FRESNO, Calif. — Scaffolding climbs the walls of the new elementary school in Salinas, an agricultural city celebrated as John Steinbeck’s birthplace but plagued by gang violence.
Although still under construction, the school already is embroiled in controversy because the school board decided to name it after Tiburcio Vasquez, one of the state’s most notorious Old West bandidos.
Critics say he was a 19th-century outlaw who robbed and terrorized Californians before he was convicted and hanged for murder. They say naming a school after him glorifies crime.
But in a city where two-thirds of residents are Hispanic, some Mexican-Americans say Vasquez was defending his land, culture and Spanish-speaking community from greedy white settlers who overran the state in pursuit of Manifest Destiny and gold.
Naming a school after Vasquez symbolizes opposition to discrimination and is an act of cultural pride, said Alisal Union School District Superintendent John Ramirez Jr.
“The real issue here is cultural citizenship,” Mr. Ramirez said, “and part of citizenship is when people choose to name streets after their heroes.”
The controversy has reignited the question of whose version of history should be honored and who is considered a hero in a multiethnic nation that often glorifies military figures.
“It’s a question of who writes history,” said Gary Alan Fine, a sociologist at Northwestern University who has written about the reputations of historical figures, “and the writers of history change over time.”
Once populated by Dust Bowl migrants, the Alisal neighborhood — also called East Salinas — is home predominantly to Mexican farmworker families who work in the Salinas Valley. Salinas’ poorest neighborhood, Alisal also is the center of gang violence in a city where officials have worked to steer youths away from gang culture.
The Alisal school district itself has struggled with low test scores, student poverty and violence creeping onto school grounds. But Mr. Ramirez said the new school, to be completed by June, is a step in the right direction — a magnet school where each student will receive a computer tablet to bridge the technology gap many poor students face.
In naming the school, a committee narrowed the choices to Trini Rodriguez, a former Alisal district principal who died of cancer, and Vasquez. In December, the school board unanimously selected Vasquez, sparking an immediate outcry.
The city’s new mayor, Joe Gunter, a former Salinas police detective, has criticized the decision, saying the district should not “be honoring people who are criminals.” The Monterey County Deputy Sheriffs Association and the Salinas Police Officers Association publicly condemned it.
Some parents also disagreed with the choice, said Rosalina Ramos, who has two children attending other schools in the district.
“Naming a school after a criminal promotes violence, and our district already has a lot of problems with bullying and other issues,” Ms. Ramos said.
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 also was 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.