The first European language spoken in the Old West was not English but Spanish and the original cowboys and pioneers were not Anglo but Spanish and Mexican conquistadors and adventurers. Thus, it wasn’t John Wayne and Clint Eastwood who set out at sunset but vaqueros with names like Baca and Armijo.
These are revelations presented in the controversial but engaging book Revolvers and Pistolas, Vaqueros and Caballeros: Debunking the Old West written by Piscataway author and scholar D.H. Figueredo and just published by the prestigious house Praeger. “It is not a revisionist history,” comments Figueredo, a graduate of Montclair State, Rutgers University, and New York University. “It is a retelling of the history of the West accenting the nuances that made the adventure a multicultural experience. But the value of my book is the attempt at giving credit where credit is due.”
According to Figueredo, racist views held by many of the Anglo settlers of the Old West and echoed in contemporary literature, artwork, and early Hollywood films, erased from the popular imagination the memory of Mexicans in the Southwest. Such a major event as the Mexican-American War of 1846-48 allowed the victors – the Americans, that is - to rewrite the history of the Southwest, emphasizing what Anglos did while stereotyping Mexicans and Spanish and dismissing their contributions. “It was also part of Manifest Destiny,” explains the author. “Manifest Destiny advocated that it was the divine right of Americans to expand from the east coast to the west coast and to make of the United States a continental nation.” Adds Figueredo: “Whoever stood in the way…well, that person was removed…so it was with the Mexicans.”
Years of research and writing allows Figueredo to reconstruct the historical presence of the Spanish explorers and the Mexican vaqueros in the West beginning in the 1500s and ending in the 19th century. Those explorers, who sallied forth from Mexico, journeyed into the West looking for gold, especially seven legendary cities of gold supposedly located somewhere in New Mexico and Arizona. While the explorers didn’t find gold, according to the book, they founded towns and cities, introducing the Catholic Church to the region and Spanish and Mexican customs and traditions. “And also the Spanish Inquisition,” says Figueredo.
That is one surprising fact that Figueredo reveals in his book. Since there were many Jewish families who had escaped to Mexico from Spain and then from Mexico to the Southwest, looking for vast spaces that would allow them privacy to practice Judaism, the Spanish Inquisition was sent to the Southwest to track down Jewish heretics. “Many were arrested. Many died. A handful was burned at the stake,” claims Figueredo. “But many others survived and today Jewish families in New Mexico and Texas are re-discovering their roots in the Southwest.”
There are other fascinating findings in Figueredo’s account of the Wild West. For example, it was believed in the 19th century that the Mexican general Santa Anna, of the Alamo fame, lost his campaign against rebellious Texans because he was courting a Texas beauty named Emily West, the possible source of inspiration for the famous song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Figueredo also states that the original Forty-Niners who rushed to California for gold in 1849 were not from the East Coast but from Mexico, Chile, and Peru. Figueredo says “A song they sung while mining eventually became ‘My Darling Clementine’.”
And then there was the horse. The one animal associated the most with the Wild West was in fact brought to the Americas by the Spanish. “Horses first got to the Caribbean; from there they were shipped to Mexico. Left alone in Mexican ranches, horses and mares and mules made it to the Southwest where they roamed the land as feral animals.” He adds that it is also forgotten that Mexicans taught Native Americans and cowboys how to ride horses and lead cattle drive.
The book has received early praises from important authors and scholars, says Figueredo. “I’m told that it’s a good read. That is important. Ultimately I just want the reader to enjoy the adventure of the Wild West and to remember that it was the effort of many nations - including Native American nations and tribes - that created what today we call the Southwest.”
D.H. Figueredo is the author of several children’s books and such award winning works of non-fiction as the Encyclopedia of Cuba, the Encyclopedia of Caribbean Literature, and A Brief History of the Caribbean.
This riveting exposé reveals how a distorted belief in Anglo superiority necessitated the rewriting of American western history, replacing heroic images of Mexican and Spanish cowboys with negative stereotypes.
Early Anglo settlers in the Old West crafted negative images of Latinos in part to help justify the takeover of land occupied by Mexicans and Spaniards at the time. Unfortunately, these depictions were perpetuated throughout the 20th century in art, popular culture, and media ... eventually reshaping the narrative of the American West to the exclusion of the non-Anglo people. This book contrasts dominant lore with historical reality to provide a broad overview of the history and contributions of Latinos in the Old West.
Author D. H. Figueredo sets out to debunk the myths and falsehoods of the American West by chronicling the cultural perceptions that led to such historical inaccuracies. Through spellbinding accounts, chapters address such topics as the legends behind the caballeros, Mexican culture in the Old West, and the search for cities of gold in the Southwest. Arranged chronologically and thematically, the book examines how popular culture diminished the role of the Mexican vaqueros and illustrates how the image of the Anglo cowboy became the iconic symbol of the Old West.
Introduces topics unfamiliar to most readers, such as the role of Spanish-Mexican Jews, the presence of the Spanish Inquisition in the United States, and the real Yellow Rose of Texas
Reveals the duplicity of "Black Legend" to illustrate prejudices of the time
Traces the development of stereotypes such as the Black Legend, bandits, greasers, Zorro, the Cisco Kid, and "loose women," and how these characterizations came to depict Latinos in the Old West in the popular imagination
Documents Latinos' participation in the conquest of the territory west of the Mississippi
"Revolvers and Pistolas, Vaqueros and Caballeros: Debunking the Old West is a delightful and engaging review of Southwestern history aimed at revealing the origin and development of many of the myths held even today about Mexicans, Mexican Americans, and Latinos. Thoroughly researched and documented, the book will engage the general reader as well as the scholar as Figueredo explores how legends and stereotypes have colored our vision of Hispanics in the making of the American nation. Because the themes touched run the gamut from 'banditos' to the 'Yellow Rose of Texas,' readers will be able to regard today’s images of Hispanics on screens and in print with a critical eye. Figueredo has provided an invaluable guide."—Nicolás Kanellos, Brown Foundation Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston, Director of Arte Público Press and Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage
"Like a history detective, Dan Figueredo finds the clues, identifies the culprits, and sets the story straight as to how the West was won. Move over John Wayne, the real lawman was Marshall Elfego Baca, who took on 80 gunslingers all by himself in a gunfight that lasted two days! The Old West will never look the same after you read Revolvers and Pistolas!"—Alex Abella, Author of Soldiers of Reason: The RAND Corporation and the Rise of the American Empire.