Vasquez was an educated man from a reputable and affluent family. But he rustled horses, committed robberies and spent five years at San Quentin prison. Still, his biographer said, he was also considered a folk hero whose crimes amounted to fighting discrimination by white settlers.
Vasquez was captured after he and his gang robbed a store near Hollister, killing three people. He was convicted of murder and hanged in San Jose in 1875, according to news stories.
Those who support naming a school after him say it’s difficult to tell whether Vasquez was treated justly, because anti-Mexican sentiment was extremely high at the time.
But even if Vasquez did kill someone, committing violent acts doesn’t necessarily discredit a person from being a hero, said Fine of Northwestern University. U.S. national heroes include military generals, war veterans and slave owners. For example, Fine said, Thomas Jefferson — one of country’s founders who became president — owned several hundred slaves.
The difference between a hero and villain, Fine said, is in the interpretation of historical context and in who has the power to decide. ‘‘The question is how communities today make the choices about whom to honor,’’ he said.
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