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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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06/22/2006 Archived Entry: "Book review: Zorro"

By Isabel Allende
Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden
Published by HarperCollins Publishers, 2005

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

Attention Baby Boomers! With all the movies being made and remade nowadays about our favorite childhood heroes, I think it's high time someone wrote a book about the noblest one of all. I'm talking about Zorro, the swashbuckling Spanish hero from the 18th Century, when California was still part of Spain.

Good old Zorro; no superpowers like Superman, no extraordinary senses like Daredevil, no metamorphic changes over which he has no control like the Hulk, no abilities brought on by radiation or laboratory accident like Spiderman or the Fantastic Four. Just a brave man in a mask and cape (like Batman, but blessedly angst-free), armed with a sword and a sense of justice, taking on the powers that be for the sake of the poor and helpless. A true hero, in the style of Robin Hood, who takes from the rich to give to the poor and never kills unless it is absolutely necessary. And, need I add, a much better role model for our Latino youth than the freaking Frito Bandito, who was just plain embarrassing, or even Desi Arnez, the only other Latino on TV to portray our people in a positive light on the long-running sitcom "I Love Lucy".

Surely there are Boomers out there who remember the old black and white "Zorro" TV series by Walt Disney Productions, which ran from October 10, 1957 to September 28, 1959" on ABC? It starred Guy Williams as Don Diego de la Vega (that's another reason why I love the guy; his alter ego has the same last name as me!), alias Zorro, the fox. His faithful sidekick/valet, the mute Bernardo, was played by Gene Sheldon, and his father, Don Alejandro de la Vega, was played by George J. Lewis. The villainous Captain Monastario was played by Britt Lomond, and the fat, cowardly Sergeant Garcia was played by Henry Calvin. (Note: with the exception of Williams, whose real name was Armando Catalando, none of the actors was actually Latino. That's the way it was, back in the day, when only white people could play minorities on TV and in the movies.)

Who doesn't remember the dynamic theme song (words by Norman Foster, music by George Bruns) that began every show:

"Out of the night, when the full moon is bright,
Comes the horseman known as Zorro.
This bold renegade carves a "Z" with his blade.
A "Z" that stands for Zorro.
Zorro, the fox so cunning and free.
Zorro, who makes the sign of the "Z".

In this novel, Isabel Allende (the niece of former Chilean President Salvador Allende Gossens, who was overthrown in 1973) uses the old Disney series as a basis for her characters. But she also provides an interesting background for young Diego de la Vega, making him a mestizo, a person of mixed Spanish and Indian ancestry, the result of Spanish settlers in Old California intermarrying or sleeping with Native American women.

Diego's father, Captain Alejandro de la Vega, is a Spanish aristocrat turned soldier, a veteran of the Italian wars and thus a hero in his own right, who rides to the rescue when Padre Mendoza of the San Gabriel Mission in Alta California sends an urgent message to the Presidio in San Diego, begging for soldiers to defend the mission from a local Indian uprising. Unfortunately, the soldiers are needed elsewhere, so only Captain de la Vega and two of his best men are able to come to the mission. Somehow this brave caballero and his men, aided by the priest and eight Indian converts, called neophytes, managed to defeat an army of at least a hundred Indians, led by the mysterious Chief Gray Wolf, a mystical shaman who literally dances with wolves.

After the battle, while burying the wounded and tending to the injured, Don Alejandro makes two surprising discoveries. The first is that Chief Gray Wolf is still alive, though badly wounded. The second is that Grey Wolf is actually a beautiful mestiza maiden named Toypurnia, which means Daughter-of-Wolf; her father was a Spanish sailor who deserted his ship for the love of her mother White Owl, a shaman and healer from the Shoshone tribe.

Naturally Don Alejandro can't allow such a dangerous prisoner to go unguarded, so he remains by her side day and night. Of course they end up falling in love. Toypurnia is sent to live with Alejandro's patrona, Dona Eulalia Fages, the wife of the governor of California, to learn civilized ways; she is baptized Regina Maria de la Inmaculada Concepcion and returns to the mission three years later, with the dress and manners of a Spanish lady, but with the heart of an Indian warrior. The minute Alejandro sees her again, he blurts out a proposal of marriage.

In due time, the hero and the mystic warrior become the parents of a son, Diego, who grows up learning the ways of a Spanish gentleman from his father, and the ways of an Indian warrior from his mother and grandmother. His faithful friend Bernardo is an Indian boy, born in the third week of May like himself, whose mother, Ana, becomes Diego's wet nurse. Bernardo becomes mute after pirates attack the de la Vega hacienda early one morning, forcing Ana to hide her then 8-year-old son inside a laundry basket while she bravely confronts the home invaders in her nightgown. She suffers the usual outrage at the pirates' hands; afterwards they cut her throat and leave her naked, ravished body for her son to find as he crawls out of his shelter. Bernardo was so traumatized he rarely spoke thereafter, and then only to Diego or others he was close to, relying on sign language most of the time.

As for Diego, he fared better during the attack because he and his mother were both able to hide in a secret passageway behind a fireplace, after Regina was injured fighting the pirates. This secret passageway becomes a sanctuary for young Diego and his milk brother, letting them in and out of the house without Don Alejandro's knowledge so they can learn the ways of their mothers' people.

Diego not only learns the ways of a Spanish gentleman, but the ways in which the Spanish settlers mistreat the Native Americans, whom they enslave, torture and kill after taking their land for themselves. Diego and his mother both strive to help the native people retain their lands and rights, despite Spanish persecution. Don Alejandro gives them little help or sympathy; he is not an evil man, simply indifferent to the plight of commoners outside the walls of his hacienda, where he alone rules. He may deplore the excesses of his fellow aristocrats, the unjust way in which they treat their Indian peons as well as the ordinary working folk, but he accepts this injustice as simply the way things are, not unlike the average American Republican. No wonder Diego grows up with a thirst for justice, after witnessing the brutal injustices of the Spanish settlers against the Native Americans.

Diego's father sends him to Spain to be educated at the age of fifteen, along with his faithful Bernardo, who, unlike his character in the series, is completely Indian and dresses the part; white linen pants and shirt, with a sash around the waist and a striped serape in winter. He also wears a band around his head and a long braid halfway down his back. Diego, of course, is tall, dark and handsome, but with enormous jug ears, which the narrator of the story suggests were the reason that he wore a mask. He spends four years in Spain at the home of his father's old friend, Don Tomas de Romeu, attending the School of Humanities and learning swordplay from the master swordsman Maestro Manuel Escalante, as well as falling in love with Don Tomas' beautiful older daughter Juliana. He is also inducted into the secret society known as La Justicia, originally founded in the sixteenth century to fight against the injustice of the Inquisition. This is where he learns to fight for right, defend the weak and helpless, and, above all else, to seek justice. All the members must pass a grueling initiation, during which they must overcome a master swordsman and take a secret name. When Diego passes his initiation he takes the name Zorro, the fox, because it is his totemic animal, the one he glimpsed during his vision quest when he took his test of manhood among the Indians. And so the hero was born.

Any fan of Zorro's will be delighted by this clever "biography" based upon the classic TV series. The story is narrated by an eloquent person who is obviously a close friend of Diego, but you never guess who it is until the very last chapter. Let's just say that the author pulls a "Mary Sue" on us, and quite successfully. (For those of you not into fan fiction, a "Mary Sue" is a story in which the author uses herself as a character, usually endowing herself with a number of nauseating virtues to insure that she wins the hero's love in the end. Happily, that wasn't the case here.) The whole novel is a treat from beginning to end, written in a frank but modest style which would have won the approval of the late Walt Disney, provided he didn't sue for copyright infringement upon seeing how similar Ms. Allende's characters are to the ones in his "Zorro" TV series. Let us hope Ms. Allende intends to write a sequel, or inspires Disney Studios to begin filming a new Zorro TV series.

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