El Zarco, the Bandit

by Ignacio Manuel Altamirano

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Critical Evaluation

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Ignacio Manuel Altamirano, who was of Aztec background, became a lawyer and served as a soldier in the War of Reform (1858-1860) and in the resistance to the French occupation of Mexico (1862-1867). In addition to writing novels, he produced poetry, newspaper articles, and essays. He was also an active politician associated with the Liberal Party. In 1889, he became Mexico’s consul to Spain. The fact that he never forgot his humble origins is reflected in his active promotion of literacy programs for the lower classes, peasants, and indigenous peoples. His political platform presupposed that Mexico’s success depended on its becoming a more intellectually developed country, retaining awareness of its glorious past as its masses became educated.

Altamirano also promoted the study of European cultures in order to incorporate the Mexico of the late nineteenth century into the most innovative intellectual currents. He spoke French fluently, a feat for one who had learned Spanish at fourteen years of age. He was an avid reader of European literatures, which provided him the classical structure for his own literary craft. Contemporary critics praised his works; they considered him a true Mexican novelist who had moved away from the old literary molds inherited from Spain.

In fact, Altamirano displayed no major involvement in Spanish literature, since Spanish culture was associated with the Conservative Party, Altamirano’s political opponents. His novels exhibit the carefully studied neoclassical literary design that was much in vogue in eighteenth century Europe. He was also an acclaimed literary critic and chronicler of Mexican literature, both colonial and contemporary.

As a politician, however, Altamirano also understood that his literature served a strong pedagogical purpose in promoting Mexico’s political positions. El Zarco, the Bandit is the product of a sophisticated political theorist. Its plot is partially founded on historical events that the author witnessed as a soldier. His strong interest in Mexican history made him a forerunner in the promotion of a national literature. The novel continues the Romantic tradition of recapturing folklore; it also seeks to validate Mexican motifs as material worthy of literature. This radical position illustrates Altamirano’s strong desire to incorporate autochthonous types, settings, and events into a literature formerly dominated by foreign influences. Because the Mexican illiteracy rate was high, it is probable that Altamirano intended for his literature, full of local color, to be appreciated by international readers.

The peculiar untamed environment of the tierra caliente of southern Mexico and the region’s native characters stand out in El Zarco, the Bandit. In rural settings, Altamirano sets characters against one another in a struggle for the survival of the fittest. Although the struggle is physical, as reflected in the novel’s many armed confrontations between outlaws and innocent peasants, it is also moral. The characters in El Zarco, the Bandit fall into two distinct groups: The evil of the robbers contrasts with the honesty and the patriotism of the civilians who fight the outlaws. This primal view of human behavior is the central focus of the plot. This archetypal construction makes El Zarco, the Bandit read like an epic narration. The novel tells of the clash between good and evil and the consequent destruction of evil. At first, the land in the tierra caliente is claimed by the outlaws. When the hardworking peasants triumph, the suggestion is that the land itself will also be tamed by the forces of good.

Altamirano incorporates an important difference in El Zarco, the Bandit , however, from what one may expect of an archetypal story. The hero, Nicolás, is an Indian and physically unattractive. Nicolás, a hardworking blacksmith, is a strong and...

(This entire section contains 967 words.)

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able man, a jack-of-all-trades, and he also has a good heart. El Zarco, who is blond and blue-eyed, has no useful skills except his ability to kill. The contrast of the racial backgrounds of El Zarco and Nicolás defies what might politely be called traditional symbology. The unattractive Indian is an uncommon protagonist in the newly developed Mexican literature. Traditional colonial literature presents natives as a destructive entity; indigenous groups appear aligned with nature, and both are depicted as untamed forces. InEl Zarco, the Bandit, however, the blond antagonist (whom the reader supposes to be of Spanish descent) is evil. At a time when European influence in Mexico was despised by peasants and light-skinned people were the targets of outlaws, the novel presents a struggle between two typical figures of the New World, the European newcomer and the indigenous laborer.

Another important function of the ethnic contrast is its use to build suspense as several related issues find themselves linked in the plot. The most significant issue is that of interracial love. Nicolás, unaware that El Zarco has been visiting Manuela furtively, expresses his desire to court her. Manuela, who, like El Zarco, is white, openly disdains Nicolás, whom she considers to be a dirty, ugly Indian. Nicolás finds love, however, in Pilar, also an Indian and in love with him. Suspense grows as characters come to know their own feelings and to recognize the emotions of the other characters.

Altamirano’s El Zarco, the Bandit, with its emphasis on history as a means of understanding modern Mexico, precedes the literature of the Mexican Revolution. Like writers of that movement, Altamirano shows a consistent interest in promoting Mexican folklore and in documenting accounts of armed confrontations. His writing has a strong political and moral purpose. The message is clear: Mexican society, without a detailed account of all the forces involved in its formation, may appear chaotic, but once patterns of behavior are established it is obvious that Mexican society can be examined by objective means. A close understanding of Mexico as a complex country will help to make possible the building of a more stable society.