain figure, for example Jesse James (1847-82) or Pancho Villa (1878-1923), was legitimately a social bandit from the perspective of social science, or whether, by dint of the aggrandizing effects of popular culture, that figure had undergone a certain positive transformation or even a transmogrification.
Popular culture is an important field in both the social sciences and the humanities. The Bold Caballeros and Noble Bandidas project primarily uses the tools of the humanities. This Web site incorporates a great deal of historical information about the figures that it is dedicated to, but its mission is not centered in history. For example, the project is not primarily concerned with the veracity of the social or noble bandit label for particular historical figures. In fact, we are just as concerned with pseudo-historical figures; one of these is Joaquín Murrieta, whose flesh and blood reality is a subject of some speculation and who may have existed as one person or be a composite—although we know assuredly that he was not (if he was at all flesh and blood) an oppressed Chilean, as Pablo Neruda ardently asserts. Moreover, we are equally concerned with figures that are manifestly fictional such as the Cisco Kid, the Bandit Queen, and Zorro.
Bold Caballeros and Noble Bandidas is dedicated to personages from the vantage point of popular culture, not historical veracity. Our emphasis is on the dynamics of popular culture and its almost limitless ability to create noble bandits, whether from real life models, the collective consciousness of a people (such as Robin Hood), or the pens of authors such as O. Henry, who initially created the Cisco Kid, a fictional character who quickly assumed a cultural life of his own and a new Hispanic ethnicity to go with it. Our project is also deeply attentive to the myth-making energies of popular culture and how they play out in various forms of media as these forms have evolved over time and as a result of technological innovations. Thus, while the models in the living social reality of the Cisco Kid, Zorro, the Avenging Arrow, or the Bandit Queen are a secondary consideration given the domain of this project, what is definitely of primary importance is the history of how these personages of popular culture have manifested themselves and evolved over time in various forms of communication, ranging from the media of oral tradition (ballads, tales, legends, drama, accounts, and so on), through the media of nineteenth-century publication (including posters, nickel and then dime novels, literary fiction, newspaper serials, short stories, and poems), to the kinetic media of film and television. The project even includes radio, records, comic books, puzzles, and all manner of subsidiary spin-offs such as dolls, costumes, party favors, mugs, and the like.
The project has educational objectives for both the general public and for specialists and their students. The teaching community will benefit from a Web site resource where curricular materials, including images in the public domain and their multidisciplinary contextualization and explanation, are easily and instantly available at no cost.
The public will benefit from this project because it provides historical, literary, and visually significant insights that are readable and freely accessible to everyone over the Internet. Moreover, the project provides textual and visual information and the means to teach or explain it effectively at various educational levels: the general community, its educators, and their students throughout the country and the world. The national (and international) phenomenon that the project is dedicated to has been extraordinarily under-recognized despite its deep, enduring, and ongoing effect on the shaping of the American identity, particularly that of its youth during their critical adolescent years.
The educational mission of the Bold Caballeros and Noble Bandidas project is not confined to this Web site. The project has under development both a book and high-technology products devoted to the visual images of bold caballeros and noble bandidas, including a CD-ROM that will function as a textbook. The latter will provide scholarly essays on this subject by specialists in the humanities and the social sciences to aid in the teaching of both introductory and more advanced students, as well as additional scholarly information for those working in the field. Moreover, one or more DVDs are under development with additional visual images in the public domain that will be valuable for teaching and continued research. Finally, we are working on an Internet-based distance learning course on Latina/o noble bandits that will incorporate as instructional tools this Web site, the forthcoming book, and the high-technology products described above.
The elaboration of this project has uncovered a phenomenon of considerable significance for gender studies. If the general phenomenon of the good Latino bandit has been under-appreciated, the noble Latina bandida has been almost entirely neglected. Through this resource Web site and the other components of the project, we are in the process of recovering and explaining the history of the images of noble bandidas and their impact on society in general and young American women in particular.
The disciplines that are central to this project include American history, United States Latina/o and Latin American history, popular culture and folklore, literary and linguistic analysis (both of belles lettres and popular or pulp fiction), film, television, video and other media history, and women’s and Latino studies.
What the Project Covers
This project seeks to capture or recapture the image of the good-bad Hispanic bandit and to contrast her or him with the simple degenerate or unregenerate bad Hispanic bandit. At times the image is, alternately—and occasionally simultaneously—good, bad, ugly, beautiful, banal. Above all it is bounteous. We have had a wealth of visual images to work with, albeit only a fraction of those originally created, and even most of what remains with respect to early cinema is in less than optimal condition. We have worked hard to recapture a partially lost culture and its imagery.
We have brought back generations of Ciscos, Zorros, and many others including Anita Delgado, the Avenging Arrow; Lasca of the Rio Grande; and the daughter of Don Q. We enter into popular history, legend, and folklore; journalistic accounts; and what Miguel de Unamuno termed the "intrahistoria" and his contemporary Carl Jung called the "collective unconscious" of the good-bad bandit mythos.Thus, this project is about many things. On one end of the cultural and visual spectrum it cultivates the social bandits of Mexican/Chicano lore, the likes of Joaquín Murrieta, Gregorio Cortez, Elfego Baca, Tiburcio Vásquez, the generalas and coronelas of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, and of course, Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata.
On the other end of the spectrum it covers the stereotyping of Latinos/as in advertising, examples of which are the Frito Bandito and Speedy Gonzalez. Along the way it seeks to make insightful and instructive judgments.
But in the center are Cisco and Zorro, the bold caballeros and the gay caballeros, and their followers, including their "athletic but feminine" or "avenging spitfire" counterparts.
Overview: How the Web Site Is Organized
In addition to this introduction, the Web site has sections devoted to themes, a timeline, a bibliography, an index, and a feedback form that users can fill out to inform us on the site’s depth of content and use of technology.
Themes and Timeline
Among the themes covered are noble bandidas in popular culture and media; the dress/costumes of the Latina/o good bandits; group Westerns, particularly with mixed ethnicities; the depiction of key figures such as the Cisco Kid in contemporary Chicano art; the depiction of mixed ancestry within the context of banditry (such as, for example, films dealing with so-called "half-breeds"); the use of Spanish in mass media intended for the English-speaking public; how interethnic and interracial romance is played out in various media; and the image of the border in the noble Latina/o cycle of works.
The timeline has brief coverage of antecedent noble bandits and related phenomena in antiquity and during the medieval period and the Renaissance. Beginning with the nineteenth century the timeline becomes detailed, including in-depth coverage of the image of the social bandits of that century, of the Mexican Revolution of 1910, of Cisco and Zorro and their female counterparts, and of the elaboration of the good bandit phenomenon in ever more sophisticated and varied mass media.
An Open-Ended Web Site
This Web site will continue to add visual and textual resources for the indefinite future and it invites contributions from scholars and the general public.
Bibliography and Index
The Web site contains a significant bibliography for further reading and research and an index of all of the component links in alphabetical order for reference purposes.
Feedback and Evaluation
The Hispanic Research Center has implemented an online evaluation procedure for this project, allowing us to capture such variables as the number of individual users and number of visits to the site. We are conducting qualitative analyses of the comments we receive from users. The data we gather will be used to help determine future directions of the project.
Hobsbawm, Eric (J.). Bandits. New York: The New Press, 2000. Fourth revised edition.