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Villain or hero? Flap over California school named for bandit

By Samira Said, CNN
updated 3:39 PM EST, Thu January 3, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A new school in California is being named after a famous bandit
  • Tiburcio Vasquez is said to have been a notorious criminal
  • Supporters of the name say he stood up for marginalized Hispanics

(CNN) -- Tiburcio Vasquez, a 19th century outlaw, is remembered in historical accounts as a notorious criminal who terrorized southern California.

But one school district in California wants to remember him another way: as a hero to the Hispanic community who fought back against injustice.

The Alisal Union School District set off a controversy last month when it announced that an elementary school in Salinas to be opened this year will be named after Vasquez.

The move has led some local leaders, including the Salinas mayor, to criticize the controversial choice.

"We had a young man killed in Afghanistan who was from the Alisal area. He would have been a nice person to name the school after," Mayor Joe Gunter said Wednesday. "There's a lot of good people we could name a school after, in my opinion."

According to a biography culled together by the University of Southern California, Vasquez was "probably the most notorious bandit California ever saw."

Vasquez turned to a life of crime as a teenager and served time in San Quentin State Prison for stealing horses in the late 1850s, the biography states.

He and his gang went into hiding in the canyons of Southern California after a "string of infamous robberies and murders" in 1873, the biography says.

Vasquez eventually was captured, convicted of murder and hanged.

His doesn't sound like a life to be emulated, but there is another side to his life story, said Francisco Estrada, a retired school teacher and member of the naming committee in the Alisal school district.

Vasquez was a standout student from a very distinguished family, Estrada said. They had extensive land that was snatched from them after California became part of the United States.

"The community does not see Tiburcio as a thief or a murderer," Estrada said. "We see him as a fighter for social justice of the Mexican-Californio whose rights have been deprived."

Estrada said he believes that Vasquez was falsely accused of murder.

An account of Vasquez's life, written in 1948 by the Historical Society of Southern California, also hints at a more noble side of the bandit.

"It was well known that Vasquez was not a killer, that he repeatedly warned his followers not to kill, and his reluctance to take life, even when his own was in grave danger, was without doubt responsible for the remarkably few killings during his 23 years as an outlaw," the article said.

The article continued: "He hated the Americano with good reason and always in his mind was a thought, which had activated many of his race before him, that he could help get the Americans out and in some way regain California for Mexico."

Both narratives of his life, whatever his motivations were, remain controversial.

Monterey County Superintendent Nancy Kotowski, who oversees the Alisal Union School District, said naming decisions fall solely to the local school board.

Kotowski questioned the choice of name.

"This is an elementary school, pre-school to grade 6. The appropriate procedure would be to first clarify the historical record before naming a school after a controversial figure," she said.

In a statement, the county Office of Education cited high rates of youth violence and murder in Salinas.

Estrada called it "ridiculous" to link the name of the new school to violence in the community.

"What the mainstream calls a murderer and a thief was actually an outstanding individual who was highly educated, cultured and embraced the fine arts," he said.

The school, which is scheduled to open in the fall, would not be the first institution to be named after Vasquez.

A clinic in Alameda County that provides care for the uninsured is called the Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center.

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