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Book explores U.S. Hispanic culture through 'Cisco Kid'

September 30, 2008

For more than 80 years one Hispanic fictional character has sparked films and television shows, playing an intricate role in influencing mainstream American culture with Hispanic culture.

That character - the Cisco Kid - first appeared in the 1907 short story “The Caballero’s Way” by American writer O. Henry. Originally, the character was not portrayed Mexican, but a murderous Anglo, possibly modeled after Billy the Kid.

In the new book “The Cisco Kid: American Hero, Hispanic Roots,” co-authors Gary D. Keller and Francis M. Nevins explore how the Cisco Kid, through American film and television, emerges with a new persona, what Keller refers to as a “noble bandit.”

Keller, director of the Hispanic Research Center at Arizona State University, refers to a noble bandit as a robber and outlaw elevated to the status of avenger and champion of social justice.

The book trails the history of the Cisco Kid from his initial creation outside the Hispanic world to his Hollywood interpretation as a Latino persona. Keller and Nevins show how mainstream American culture and the Hispanic community took this character and made it into a cultural phenomenon.

“This notion is continually exemplified through the Cisco Kid films and more recently with the movie ‘The Cisco Kid,’ made in 1994 by Luis Valdez. It starred Jimmy Smits and Cheech Marin and made the Cisco Kid into a proto-Chicano,” says Keller.

The first sound film featuring the Cisco Kid in 1929 titled “In Old Arizona,” was also the first time “Spanglish” was used in a movie, further cementing the character in Hispanic culture.

“The transformation of the original Cisco Kid character into the hero of movies and television was very radical. The Cisco Kid showed up in movies and television for more than 80 years, from 1914 to 1994 and was played by either seven or eight actors,” writes Nevins, a professor at St. Louis University School of Law, in the introduction of the book.

This is one of about 10 books that will be published this year by the Bilingual Press at ASU. As the largest Hispanic-focused publisher and distributor in the country, the Bilingual Press was founded in 1973 at the City College of New York and moved to ASU in 1985. Its strength lies in publishing dynamic art books, poetry and literature by or about Hispanics in the U.S.

The press publishes both established and emerging writers, with more than 150 titles in its backlist. It publishes books in English, Spanish and bilingual format. With a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it distributes more than 1,000 titles by other presses in the U.S., and is the exclusive distributor of books by Latin American Literary Review Press.

“We assist in the creation and appreciation of Hispanic art and the economic, cultural and educational development of Hispanic communities across the country,” says Keller, who also is the publisher of the Bilingual Press.

One of the most ambitious and elaborate works produced by the press is “Triumph of our Communities: Four Decades of Mexican-American Art,” a full-color coffee table book that lavishly displays Mexican-American artwork.

The book celebrates the art organizations that have promoted Mexican-American art and have served as art education centers for their communities. The fourth volume in the Bilingual Press’s art book series was released in 2005 and showcases 600 powerful and dynamic images by more than 100 established and emerging Mexican-American artists.

“What I love about this book is that it was done by collaborating with art organizations in the United States and Mexico,” says Keller. “We have art organizations from the East Coast to California; it was a true collaborative effort.”

Keller also directs the Hispanic Research Center, which makes available to faculty members and the public Hispanic scholarly research, student enrichment, and interactive online Web sites. A part of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences for more than 20 years, the center informs the public about the Hispanic life experience in the U.S.

“We are a major resource for academics or for teachers concerned with English and Spanish bilingualism in the United States,” says Keller.

The Hispanic Research Center’s dedication to scholarly research and Hispanic art will be displayed beginning later this fall at the exhibition “Bold Caballeros y Noble Bandidas” at the Autry National Center of the American West in Los Angeles. The exhibition, which runs from Nov. 1 through May 10, will explore Mexican popular culture inspired by the Mexican Revolution of 1910. The exhibition uses art, rare historical footage, feature film and popular culture to experience and understand the cultural changes in the Americas initiated by the Mexican Revolution of 1910.

The exhibition will explore the creation of a U.S. and Mexico borderland, women revolutionaries and their subsequent emancipation, fiction films and their political overtones, and historical footage never seen by the public.

From publishing dynamic art books capturing the spirit of Hispanic culture to evaluating a fictional character’s impact on society, the press narrates the Hispanic culture in a majestic way, connecting various mediums to paint a historical picture.

“If you go for something and commit to it for decades, then you can accomplish great things. If you do something for three years, even if it’s a great three years, it just vanishes. Our philosophy is not that,” says Keller.