Will the Real Juan Flores Please Stand Up?

Not since I was sitting in a classroom years ago at the University of California at Riverside listening to my history professor James Brennan lecture about the Brazilian legend Lampião, have I considered the “social bandit,” in history. This week’s frighteningly slim edition of the OC Weekly put forth the question to me once more in a cover story by staff writer Gustavo Arellano titled “Juan Flores: Hero & Villian.” Like Lampião, Flores was an outlaw who has taken on a historical resonance not soon to fade away. According to the article by Arellano, the undisputed facts of who this man was, read :

Flores was arrested in Los Angeles in 1855 for stealing horses but broke out of San Quentin State Prison a year later. He and other men rode down to San Juan Capistrano, where they robbed stores and murdered a German shopkeeper named George Pflugardt. Alerted by Capistrano residents, Sheriff Barton and five men left Los Angeles to try to end the mayhem (Orange County wouldn’t separate from Los Angeles County until 1889.) While Barton and his group rested at the adobe of Don Jose Andres Sepulveda (in present-day West Santa Ana), the local Mexicans warned him that a trap awaited him on the road to Capistrano. Barton ignored their advice, and Flores and his fellow robbers (who called themselves las Manillas, the Handcuffs) ambushed the sheriff’s posse where Barton Mound now stands, killing all but two.

That is the historical record of Juan Flores. How it has been interpreted since he shot the sheriff – but not the deputy! – is largely the task Arellano takes on in the majority of article. Indeed as he states: Was Flores a ruthless marauder? A Chicano revolutionary? A mythical figure? A flesh-and-blood person? A poor little rich boy? An innocent driven to crime out of necessity? Like Lampião’s cangaceiros, Flores had his band of manillas, and both met historically violent deaths. Lampião and his men were mowed down by police and had their heads cut off, while Flores and his group met the hangman’s noose. Violent repression is not where this history ends, but rather is its baptism in blood.

Interestingly enough, as is the case of Lampião, the romanticization of the ‘social bandit’  usually comes from the popular folklore of the people regional to the history. In Arellano’s article, however, the lore of Juan Flores from both his detractors and celebrants  is explored through the scholasticism of historians and journalists; not the lyrics of a corrido. Projectionism beyond the necessity of primary sources placed Flores in the realm of everything from the “the cruelest bandit known to the history of the Santa Ana valley,” to a leader who commanded a band of men who shrieked “anti-gringo curses.”

The banditry of Juan Flores is not much a subject of debate. Whether or not his actions in history constitute social banditry seems to be the central question for recent historians. In assessing such, it is important to turn to the person who created the term in scholasticism; British Marxist historian Eric J. Hobsbawm. His influential concept of social bandits is defined as follows: “they are peasant outlaws who the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by the people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice, perhaps even leaders of liberation, and in any case as men to be admired, helped and supported.”

Was Juan Flores a social bandit? Scholars have wrestled with the intellectual clout constituted by Hobsbawm’s hypothesis. In challenging his interpretative frame of Lampião, scholar Bill Chandler offers the following: “the major problem is that his definition of a social bandit is, it seems, inverted. It rests not so much on the actual deeds of the bandits as on what people thought them to be, or, more precariously, on how they were reported by balladeers and other popular storytellers even generations later.” In assessing Flores, Arellano seems to be in agreement with this critique of social banditry searching for hard primary attestation as opposed to popular interpretations from folk traditions. In fact, in his analysis, the only “popular storytellers” that seem to be around are journalists and historians!

The OC Weekly writer goes on to cite,“In 1982’s The Los Angeles Barrio, 1850-1890: A Social History by Richard Griswold del Castillo, Flores “generated heroic legends symbolizing the daily struggles of the Spanish-speaking.” Prior to that, the author explicitly placed Flores within Hobsbawm’s interpretative frame of a primitive rebel along the lines of social banditry. In the end, the definition of social banditry rests upon how the question is approached.  Is there enough hard historical evidence to cast Flores’ outlaw actions as true socialized banditry? Or is he a social bandit legitimized through popular accounts and the historical context of 19th century California and oppressive power dynamics he operated in? The former is a much more sound criteria than the latter.

The concluding interpretation of Juan Flores offered at the end of Arellano’s article by Ken Gonzales-Day states, “I don’t have enough info to see him as a revolutionary, so that leaves him as a victim, in my opinion…Everyone has a right to due process, even if we know he’s guilty.”

{updated and corrected}


4 responses to “Will the Real Juan Flores Please Stand Up?

  1. Gabriel: I would’ve loved to discover that Juan Flores was, indeed, a revolutionary, but it’s telling that he is even at the level of a social bandit due to the help of gabacho writers mythologizing anything and everything about Old California, and Chicano scholars desperate to wring any political meaning out Mexicans killing gabachos back in the day. Telling, the only popular interpretations I could find of Flores (such as the 1925 LA Times article I discovered) were written by gabachos. Compare that with the reams of corridos and tall tales told of Murrieta, Gregorio Cortez, Juan Cortina, Tiburcio Vazquez, and the many other certifiable revolutionaries/social bandits. There is no popular interpretation of Flores that can’t be traced to overzealous historians. In fact, the only poems I could even find on the subject were against him!

    Also, you got something wrong. Flores didn’t shoot the sheriff, despite what the picture says. You’re buying into the myth and not reading the facts of the story!

  2. Gustavo: I largely agree with your piece and think that if anyone were to attempt to place Flores within the realm of social bandit, they’d have to really stretch Hobsbawm’s framework…

    The lack of lasting music, poetry, and other forms of lore lends credence to Flores – at best – being at the lower end of the “social banditry”; if at all. In fact, as I noted, I thought it interesting that the mythology of Flores seemed to only come from journalists and historians as opposed to artistic expressions of the people (the latter of which as I also noted, has been challenged on the grounds of insufficiency in evaluating the phenomenon of social banditry)

    I also think that Juan Flores presents a case to challenge and wrestle with what might be reflexive applications of Hobsbawm’s interpretative framework by progressive historians. He certainly makes for a good argument as your piece shows!

    And apologies for the mistake. I was reaching for a Bob Marley joke that wasn’t there, haha! After re-reading, tell me if this is wrong: Flores and his men ambushed Barton’s posse, but Flores solely admitted to killing an accomplice of the sheriff.

    After being hanged with the absence of due process, does history know who’s bullet from what gun killed the sheriff?

  3. Flores killed one of the posse, but not Barton or his sole deputy. The guy who killed Barton…well, I’m going to leave that for a much-needed addendum to my piece, including the poems I mentioned!

  4. I have to say, that I can not agree with you in 100%, but it’s just my opinion, which indeed could be wrong.
    p.s. You have an awesome template . Where have you got it from?

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