The Caballero Revisited: Postmodernity in The Cisco Kid, The Mask of Zorro, and Shrek II
Although this complex, twist-laden plot would doubtless have thrilled Cisco's creator O. Henry, those unfamiliar with the Cisco films probably find it overly detailed and even hard to follow. It is therefore the referentiality of the film to the history of the Cisco series that is central to the appreciation of how Valdez both pays homage to and appropriates the Cisco legend. The film has much in common with previous Cisco adventures. Cisco's apparently mercenary attitude toward the money he and Pancho recover from the tax collector is explained by the assumption of North Americans that every man of Mexican descent is a bandit and his subsequent longing to clear his name, as he explains to Pancho:
Another staple of the Cisco series is the engagement of its hero in daring exploits that reveal his bravery and honor. Although Cisco is at first doubtful about getting involved with the Juaristas, his skill, quick thinking, and courage perfectly suit him to the role of freedom fighter, a fact recognized more quickly by the Mexicans than by Cisco himself. His chivalry is also a legacy from the previous Cisco films. Far from taking advantage of Dominique, unlike the brutish North American who tries to rape her, he is gentle and considerate toward her, and it is she who initiates their lovemaking. Her initial distaste for him dissipates when she witnesses his skill at riding and then at dancing. Indeed, even their relationship is a reworking of the plot of the Gilbert Roland film Robin Hood of Monterey (1947), in which a French woman who is initially uninterested in Cisco falls madly in love with him. Cisco is even charming and courteous to a horribly disfigured old prostitute, thanking her for helping him in a fight against the Texans with a tender kiss. Like previous Ciscos, the protagonist here is unerringly witty and humorous. While the Juaristas shout slogans in support of a liberated Mexico, Cisco shouts, "¡Viva la Libertad!," a reference to his prostitute friend rather than to national independence.
Costumes are also important to the film, as in previous ones, as Cisco's costume helps him to cement his new identity as the Cisco Kid, while Pancho's adoption of the clothing of a priest alludes to the use of costume and assumed identities in almost all the Cisco films. Music, although not central to the film, is used to give a Mexican flavor to the action. Finally, religion plays an important part in the film. Although Pancho's pretense of being a priest is a decidedly ironic allusion to the presence of a spiritual guide to Cisco in the earlier films, he is nonetheless a wise mentor to Cisco, instilling in him the importance of his nation and of fighting to secure its independence. The villainy of the Texans and the tyranny of the French are also underlined by their utter disregard for the Catholic Church and their cynical attempt to use El Niño, a figure of great religious significance to the Mexican people, to secure their own base victories.
The less positive elements of the series, racism and negative stereotyping of Mexicans, are also much in evidence. Apart from Cisco's dilemma of clearing his name from a false charge of being a criminal, which, as he points out, is solely a result of his being of Mexican origin, the North Americans in the film display an insidious racism toward Mexicans. When Dupré accuses the Texans of running guns to aid Juárez, Washington responds incredulously: "That red nigger president of Mexico? Don't make me laugh." His racism is based not only on Juárez's race but on his ethnicity, as Juárez was the first indigenous Mexican to be elected president of his country. Significantly, the portrayal of Juárez highlights his ethnicity in a depiction far removed from that of William Dieterle's 1939 film Juárez, which, despite its title, focuses less on the figure of the Mexican president and more on what is presented as the tragic plight of the besieged Emperor Maximilian. In this film, Juárez is constantly likened to Abraham Lincoln, dresses like him, and even appears beside a portrait of him in an attempt to emphasize their similarities. Indeed, Juárez is not presented as a noble figure in his own right but as a simulacrum of Lincoln. In contrast, Valdez's figure is a dignified, serene character whose ethnicity, which is underlined both by his appearance and his use of code switching, is a key aspect of his nobility. He is a leader of the people who remains one of them and who even at the height of the battle with the French finds time to personally thank his loyal supporters. His actions stand in sharp contrast to the French, who must rely on corrupt mercenaries to achieve their objectives and whose utter disregard for the Mexican people ultimately leads to their defeat. Washington's racism is not confined to Juárez, as he taunts Pancho by saying that "all you greasers" have the same name. Similarly, when Dupré explains how revered El Niño is by the people of San Miguel, it is clear that their devotion is seen by him as primitive idolatry.
In fact, race is a pivotal aspect of Valdez's updating and reworking of the Cisco myth. The key difference between his Cisco and previous ones is that Cisco is Chicano, not Mexican as the character traditionally was. At the outset of the film, Cisco is a rather confused figure who has a conflictive attitude toward his ethnicity, which he identifies as the reason that he is considered a criminal in the United States. Pancho functions as a role model who awakens his pride in his ethnicity and his motherland. The irony of his dressing as a priest notwithstanding, Pancho is literally a father figure to Cisco, and he makes him realize that the plight of the people of Mexico is more important than his own quest to clear his name and return to the United States. Thus, after they recover the money paid to the tax collector, they argue over the right thing to do with it, with Pancho pointing out that Cisco cannot possibly keep it:
Cisco reluctantly capitulates, but his removal from the cause Pancho fights for is further underscored when he meets Doña Josefa and tells her that he is not political, to which she replies: "Neither are we. We just want our country back." This comment means little to Cisco at this stage in the action, for it is the crucial issue of belonging to Mexico that remains a stumbling block to his idea of belonging with the Juaristas. This issue comes to the fore when Cisco comments to Pancho that he has a wonderful family and a country to fight for. Rosa, Pancho's wife, tells him that it is his country too, but Cisco is adamant:
Although this exchange seems to be a turning point, Cisco's ideas about the gulf between himself and the Mexicans he encounters through Pancho run too deep to be easily discarded. This sense that he belongs neither in the United States, where he is looked down on because of his ethnicity, nor in Mexico, where he feels like a North American, comes to a head over the issue of the money he seeks to clear his name. Pancho is utterly shocked and disgusted when, despite their many adventures together, Cisco insists on having the money.
This fraught conversation crystallizes the situation. Pancho, who is secure in his identity and enveloped by his political struggle, cannot conceive that it is not also the focus of Cisco's life. Moreover, he cannot appreciate the difficulty faced by Cisco as a person who lives between two clashing cultures. Ultimately, however, Cisco's bravery and inherent nobility mean that he proves himself to be true to his ethnic roots while coming to terms with his identity crisis in his own time. In the end, the roles are reversed and it is he who tries to encourage Pancho to continue to participate in the Juarista struggle. A final notable aspect of the characterization of the protagonists is that in many ways the actors remain true to their public images from previous roles. Cheech Marín, in the part of Pancho, reprises his role in Born in East L.A. (1987) as a streetwise trickster who values his culture and ethnicity. Similarly, Jimmy Smits in his role carries the dignity of his part as a successful lawyer in the hit TV series L.A. Law.
Overall, despite the overly detailed story, Valdez makes a strong argument for the importance of defending one's ethnic identity through the character of Cisco. He respects the tenets of the earlier film series and puts them to good use in the charting of Cisco's journey from a rather selfish, devil-may-care adventurer to a freedom fighter who is worthy of the name of hero. His Cisco learns that there is more to being a Mexican American than the one-sided, derogatory interpretation he has suffered from north of the border. His transformation is such that he becomes a role model in the mold of the social bandit espoused by previous screen Cisco Kids.