Was Zorro based on a real figure

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El Zorro is a well-known character and is instantaneously recognizable. He was a fighter for justice and protects the weak against the strong, a Robin Hood figure. This character has become something of a cultural figure, especially in California. Moreover, the character has been very influential in the development of the ‘super-hero’ genre. It is generally accepted that the Californian outlaw inspired the creation of Batman. The character also inspired many other well-known figures in ‘pulp fiction’ works, cartoons, and comics. Like many popular fictional heroes, the figure of Zorro was based on a real-life or historical figure. Below is a discussion of the candidates that inspired the character of the Californian hero.

The cover of the first Zorro novel

The evolution of Zorro

Zorro was created by the pulp-fiction writer Johnston McCulley (1883-1958). He was a prolific author and wrote hundreds of short stories and novels. In 1919, he wrote the book The Curse of Capistrano, which introduced Zorro, to the world . McCulley did not intend to write any more works based on the Californian character. The book was bought by a Hollywood studio who made a movie based on the novel, called the Mark of Zorro, starring Douglas Fairbanks, a superstar at the time [1]. This motion picture was a sensation and Hollywood executives persuaded McCulley to write more stories based on the dashing outlaw. McCulley was to write Zorro stories for almost 40 years. The novel The Curse of Capistrano has sold over 50 million copies and is one of the most commercially successful novels of all time. The Californian hero has appeared in countless books, movies and theatrical productions [2]. In recent years there have even been video games based on the famous character.

An artist’s impression of Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo

The biography of the character

The name Zorro comes from the Spanish for fo x. The character lives in the Pueblo of Los Angeles in what was Spanish California (1760-1821). The territory now part of the state of California was then part of the Spanish Empire. However, the Spanish neglected it until 1767, when they took direct control of the region, out of fear that one of their European competitors would seize the area [3]. The Spanish colonial authorities were very harsh and oppressed the native peoples in particular. This is the setting for the adventures of Zorro. Although some later versions of the story set his story in Mexican California (1812-1850). He is typically portrayed as masked and a great swordsman, who also uses a whip to great effect. Zorro is the champion of the poor and the exploited and a friend to the native tribes. He is shown fighting for their rights against the oppressive Spanish officials and soldiers [4]. The character is shown as wearing a black cape and a sombrero. He often publicly humiliates officials and soldiers as punishment for their treatment of Californians. Zorro often marks the oppressors of the people with a Z, his personal mark. Because of his struggles with the colonial government he is outlawed and has a bounty placed on his head but is loved by the common people, who help him. Zorro is a great swordsman and his favorite weapon is a rapier. He has amazing powers of endurance and is practically uncatchable on his horse ‘Tornado’. However, Zorro is, in reality, the alter-ego of a young Californian aristocrat Don Diego de la Vega. He is the only son of the richest man in all California, whose mother died many years ago. Diego went to university in Spain where he studied swordsmanship [5]. He returns home after he hears of the oppression of the Spanish in California. Diego adopts the persona of Zorro so that he can fight the cruel and corrupt officials in California. In order to escape suspicion, he acts like a spoiled playboy with no interest in the troubles and injustice of his times [6]. He pretends to be a coward who is afraid of fighting and is widely despised in California. Diego loves Lolita Pulido, a poor noblewoman, but she dislikes him and indeed loves his alter-ego. In the stories Zorro is shown as being pursued by the local Caballeros but over time he wins them around to his cause and they offer him invaluable help. In some iterations of the story, Zorro would pass the mantle on to younger men who would assume his identity and carry on his fight for justice.

Literary origins of El Zorro

There are many fictional works that may have inspired the creation of Zorro. He can be likened to the semi-legendary Robin Hood, the English bowman who fought the corrupt and cruel Sheriff of Nottingham and was a champion of the poor [7]. Then there are similarities between Zorro and the character created by the Baroness Orczy, the Scarlett Pimpernel. This character also leads a secret life and helps the innocent, in this instance, French aristocrats during the French Revolution. The Scarlett Pimpernel pretends like Diego to be a selfish pleasure-seeker to conceal his real activities. Another possible inspiration for the character of Zorro was the work of Vicente Riva Palacio y Guerrero. He wrote a fictionalized account of William Lamport, an Irish soldier an adventurer who lived in Mexico in the 17th century. The novel by Palacio y Guerrero narrates the many remarkable adventures of Lamport and how he attempted the raise a rebellion against Spanish rule in Mexico.

Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo

Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo is a legendary figure from the history of California. He is regarded as a folk-hero and the Robin Hood of the Old West. Joaquin Murrieta was born in Sonora, Mexico. He was a vaquero or a cowboy and like so many more from around the world he journeyed to California during the gold rush of 1849 with his brother and his young wife. Joaquin Murrieta was by all accounts a hard-working family man [8]. He became a prospector but appears to have fallen afoul of some White miners. Joaquin Murrieta’s wife was also attacked, and this led to her death. Joaquin somehow survived and he went on to become a card dealer in a saloon. He was joined by his brother and the two prospered. One day some white settlers accused him of stealing a horse or a mule. This led to him being horsewhipped and the murder of his brother. Joaquin swore revenge and one by one he killed those who had murdered his brother and wife. There is no agreed version of the story, but it seems that he then formed a gang of Mexican bandits who preyed on miners and others in California. This gang became known as the ‘Five Joaquins’ gang and they terrorized a large area of the territory and are believed to have killed up to 40 people in a period of only two years. In 1853 the California state legislature put a bounty on the head of Joaquin. In 1853 a troop of California State rangers ambushed him and his gang [9]. The bandit was killed, and the rangers claimed and received the reward. However, a later legend arose that Joaquin had escaped alive from the ambush. There are certain similarities between Zorro and Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo. Both were motivated by a burning sense of injustice and a desire to fight injustice and corruption. However, the bandit began to prey upon the innocent after he had avenged those who had wronged him so grievously, while Zorro was always shown to be scrupulously fair and a protector of ordinary people. Moreover, he was active during the early history of American California, while Zorro is always shown as the sworn enemy of the corrupt colonial Spanish authorities[10].

Salomon Pico

Salomon Pico (1821-1860) came from a wealthy Californio family, that is he came from a long-established Hispanic family in the territory. He was a cousin of the last Mexican governor of California. Pico fought in the Mexican American War (1821-1860) and after the American victory he returned to his native California. He lived quietly for some time, but the Gold Rush of 1849, led to his land being overrun by white prospectors and it appears that this led to the death of his wife[11]. Pico swore revenge against the prospectors’, and he formed a gang of outlaws. They preyed upon lone travelers’ and soon became feared and reviled by the local Anglo community. Pico was seen as a protector of the Hispanic community and many sheltered him and his gang. In 1851, he and some of his gang were captured by vigilantes. He luckily escaped with his life and made his way to Mexico. Here he once again turned to banditry but was later captured and executed. There are undoubted similarities between Pico and Zorro, including their popularity with the common people.

Tiburcio Vasquez

Vasquez was from a well-established Californio family. He came under the influence of a local bandit and was drawn to a life of crime. It seems that he was what some historians call a ‘social bandit’ and he took to crime as a way of protesting at the treatment of Hispanics by the Anglo community in California [12]. Vasquez was a romantic figure who was very handsome and even wrote poetry. Like Zorro, he became very popular with many of the common people, who regarded him as a Robin Hood figure. Vasquez claimed that he never killed a man. He also claimed that he wanted California to be returned to the rule of Mexico. In 1874 he was betrayed to the authorities, imprisoned and later executed. He was hanged because he participated in a robbery, during which a man was killed. Vasquez is still a controversial figure and is seen as a folk hero to some and many still seek out his grave.

An artist’s impression of Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo


The native people of California suffered greatly during the Mexican and later the American occupation of the area. The Spanish decided to Christianize and ‘civilize’ the natives by forcing them on to Missions that were run by religious orders [13]. In these missions, the native people suffered greatly, and many died of abuse and disease at the missions. Many Indian tribes revolted against this including the Yokut. Estanislao was a member of the Yokut tribe, that lived in modern California and he raised a rebellion against the Missions and Mexicans. He was raised on a mission and saw the suffering of his people, first hand. He led a gang of Yokuts who raided the settlements and ranches of the Mexicans. The Mexican government sent soldiers to suppress the revolt but Estanislao could not be apprehended. There were in total four campaigns to crush the revolt of Estanislao. During his raids the rebel leader would carve his initials into pieces of wood, to show the attack was his work, which is reminiscent of Zorro. Eventually the Mexicans wore him down and Estanislao eventually sought the pardon of the governor. Later he became a teacher and died in an epidemic.

A Spanish mission in Baja, California


The character of Zorro is a much-loved fictional figure. He character has been very influential in popular culture. Undoubtedly many of the characteristics of the hero were created by the author. He was partly inspired by previous works and figures such as Robin Hood. However, there is a great deal of evidence that shows that Zorro was based on at least one historical figure. McCulley was familiar with the story of Joaquin Murrieta Carrillo and in many ways this character can be considered to be the chief source of the character of the original caped hero. Murrieta Carrillo was probably the main model for the character of Zorro. However, McCulley was almost certainly inspired by other bandits and rebels from a turbulent period in Californian history.

==Further Reading==

Reichstein, A. (1998). Batman—An American Mr. Hyde?. Amerikastudien/American Studies, 329-350.

Benjamin-Labarthe, E. (2000). American Cinema: The Mark of Zorro and the Chicano Canon. Lomelí and Ikas, 81-98.


Black, Stephanie R., and Robert A. Weinstein. "The case for face masks—Zorro or zero?." Clinical Infectious Diseases 31, no. 2 (2000): 522-523.
  1. Curtis, Sandra. Zorro Unmasked: The Official History (LA, Hyperion, 1998), p. 12
  2. Curtis, p. 19
  3. Chapman, Charles Edward. A history of California: the Spanish period. (London, Macmillan, 1921), p. 114
  4. Alexander, p 89
  5. McCulley, Johnston. The mark of Zorro (London, Penguin, 2005), p 19
  6. McCulley, p 34
  7. McCulley, p III
  8. Alexander, Marc. "ZORRO: Behind The Mask." Américas 59, no. 1 (2007): 45
  9. Alexander, p. 113
  10. Alexander, p. 113
  11. Starr, Kevin. California: A history. Vol. 23 (London, Random House Digital, Inc., 2007), p. 132
  12. Hobsbawn, G, Social Banditry (London, Vintage, 2001), p 4
  13. Starr, p. 131