Zorro and Powerlessness by Rev. Anthony D. Makar
Reading – Taryn Strauss
In 1999, I lived in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Guadalajara is a series of concentric circles, basically like the Districts in the Hunger Games if you’ve ever read those books.
The wealthiest people live in El Centro. The next tier down live all around them, and the circles continue until you get to the far reaches of the city, up the sprawling hills, where urban and rural features clash. I stayed in a neighborhood on the farthest outskirts of town, where people constructed shanties and roofs out of tarp or found metal scraps. It was a community without power, literally.
My host was a vivacious gay man named Jorge and his abuela, Doña Adela.
They raised colorful rabbits in the yard.
At night we shared life stories and I learned to cook Mexican food by lamplight.
There were no roads that went directly into this neighborhood, so I took the bus as close as I could get, and walked the rest of the way. I was only a visitor, a tourist. Before this experience I remember feeling powerless in a few situations as a young adult woman. After living there, I knew I had never really experienced true powerlessness. After the sun went down, the entire neighborhood was silent but for packs of dogs and teenage boys running around Searching for more glue. Or maybe paint.
Once a week, Jorge and I took the bus to a meeting of Intercolonias. This was a grassroots movement of all the colonias or neighborhoods on the edges of the City with large populations and very little services.
Jorge was getting organized.
As a student, I was in a book club with Intercolonias members. Each week we discussed another chapter in Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. This was where I experienced the possibilities of an authentic interchange between cultures. Though he had not much formal education, Jorge grasped all the concepts and used them to strategize for his community.
Back at his place, Jorge hosted a weekly workshop for his neighbors. About how they had citizen’s rights, and they could lobby for their government to build roads into their neighborhood, and to bring running water, and police. They could fight to join the power grid. People were tired and overwhelmed, and it was difficult to imagine how anyone could get the municipality to listen to them. Organizing that community who struggled to survive literally on the margins was incredibly hard work.
Every couple of weeks, we all partied. We dressed up, we danced, we played guitar. We ate conejo stew. Jorge and I went out dancing too, in El Centro. For a few months, I shared a bright and vibrant life with him, even though we didn’t have power.
Back when I lived without power, I remember how difficult and crushing it was, those daily indignities. I remember, too, the sounds and smells of laughter and salsa music and great simple food always simmering in our home and our neighborhood. I remember how we hosted parties and celebrated all the time. I remember sharing stories that lifted each other up and meetings where we dreamed and planned for a different future, one in which Jorge and Doña Adela had all the power they needed.
They didn’t have access to a power grid, but they had access to a wide network of joy, and that gave them the power to live with dignity, to treat each other with humanity, and keep their light of hope for a better future glowing brighter than ever, lighting up the darkness that threatened to keep them down.
Zorro and Powerlessness – Rev. Anthony Makar
Think with me about what Zorro and his legend might mean to us in this time when Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are experiencing what has been called the “greatest catastrophe” in their modern history but, as far as I know, our President has yet to issue a disaster declaration and seems way more interested in denouncing football players who take the knee during the national anthem as “SOBs.”
In this time – think with me.
A time when some have power and don’t seem to be using it justly, and others are powerless or feel powerless and suffer.
A time when public wrongs are not being righted by the authorities and the powers that be.
Zorro exists for such a time.
Such a time calls for Zorro.
But we know full well that there has never NOT been such a time—that such a time is always, and there have always been figures of legend who rob from the rich and give to the poor and do justice and love mercy even as it upsets the applecart.
But in our time—in the 20th and 21st centuries—Zorro has been one of the legends like this. Writer Johnston McCulley introduced him to the world in 1919, as a story in the pulp fiction journal All-Story Weekly, entitled, “The Curse of Capistrano.” This is when we first meet up with the masked man in sombrero and cape who is as equally skilled with a whip as he is with a sword.
But we need to take a look beneath the mask, so to speak, of the fictional story, in order to see truth.
Johnston McCulley sets the stage for the Zorro stories in California in the late 18th and early to mid-19th centuries, when California was undergoing dramatic changes. Spanish rule gave way to Mexican rule, and then Mexican rule gave way to American rule and an influx of Anglos into the state.
This brings us to one of the true historical figures that Johnston McCulley had in mind as he was creating the Zorro legend: the outlaw Joaquin Murieta. In the 1850s, American Anglos were migrating into California for various reasons, including the Gold Rush, and they felt entitled to the land. Power does this to people. It distorts the mind. The Anglos felt superior, as people with power do. Lightning-quick to notice mistreatment when it visits them, but when it visits others? When that happens, powerful people are slow as molasses to notice.
The entitled Anglos poured in, and the Californios (descendants of Spanish, Mexican and/or Indian settlers of 1770s California) were being pushed out. And the thing we know about poverty and powerlessness is that it can distort the mind, too. You learn fear. You don’t claim your dignity and insist upon your rights because you fear (often correctly) that what little has been left will be taken away too.
Or, if it’s not fear that distorts the mind, it’s the intolerable feeling of dissonance where you know that you’re disadvantaged in some situation and it’s totally unfair that you are, but this is the way it is and you don’t know how to change it. So what you do is change your mind. You can’t stand the discomfort of the dissonance. So you change your mind, and you find a way to justify the status quo. You get lost in a conspiracy theory. You blame the oppressed. You congratulate the oppressor. Anything to dull the dissonance that feels so bad.
You better believe that a lot of the Californios, being pushed out by the Anglos, let it happen. Were too afraid to resist. Or justified it’s happening, and maybe blamed themselves.
But not the Californio named Joaquin Murieta. Nothing would stop him from singing freedom. He gathered a group of men around him, and this group attacked Anglos whenever possible. He was eventually found and hanged. But the legend survived his death and only grew with the publication in 1854 of John Rollin Ridge’s Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit.
Zorro is a symbol of real people like Joaquin Murieta, who somehow escaped the distortions that poverty and powerlessness can create in the oppressed. He was not afraid, and he did not dull the dissonance he felt. It sharpened his senses.
He sang freedom and would not stop.
Zorro’s legend might be fictional, but there are underlying facts that led to his creation.
And we can even go beyond this, to talk about Zorro energy and all the times we’ve witnessed the fact of it unfolding real-time. When public wrongs are not being righted by the authorities and powers that be, so a Zorro-like person or a Zorro-like group engages in civil disobedience or nonviolent protest or, regrettably, sometimes protest that gets violent….
So–consider Henry David Thoreau, imprisoned in jail in July of 1846 because he refused to recognize the right of the state to collect taxes from him in support of slavery. Writing about this in his ageless work Civil Disobedience, he says, “If the injustice is part of the necessary friction of government, let it go, let it go; perchance it will wear smooth,–certainly the machine will wear out… but if it is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn. We must disobey unjust laws, or else we are allowing them to continue and hurt others. Certainly we must break a law that requires us to do evil.”
That’s Zorro energy!
Then there’s Rosa Parks who was a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama. On December 1, 1955, she did something illegal: she sat down at the front of a bus in one of the seats reserved for whites, and was arrested. The story is told that, years later, a graduate student came to her and asked, “Why did you sit down at the front of the bus that day?” and Rosa Parks replied that her intention was not to start a movement but simply this: “I sat down because I was tired.”
That’s holy tiredness. That can be Zorro energy too!
But don’t forget Dr. King, whose mugshot from his time in the Birmingham Jail we saw in the slideshow from earlier. On April 10, Circuit Judge W. A. Jenkins issued a blanket injunction against “parading, demonstrating, boycotting, trespassing and picketing”—even though there was ample need then, as now, to parade, demonstrate, boycott, trespass, and picket. Dr. King marched and, on April 12, he was arrested. Later, he would write his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” and in it, he said, “One has not only a legal, but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.” (Do you hear the echo from Thoreau? It’s because Dr. King was deeply inspired and moved by what our Unitarian Universalist spiritual ancestor had to say.)
Dr. King also said: “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
Dr. King said: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
And there’s so much more. All the Zorros we’ve seen. The 1968 Olympic runners who thrust their fists high to take a stand for African American civil rights in a year that saw the death of Dr. King and the death of Robert Kennedy. They thrust their fists high, they were immediately suspended from the American Olympic Team, expelled from the Village, and came home to face death threats.
Or Bree Newsome. We saw her Zorro energy not so long ago, back in July of 2015. The story starts with white supremacist Dylann Roof, who walked into the sanctuary of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina during an evening prayer service, opened fire, and murdered nine African American worshipers, including state senator Reverend Clementa Pinckney. When the victims were buried, the American flag was at half-mast. The South Carolina state flag was at half-mast. The Confederate battle flag was still flying high. And it continued to fly high, for almost a month, until Bree Newsome took that flag down. She was arrested immediately afterwards.
So many of our women here at UUCA were at the Women’s March in Washington or elsewhere, being nasty, and that’s got Zorro energy to it.
We’re marching in the Pride parade on Sunday, Oct. 15 because we continue to need Zorro energy to stand up to bullies to say, LGBTQ people are people and they are our brothers and sisters and siblings and no one has a right to say they don’t belong. Hate has no right!
Robert Kennedy once said, “Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.”
Whatever the Zorro energy is, big or small, the world needs it.
But now I want to address a puzzling wrinkle to all of this. I’ve not done justice to the topic until I do.
And it’s to go back to my observation that being powerful, or being powerless, can mess with your mind. Distort how you see what’s happening.
Take the controversy around the football player Colin Kaepernick, who in August of 2016 did not stand for the American national anthem during the pre-game preparation. He took a knee. Later he explained: “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”
Last week we heard what the President thought about this. Speaking to a crowd at a political function, he said, “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘get that son of a bitch off the field right now. He is fired. He’s fired!'” He went on, “You know, some owner is going to do that. He’s going to say, ‘That guy that disrespects our flag, he’s fired.’ And that owner — they don’t know it, they’re friends of mine — they’ll be most popular person for a week.”
What’s actually happening, folks, is a very strange case of dueling Zorros.
One sort of Zorro is Colin Kaepernick and all the other football players who’ve, since the President’s comments, have been taking a knee during the national anthem with fervor.
I’m on the side of this Zorro, and I’ll bet you are too.
But on the other side is a Zorro who has lots of power and uses it to maintain the oppressive status quo but he sees himself as the one being oppressed! He sees American patriotism as the victim, the flag disrespected, and himself and all he stands for put upon–even though absolutely no harm is being done to patriotism or the flag or him.
It’s not about him–it’s about all the bodies in the streets!
But millions believe in him, even though they might be on the opposite end of the power spectrum. He’s powerful, they are not–and yet they support him because their powerlessness has messed with their minds and they are afraid of up-ending the status quo, or they have rationalized the injustice away and blamed the wrong people.
Consider the President and his language of the SOB–how he continually breaks the rules of civility: to him and to lots of others, this feels like Zorro energy.
The President, who communicates his opinions outside of official channels, via Twitter–and how these bad boy rants can easily remind us of Zorro’s swordplay. Each tweet meant to slash a Z upon someone’s flesh…
We cannot underestimate the distortions of the mind that the powerful and the powerless bring to the table, which in the end cause them to stand united in entrenching and anchoring an unjust status quo!
Again and again, the resource we can count on and must count on to sort out the fake Zorros from the real ones is REALITY. The reality of the inherent worth and dignity of all people–and our interrelationship, one with another. Listen again to Dr. King: “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
Or, as he said in another place, “No person has the right to rain on your dreams.”
I know that the President is a fake Zorro because he does not ground his actions on this reality principle, but on a principle of sheer hypocrisy and racism. As UUCA member Jason Delaney says, “If it were a bunch of white ballplayers kneeling during the anthem for breast cancer, there’d be no uproar…which is all you need to know.”
“I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”
That is what the arc of the universe is bending us towards. And even if no such arc exists, by God I will act as if it does! I will work accordingly!
But in the meantime, in this time when public wrongs are not being righted by the authorities and powers that be, the legend of Zorro needs to come to life again and again and again.
Turn the fiction into fact.
Turn the fiction into fact.