The Case for Elfego Baca, Hispanic Hero

      It’s sometimes said that Hispanics have no heroes. Those who say it have either not heard of Elfego Baca, or they’ve bought into anti-Baca arguments that claim that his life story was more fabrication than fact.
            But when I was doing the research for an article on Elfego Baca for an issue of the Bar Journal, a publication of the State Bar of New Mexico, I realized that tales of Baca’s heroism were based on eyewitness accounts, including courtroom testimony under oath. That kind of proof, to a lawyer such as I am, is just as acceptable for establishing fact as any other and better than most. Yet, Elfego Baca has been relegated by history to be remembered, if at all, as simply another in a long list of ho-hum frontier gunfighters,1 and no researcher who digs into the Chicano civil rights movement will find a trace of evidence that he ever lived.2
            It’s true that Elfego Baca first became newsworthy when he showcased his skill with a six-gun by standing off some eighty trigger-happy Texas cowboys, then by beating two murder raps arising out of the fracas. The shoot-out flared for thirty-six hours in October, 1884, at Frisco, in the Territory of New Mexico, when Baca was nineteen. It earned the young man instant notoriety in the Territory. But on the Western frontier gunfighters, including young ones, were a dime a dozen, and little would have come of the episode had there not been more to Elfego Baca than skill with a pistol.
            His substance begins with the reason why the teenage store clerk rode off to battle the Texans: he took on the cowhands in order to protect Hispanic settlers from atrocities. Baca’s courage in offering his life for his people in a stand for human rights makes it demeaning to brand him as “just another gunfighter.” The man has earned more than that from history, but he has been denied the honor he deserves. To be restored to his rightful place so long after his death in 1945, he needs an advocate. That’s why I decided to write this book. I figured that if Elfego Baca had enough bravado to pin a fake sheriff’s badge to his shirt and set out to right the wrongs being inflicted on the Mexican settlers before he hit the age of twenty, I was bold enough to name myself as his mouthpiece.
            The advocacy begins by exploring the actions that resulted in his short-term standing as savior of the Hispanics, then by inquiring into why and how he lost that reputation. Looking into those issues will begin to shed light on whether he actually earned the credentials to be called “hero,” and then to question whether the loss of his status was justified. The first four chapters spell out his heroic acts and the motivation behind them. I think they prove, beyond a reasonable doubt that he earned the title.
            How and why Elfego lost that hero reputation is less easy to pin down. There are two reasons for it. First, Hispanic heroes, dating back to the American Revolution and Juan de Miralles and Bernardo de Galvez, have rarely been given their due in this country, and Elfego provided no exception to the practice of prejudice. And second, Baca lived too long and too impulsively, giving him six decades to destroy the reputation he had earned in two days. During the sixty-one years that followed Frisco until his death at age eighty, Elfego attacked his own reputation by turning himself into a scoundrel, a scalawag, and a lawyer often known for sleaze, a politician suspected of dealing under the table, a failure with his wife and his finances, and a hothead who flew off the handle and pulled his six-gun at the wink of an eye. With the enigma that was Elfego, however, to find an answer to one question is to raise another. Once how Elfego lost his reputation is explained, the next question is: Why? Why did he turn himself into such a mischief-maker? For that, too, there was a cause.
            The foundation for the man Elfego became was laid during his tragic childhood, when his mother and two siblings died and his father dumped him in an orphanage. It all happened when he had just turned seven. The result was a child filled with feelings of inferiority and the need to compensate, a child at risk to adverse effects from subsequent trauma. Twelve years after this multiple abandonment by his mother, siblings and father, the teen found himself lying on the cold ground locked inside a dark hut, cowering at death threats shouted by murderous cowhands, ducking thousands of bullets, dynamite blasts, and flaming logs. But he shot back; he always rose up to shoot back.
            No superman could have escaped unscathed from those young adulthood events laid over such a traumatic childhood. It is not surprising that Elfego was filled with suppressed anxieties that would flare into bizarre and inappropriate reactions when stimulated.
            My interviews with a thoughtful psychologist, Antonio Gonçalves, Ph.D, then with the University of New Mexico Cancer Center, put a name to Elfego’s condition: He exhibited the classic symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in past years called “shell shock.” The likelihood that this disorder is what triggered inappropriate reactive responses to stimuli in Elfego’s life was confirmed by Dr. Bruce Huyser, a psychologist with the Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Albuquerque, who evaluates veterans to determine the presence of the disorder.3 Over Elfego’s life, the psychiatric disorder burst forth in patterns of scrapes and brawls. His violent responses to trivial stimuli stained the hero image he would have been guaranteed had he taken a bullet to the heart and died at nineteen, as happened to his ideal, Billy the Kid. But no, Elfego lived, and he was ever after open to critics and demonizers.
            Though he survived the gunfire, Baca did not have the luxury of living in a time during which PTSD could be diagnosed and treated. His only recourse was to tough it out, resort to alcohol, blunder through the episodes that led him to lose his temper, brawl, fight and pull his six-gun. The effect on his reputation was inevitable. The public grew so tired of his escapades that they viewed him as a laughingstock.
            If the PTSD were not enough, there was an additional obstacle to lasting honor that Baca set up for himself. In reaction to his critics, he made himself a relentless self-promoter to the point that his horn-blowing began to sound like fiction and to be labeled as legend rather than fact. Resentment at his image-making caused Baca enemies to challenge the accuracy of his claims for himself. My research disclosed that “legends” about Baca’s life are generally, though not always, supported by reports from those who were on the scene. This book records eyewitness accounts as facts.
            All of this reinforces the conclusion that Elfego Baca was his own worst enemy when it came to preserving his reputation as hero. No matter what he did, his focus soon blurred, and before long he slipped out of control.
            This book tells story after story from Elfego’s life. Some have been told before, some have not. They are collected here so that readers can recognize for themselves the patterns of bizarre activity as they played out, while developing insights into the character of the hero. Once the stories are told, the book explains just why, no matter how hard he tried to stay perched on his pedestal, the hero always tumbled off. Sometimes, though, he was up there on the top looking down long enough to forge some real accomplishments worthy of admiration. He was a kingmaker, a force to be reckoned with in the Republican party and later in the Democratic party. He pioneered a Spanish-language newspaper; he supported the Mexican Revolution because it aimed to improve the lot of poor Mexican peasants; and he worked his way up through elective office after office until he had credible, though losing, shots at both the U. S. House of Representatives and the governorship.
            Despite the burden of carrying the affliction of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, the fact that Baca was able to accomplish as much as he did was one more measure of the man’s heroism. Yet, instead of leading to acclaim for his courage in so often rising above the effects of the PTSD, the behavior contributed to by the disorder made Elfego into a figure to ridicule, and the butt of jokes and scorn. What hero could bear such a burden?
            It is my hope that ¡Viva Elfego! will lead its readers to think about and to understand the reasons why Elfego destroyed his reputation, and then to remember that for all his long adult life he was a true champion for his people. In the end, it was the revenge of the Tejanos, inflicted through the PTSD they unwittingly planted in his mind, that shot down his hero status. But with understanding can come forgiveness, and with forgiveness, perhaps Elfego Baca can reclaim his status as a hero who laid his life on the line in the defense of his people.
            Chapters 1-4, in a modified form, appeared in The Bar Journal, Spring, 2001, issue, as an article entitled “One Man, One War: Elfego Baca and his Mission.” The State Bar of New Mexico has kindly returned all rights to the author.
      --Stan Sager