Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cisco Kid and Literature’s Missing Vaqueros

Art by Mexican artist Rafael Gallur
In Mexico the cowboy tradition goes back further than the in the United States.  Much of the cowboy culture the developed here in the U.S. is in fact an adoption of Mexican vaquero habits by Americans.  For some reason, though, much of that seems to be lost on American audiences looking into the West.  Our collective consciousness of the West seems to cut off anything Mexican with the bloodshed of the Alamo, and to a lesser extent the internecine Texas-Mexican conflicts and the Mexican-American War.   

Zorro we can accept, because he is somehow Spanish and Californian instead of Mexican, and perhaps because he precedes the Alamo. Vaqueros, though, never enter our stories in great numbers.  There are plenty of ex-bandits roaming western novels, including the Hat Creek Cattle Company’s cook Bolivar in Lonesome Dove, but a simple earthy vaquero to match the American cowboy rarely makes an appearance (with a modern exception in the 2005 film Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada).  

One of my favorite images of the vaquero comes from the O. Henry short story “The Caballero's Way", featuring a young rogue-ish vaquero named The Cisco Kid.  That’s right, the same O. Henry who wrote your grade school classics “Lady or the Tiger” and “Gift of the Magi” wrote a great collection of western short stories informed by him time on the run in Latin America and in the West, avoiding arrest for embezzlement.  He was a heck of a guy.  Here’s his description of Cisco:

The Cisco Kid had killed six men in more or less fair scrimmages, had murdered twice as many (mostly Mexicans), and had winged a larger number whom he modestly forbore to count. Therefore a woman loved him.

The Kid was twenty-five, looked twenty; and a careful insurance company would have estimated the probable time of his demise at, say, twenty-six. His habitat was anywhere between the Frio and the Rio Grande. He killed for the love of it—because he was quick-tempered—to avoid arrest—for his own amusement—any reason that came to his mind would suffice. He had escaped capture because he could shoot five-sixths of a second sooner than any sheriff or ranger in the service, and because he rode a speckled roan horse that knew every cowpath in the mesquite and pear thickets from San Antonio to Matamoras.

And also this simple description of a simple (if bloodthirsty) man:

He knew but one tune and he sang it, as he knew but one code and lived it, and but one girl and loved her.

The Cisco Kid would in time become an unrecognizable stock character in black & white serials and television, becoming a knight in shining spurs instead of a wily rider of backcountry.  Moonstone comics would eventually bring him back in a series of comics, returning to O. Henry’s original character now seeking redemption for the consequences of “The Caballero's Way”. 

In his blog Richard Wheeler talked about a pitch he made to write a series about a Mexican cowboy, and how publishers found the idea unsellable.  What do you think?  In our multi-ethnic world is there room for a paperback vaquero?


  1. O Henry wrote some great (western and other) short stories, but "The Lady And The Tiger" was written by Frank Stockton.

  2. I really shouldn't write this stuff late at night when I am too tired to do proper research. Thanks!