A New Mexican "Davy Crockett": Walt Disney's Version of the Life and Legend of Elfego Baca
Szasz, Ferenc Morton, Journal of the Southwest
Late-nineteenth/early-twentieth-century New Mexico abounded with larger-than-life historical figures: Pat Garrett, Madame Millie, Pancho Villa, Albert Fall, and Victorio, to name just a few. The most notorious, William F. Bonney, or Billy the Kid, allegedly shot twenty-one people in his brief twenty-one-year life. Indeed, the Kid's notoriety has hardly faded since his murder by Sheriff Pat Garrett in 1881. Historian Kathleen Chamberlain's 1997 bibliography runs to more than 700 items. (1) But Billy the Kid was not the sole purveyor of violence in frontier New Mexico to enter the mythological world. Elfego Baca, who died in Albuquerque at the ripe old age of eighty, became equally lionized for his skill along these lines.
Unlike the case of Billy the Kid, relatively few people outside of New Mexico had heard of Baca at the time of his death in 1945. A decade later, however, writers and filmmakers from the Disney Studios in California rediscovered the Baca legend. In ten television shows, one feature film, six comic books, and related merchandizing, the Disney Corporation turned Elfego Baca into America's first Hispanic popular culture hero. But the theme of "popular culture ethnicity" proved far more subtle in the 1950s than in the early twenty-first century. Thus, Disney's portrayal of Baca contained only a few ethnic emphases. Although a 1928 biographer described Baca as "the idol and protector of the less fortunate members of his race," the Disney depiction deliberately avoided this ethnic tension. In fact, the comic book version doesn't even mention Baca's ethnicity. Instead, the Disney media presented Baca as a generalized western hero, a cowboy or a "fighter for justice" like Davy Crockett who just happened to be Hispanic and just happened to live in the turbulent world of territorial New Mexico. (2)
This essentially nonethnic Elfego Baca reflected the sensibilities of both the Disney Studios and the nation at large in the late 1950s. In the eyes of many, post-World War II Americans constituted a "Peculiar People," composed of numerous ethnic/religious groups to be sure, but united by a faith in the "ordinary person" and a distinctive struggle for justice against the (unstated) Dark Force of the Soviet Union. And, strangely enough, this relatively ethnic-neutral portrayal also reflected much of the actual later career of Baca himself. From the 1890s forward, Baca deliberately refashioned his image as he shifted from defender of poor Hispanic New Mexicans to "cultural broker"--a "mediator" between the state's Hispanic and Anglo-American worlds.
Elfego Baca was born on February 27, 1865, to Juanita Baca in Socorro, New Mexico, but he spent much of his early life in Topeka, Kansas, where he became fluent in English. The almost simultaneous deaths of his mother, brother, and sister caused him to be placed in a Topeka orphanage, and it was with relief that he returned to live with relatives in Socorro in 1872. During his lifetime, Baca served as gunfighter, real estate agent, Mexican bouncer, publisher, jail breaker, lawman, international negotiator, politician, lawyer, intimidator of witnesses in court cases, and congenial self-promoter.
As Baca's three biographers have ruefully noted, separating fact from fiction in his convoluted life has never been easy. (3) Over time, he developed an enormous ego, and he was always aware of his legendary status. The stories grew with the telling, and he made a number of claims--such as having shot up an Albuquerque saloon with Billy the Kid--that clearly were untrue. When an old friend, Reverend Higinio Costales of the Spanish Methodist Church in Albuquerque, once queried him about his exploits, Baca smiled and said, "But, Reverend, you know that if you want people to believe your story you have to make it very, very big." (4)
The heart of Elfego Baca's "story" rested with his October 30-31, 1884, standoff against eighty angry, armed Texas cowboy-ruffians in Frisco, New Mexico (today called Reserve). …