Blog: Latino Ed Beat

School Named for Latino Bandit Stirs Controversy

Whether the legacy of Tiburcio Vásquez is that of a hardened career criminal or a Mexican-American hero who fought discrimination in California during the 1800s is the crux of a debate over an elementary named set to be named for him.

Last month, the Alisal Union School District announced it would name the new school in Salinas, Calif., after Vasquez, setting off controversy in the city and drawing national media attention. The mayor has even criticized the choice.

The district already has schools named for civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, author John Steinbeck and Martin Luther King, among other historical figures. The district chose Vasquez over a former principal who was Latino.

The city is home to many Mexican families who work as farm workers and the city also struggles with gang violence.  About 94 percent of the district’s 7,400 students are Hispanic. Some worry that naming the school for him would encourage crime, while others see it as cultural pride that reflects the community’s demographics.

During his life, Vasquez was known for running in a gang that stole horses and committed robberies. He was hanged after being convicted of murder. But retired teacher Francisco Estrada told CNN Wire that Vasquez was seen “as a fighter for social justice of the Mexican-California who rights have been deprived.” He was seen as defending the land and culture of Mexicans from white Anglo residents.

Alisal superintendent John Ramirez told the Associated Press that Vasquez represents pride.

“The real issue here is cultural citizenship,” he said. “And part of citizenship is when people choose to name streets after their heroes.”

The new campus will be a magnet school where the low-income students will receive computer tablets.

There is already a nearby health clinic for the uninsured named for Vasquez–the Tiburcio Vasquez Health Center.

Debates often erupt over school names–often as minority communities try to choose icons that reflect the ethnic and racial breakdown of students. Have you seen similar debates in your own communities? How important is a school’s name?